Building Independence in Our Children

Chris Ivey / Academic

My two oldest children flew home unaccompanied

27 February 2020

Building Independence in Our Children

Dear St Andrew’s community

My two oldest children flew home unaccompanied from London to Australia when they were in Years 9 and 6.  They had done many unaccompanied flights within Australia to and from family and they loved the experience and the independence. As we live away from our extended family it’s something we’ve always carefully navigated with our children and we felt that they were capable of managing this longer journey without a parent by their side. Although they still talk about the hours sitting in a small transit room in Singapore airport and that not being able to explore the airport was overwhelmingly boring! It was a great learning experience and all of our children can navigate their way through airports both domestic and international. They can do this independently and with confidence.

From very early, on as soon as our kids were capable, we have tried to provide opportunities where our children can learn and grow in independence, with the confidence that they are capable of solving unforeseen problems, an incredibly important skill they need for a successful life. However, I think one of the challenges I faced as a parent is navigating the amount of independence provided at each stage of their journey with the amount of support required. It is a balance and it is all too easy in the busy-ness of life to overparent when in fact our kids are completely capable of tackling new challenges!

I often think there is a sliding scale from the over-protective and cocooning approach to parenting, right through to the free and easy. From experience, mistakes and four children, I am advocating for somewhere in the middle: varying a little with the personality of the individual child. Over-parenting is where parents micromanage their children’s lives, giving them little autonomy, sometimes putting too much pressure on them to achieve academic and personal success, while allowing few chances for their children to navigate difficulties, failure and frustration on their own. Research and experience tell us this sort of parenting leads to a lack of resilience and anxiety because children haven’t had to work through tough situations knowing that it is up to them to figure it out. On the flip side, we know that children thrive with clear boundaries, they need to know that there are expectations with a consistent consequence when the boundaries are broken. When parents decide that excessive freedom is a good way to teach their children independence, they also do a dis-service to their children. If we allow more freedom than our children can handle, right from a young age, it often plays out in challenging teenage behaviours. While our upper secondary Senior students may often look very much like young adults, they still desperately need and crave stability, rules and boundaries. They will reject them, be bad tempered, be annoyed by them, and probably break them! But their social and emotional development depends on them and on us as parents remaining the leaders by example and by being there for them through it all.

So, in building independence in our children and students here at St Andrew’s it’s all about balance. Children whose parents are warm, loving AND reinforce high expectations of them tend to do well even when there are rocky moments along the way. The difficulty lies in establishing what the right amount of each side of the parenting job is – the nurturing support vs the hands-off approach but with boundaries and consequences. So, the key aspect that researchers are now trying to establish is where does the balance lie as we build independence into our children. There is no doubt that parents have a very strong instinct to protect their children and avoid them getting hurt or allow life to get too tough for them, but they also need to consider when that level of protection becomes just too much. The media doesn’t help, and parents are often encouraged to be irrationally fearful of allowing more independence. It doesn’t give children enough ‘toughness’ to learn that they are strong and capable and can manage the messy, difficult stuff.

Life inevitably brings problems and disappointment. It is better to teach children how to face these issues rather than solve all their problems for them. By doing so, parents will help children to develop resilience and the ability to deal with frustration – tools that will allow them to thrive once they leave the parental home. Our collaborative goal together, both parents and the College, is always to have an eye on the adult we want our children to become. This is what we aim for here at the College when we repeat our mission statement so often, ‘to enable students to walk confidently into their future’.

Is it too late? Not at all. Some examples that we use at home:

  • Expect your children to be responsible for assisting with meal preparation in Primary school so by Secondary they can cook a weekly meal independently for the family.
  • Allow them to walk or ride to different venues if accessibility isn’t a hindrance, even in poor weather. (Depending on age, supervise from afar.)
  • Everyone tidies and cleans the house, including toilets, bathrooms, washing, ironing, kitchen clean up. Even small children can participate.
  • Talk on the phone to people they don’t know to make their own appointments, sort things out, or make an enquiry.

What does this look like here at the College.

  • All school children pack their own bags, carry their own bags and unpack their lunch boxes. I know our primary staff focus on this in the early years to teach independence.
  • As I shared with our secondary students on the first day of the year, ‘take responsibility for the first conversation with a member of staff if you have a concern’. If your child comes home and complains about their secondary teacher, ask them to follow it up either by email or face to face.
  • Next time your child rings or texts asking you to bring in something they’ve forgotten - think twice before doing it, support if needed but if it’s just lack of organisation, don’t.
  • Expect them to be involved in all aspects of College life, even situations where they might be bored, complain, uncomfortable or slightly challenged. I spoke with one of our new Year 7 students the other day about camp. He indicated that at one part of the hike he was so scared because it was steep, and he didn’t think he could go on. When I asked him what happened he smiled and said, ‘I got through it and it felt so good.’

At St Andrew’s we provide a myriad of opportunities for all students for a reason. Because it is often in these moments that we learn about ourselves, how to be there for others, how to push through when feeling like not doing it, building resilience and independence. This is our strategy ‘enabling students to walk confidently into their futures’.

Reverend Chris Ivey
College Principal

Author Profile

Chris Ivey

In his own words, Chris “enables things to happen” at St Andrew’s. As Principal of the College, he leads the development and progression of St Andrew’s by enabling staff and students to achieve their personal best. Chris is a Reverend and has been the Principal of St Andrew’s for more that 15 years. He also represents and advocates for Independent schools across Australia as the National Chair of AHISA (Association of Heads of Independent Schools, Australia).

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