“No Mommy, I do it myself!”
-Universal Battle Cry
of the Newly Independent
Independence: Children, teens, new-hires, sophomores—anyone in a neophyte role—fights for it. Then, when that freedom is in their grasp, it naturally blooms into fear.
This is the moment that we, as parents and mentors, both revel in and dread. This is the moment that all our teaching (drilling), coaching (nagging) and correcting (yelling) will either bear fruit or rot on the vine.
Did we, the mentor, do a good job?
That depends on how deep and well we planted the seeds.
You will not find an exhortation to instill independence into your kids, staff or patients here—we already know its value. What you will find is equal parts commiseration and correction for the coaches. “Teaching independence” is not only a contradictory task; it’s an ever growing dance.
So, let’s skip the why and get strait to the “How.”
Three Seeds of Independence
If “teaching” independence is a contradiction, the first step in the “how” process is how to refer to it right-mindedly. The best verb I’ve found to encapsulate this is “instilling” independence. Instilling lends itself to the concept of planting a seed. The beauty of this is that the goal is not in the present—in fact, all you may see is dirt at the time—the goal is the fruit of the future.
I’ll give you a minute to reflect over the amount of times you felt like you were watching only the “dirt” of your kid or protégé’s life (or getting covered in it) and the moment of surprised joy when the bloom of positive independent action burst forth. Maybe that moment hasn’t happened yet. Have faith in the seed, mind the dirt.
There are three key seeds to plant:
“Self-reliance is a broader concept than self-confidence,” according to India Parenting, home of the Child Confidence Index. This may be the most succinct definition on the internet: “While self-confidence relates to specific skills and aptitudes that an individual may have, self-reliance refers to the confidence that a person has in his inner resources to cope with any situation on his own.” Self reliance, as all of these things, is taught by giving goals, tools and collaboration, not by orders. While drills, or following a set of instructions, may bring confidence in our repeated abilities, it does not plant self reliance. Self reliance is the fruit of repeated seasons of saying “Here’s the goal, here’s what you have to work with, now, how can you do it?” Let go of the seed in the dirt.
As the seed of self reliance is taking root, the seed of flexibility is nestling right beside. “A self-reliant person has better control of his life and can handle any curveball that life may throw his way” (emphasis mine). (India Parenting, 2013) Flexibility is nearly impossible to teach. Rigidity, however, comes in time. Just keep yelling “No, you didn’t do it the way I showed you!” or “You did it wrong…again!” Enough of that and you will have made a perfect robot who will do exactly as asked, if for no other reason than they don’t have to hear it from you, and as a bonus, they will take less accountability because they did it your way. One way to avoid the trap of Dr. Frankenstein is delight. Once you’ve set a goal, given tool and collaborated, just sit back and watch. If the goal is achieved by different means, you’ve actually increased self reliance and flexibility by helping your protégé find two ways within themselves to succeed. Let go of your pride in seeing “your way” work and share in surprised delight. Pour a little sunshine on that seed.
As Meno asked Socrates, “Can virtue be taught?” To save you the lengthy parable of the three sons, the answer is “ehhh, yeah and no.” Maybe not, but character can be planted. Character is a mix of integrity (doing the right thing even when no one is looking) accountability (“Ouch. That’s my mess. I screwed that up.”) and forthrightness (“Hey, so I screwed that up. That’s my mess.”) Here’s where I differ from some; I believe we are wired to own up to what we do. I believe our heart hurts if we don’t. Yes, I have a five year old—I know they lie and hide stuff from birth—but I’ve also seen her heart ache with guilt. What I believe is that we are survivalist beings, even emotionally, and if we are shown that our conscience will give us worse pain than our boss, parent or coach will, then we will choose to own up. If we’ve seen that our own guilt is less pain or shame than coming forward, we will chose to hide. As a coach, when faced with failure or willful error, the best plan is to show that there is a consequence—not be the consequence. Even in mistakes, we plant, though we may only be watering the seed.
The Thorns in Our Gardens
“It is through the difficulties and pains of life, the ones we often strive
from which to protect our children that a person’s character is forged.”
If we know what to plant, and we have a willing participant, then what stands in our way? We do, of course. The biggest barriers to being an effective instiller of independence lay within ourselves.
Let’s hit the big one first. Face it; we’re afraid of failure, of ours and our protégé. However, Sean Fletcher, educator, writer and father of five, asserts that our role is “…to provide a nest of safety where children can grow up without facing the full brunt of life before they are prepared. As our children grow and face the difficulties of life, it is important for us…not to take away life’s obstacles completely, but to offer our experienced advice on how they can face these obstacles and succeed.” This is another hill that I will die on; showing them how to succeed and how to fail well. Failing well is one of the best ways to shove all of the seeds above deeper into the ground because through failing well we learn that our capacity for success runs deeper that one moment, tactic or task. But, as Fletcher says, “this puts a great burden on us…” because to instill it, we have to have faced our fears and failed well ourselves. “Before we can extend such advice,” he says, “we must be sure that we have tested it in our own lives.” (Fletcher, 2013).
Coaching vs. Correcting
As those in authority, it is our job to correct actions that are inappropriate or—especially in parenting—unsafe. The trick is how we do it and when. Too much, or too harsh correction can lead to the disciplinarian/rebel dynamic that never instructs well. We’ll deal more with too little correction in a moment. A way to find your balance in this is to focus on “…open, non-critical communication with them” because we are here not to be critical of them, but to help them grow. (Fletcher, 2013) Coaches correct, and critique actions while showing our protégés how they have it within them to act rightly. This dance of Coaching and Correcting performed in time with the music of the moment. “If you let go too soon, your child may end up feeling insecure rather than independent,” according to India Parenting. “On the other hand, if you let go too late, you may have already made your child get into the habit of being dependent on you.” (India Parenting, 2013). Therefore, you as coach, must judge for yourself what is the appropriate approach based upon the moment, the context and the timing. informed by an understanding and appreciation of the circumstances surrounding a relationship. Remember, fail well.
Enabling must be mentioned, but enabling is not always bad. I hate to fly in the face of pop-psyche definitions, but it’s true. Just ask psychotherapist, teacher and writer Michael J. Formica. “Enabling comes in two flavors—healthy and unhealthy. Healthy enabling is a natural part of a balanced, cooperative relationship. Unhealthy enabling is a distortion of cooperation that leads to consciously or unconsciously supporting behavior in another person that can be variously unproductive, self-defeating or just baldly self-destructive.” (Formica, 2012) Enabling happens when one of the people in the relationship—parent or kid, coach or protégé, boss or staff—have given up. Mom will look the other way as kid sneaks beer, sexual liaison, drugs etcetera into the house because “they won’t listen anyway.” Boss gives projects to other staff. Or, kid doesn’t even try to do well anymore because praise is never as easy to achieve as condemnation. This is when a protégé enables the poor behavior of the coach. It happens. In both situations the solution is the same. Confront the behavior and change it over time. Return to Character and fail well together. Use it as a collaboration in which your relationship will be restored. This happens, too.
In the Shade of the Tree
“Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right paths,
but the final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.”
– Anne Frank
It should be encouraging that you are not managing them. That way lays problems. “Trying to effect change in another person by attempting to manage their thoughts, feelings and actions, we end up distorting ourselves.” (Formica, 2012) Instead, and more difficultly, we are managing ourselves.
Focus on the things seeds we’re planting: Self Reliance, Flexibility, and Character. Model them and live them as you plant them, and you will have strength and focus for the journey.
Most of all, remember to share delight and surprise because those moments that delight you will be the memories that you reflect on long after you’ve sweated and battled, as you rest in the shade of the grand, grown tree.
Dedicated to my mom.
With Love (and now) with understanding.
Formica, Michael J. (2012). People Do What They’re Gonna Do: Agency and enabling in codependent relationships. Psychology Today. Retrieved From: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/enlightened-living/201208/people-do-what-theyre-gonna-do
Fletcher, Sean. (2013). Instilling character in children. Familyshare.com. Retrieved From http://familyshare.com/instilling-character-in-children
India Parenting.com. 2013 Teach Your Child to be Self-Reliant. Retrieved From: