Stepparenting and the Quest for Independence

Stepparenting and the Quest for Independence
Today is the fourth of July and while my subject, independence, is not about the celebrated emancipation of the United States, there are some similarities. Whether political, cultural or personal, most entities desire freedom from the influence and control of others. Sometimes that desire is based on a readiness to fly solo in its own pursuits but sometimes it is a craving for autonomy which has been prohibited by authority.

Parents and stepparents can unwittingly become saboteurs of our children’s striving for their own independence. We either want to do everything for them out of love…or, out of a lack of confidence that they can do it for themselves. Extremely loving parents with the best of intentions can easily over-service their child to the point of implying that he or she is helpless, inadequate and/or useless without the intervention of the parent. Whenever we do something for a child who is capable of doing it himself, we send the message of disrespect and low confidence.

As parents we must consider our motives for taking on responsibilities for which our child is fully capable. One likely possibility is to create our own need for indispensability by convincing him that our skills and presence are critical to his success in the world. This has a tendency to backfire when reaching adolescence he lacks self confidence and feels inept or helpless in routine circumstances.

Children who are not taught and encouraged to solve their own problems are the future victims of society. From the early toddler stage, kids are programmed to want to do things on their own, but often we inhibit that bent toward self sufficiency by not allowing them to. Natural tendencies of fear, protection and over-nurturing cause us to step up and perform tasks that could easily be conducted by the child. Impatience and the pace of today’s family activities can prompt the most conscientious mom to complete a child’s task out of convenience and expedience.

Stepmoms are especially vulnerable to impeding the independence of their stepchildren, most often, early in the relationship when the desire to impress and be accepted is so acute. The “honeymoon” phase often finds mom using extraordinary means to gain favor but even the lesser incidents of taking over a child’s responsibility can hinder his or her path to independence.

A few years back I stood in line at a bank ATM. I was already halfway through my allotted lunch hour and I was still third in line. The woman at the machine had three very young children, all of whom wanted to participate in the fascinating experience of extracting cash from a box in a parking lot. Patiently she allowed each child their function. The preschooler was allowed to place the card in the slot as he was tall enough to reach it; the toddler was lifted up and shown the appropriate buttons to press. Even the babe in arms was given a role as he yanked the currency from the tray where it was dispensed.

I wasn’t able to appreciate the importance of that lesson that afternoon, because it interfered with the accomplishment of my own rushed agenda. I am still of the opinion that mom could have chosen a less busy time of the day to teach it… but what an incredible example of allowing someone to do as much as they can! These kids were encouraged to exercise their own power with some help and supervision. They walked away in confidence that they had made a useful contribution to their daily rounds. The obvious impatience and agitation of those of us waiting in line still did not prompt the mother to take on the task, herself. Truth be told, the children’s involvement in the transaction probably added three minutes to our wait.

Human beings are magnificently hard-wired to solve our own problems and meet our own needs. We experience satisfaction, self fulfillment and pleasure in our accomplishments. What starts out as development turns into independence. Independence, both political and personal, requires severance from the authority that once prevailed. No parent sets out to thwart that growth and triumph, but be aware that over protection is the antithesis of the empowerment and independence of our kids.

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