Protection and Independence – What is the Right Balance?

All parents face this question over and over again during their children’s lives. How do you keep your child safe and yet give them the opportunity to fall and get up again, learn from mistakes and build qualities of resilience? The solution, of course, changes with situation, age and developmental maturity.

For those of you who are parents of kids with learning and behavioral difficulties, ADD/ADHD, Aspergers and other Autistic Spectrum Disorders, you are presented with a more challenging dilemma. You must add the unique functional limitations and abilities of your child to the mix of factors all parents consider such as age, peers, developmental aptitude, safety, and comprehension of consequences to answer this same question.

Consider Joanie, a very precocious 3 year old who wants to do it all herself. Each morning, her mother would pick out her clothes and help her dress. It was a fight every day. Mom just wanted Joanie to be comfortable and appropriate to the day’s activities. The tattered PJ pants Joanie wanted to wear would be embarrassing to her, thought Mom. And the over the top glittery shirt just didn’t work with finger painting!

Mom and I discussed Joanie’s independence and her learning what works and doesn’t for herself. We explored – what would be the worst thing that would happen if she wore her own version of “the perfect outfit?” Mom might get some looks from other parents; Joanie might get her favorite top ruined. Were these so terrible?

One day Mom let go and let Joanie dress as she liked. Tattered PJ’s layered with shorts and a glittery top that was too small marched happily out of the bedroom. Cooperatively, Joanie put on her shoes and announced her readiness for Preschool. It was the first morning without a fight. Joanie clearly felt confident and empowered. Her cooperative side was free to come out.

This was an appropriate level of independence for Joanie – for her age and her abilities. Mom will be able to assist Joanie if consequences come up. Not with “I told you not to wear that.” Instead, with understanding the natural consequences of her choices – consequences Joanie likes and ones she doesn’t.

On the other hand, consider Mark’s situation:

Mark, an 8 year old diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, watched his twin brother, Jesse, help with dinner. Carefully, he took out the napkins, plates and silverware, and set them in the proper places on the table. Jesse carried the roll basket in and put it on the table along with the butter.

Mark wasn’t allowed to help. He dropped things easily and got confused as to where to put them or what he was doing. Many dishes had been lost and arguments ensued as the disorganized table wasn’t ready for the meal to be put out. Mark’s parents didn’t want him to hurt himself or get frustrated, so they told him to watch as Jesse did the work. Mark slumped in the chair feeling useless and small.

His parents’ attempt to protect both their dishes and their son’s self-esteem backfired. Instead of learning how to do it correctly, Mark learned he couldn’t do any of it and that making mistakes meant he would be separated from family activities.

He was, admittedly, unable to do some of the age appropriate tasks but there were developmentally appropriate tasks that would have empowered him. Mark could have carried the forks in and put them on the napkins after his brother laid them down. Or, he could have brought in the bread basket with less bread in it. Or, he could have placed napkins on the plates after they were put out. Maybe he could pull out chairs for each person to sit down in or ring the dinner bell. By providing Mark an opportunity to be independent and contribute to the family, he builds his skills, feels valued as a part of the family and learns to focus on his strengths which eventually strengthen his weaknesses.

Kids whose abilities are different than their developmental age still need to have a level of independence and trust. There is something most kids can do independently: a yes/no choice on what to eat or what music to listen to, what to wear, putting on shoes, getting into the car on their own, doing homework or what part of homework to do first. Nonverbal children and non-ambulatory children still can make choices, using creativity and intention, parents can think of unique choices that are significant to children and contribute to building independence and confidence.

Mistakes, failures, incompletes, running out of time or space, times when a situation doesn’t turn out as expected, are all teachable moments. Sometimes nothing needs to be said, the moment teaches; other times a parent’s guidance to learn and grow is warranted. As parents, if we focus on the challenge as a failure, we teach that not getting it exactly the way we want it is bad. If we focus on the opportunity – what did you learn or get from that – we teach growth, skills to try something new, and a habit of learning from any situation. This builds independence, self-esteem and a desire to learn more.

Remember, too, that the lesson is theirs – not ours as parents – so let them get it. Let them fall, be embarrassed a bit, or study less and find they aren’t prepared. Our job is NOT to live their lives for them and protect them from all falls, but to provide a context in which they can safely learn what works for them and grow into making responsible choices in their lives.

When to protect a child from the difficulties of “failure” and when to allow them opportunity for independence, even if it means falling in the process, is a tricky balance to obtain. It requires our willingness to be in less control of the outcome, be realistic about what our kids can stretch into, take small steps and provide alternatives when the big jumps are out of reach, and most assuredly, be there to hold, comfort, cheer and guide. This combination, done through our own imperfect action, ensures that at whatever level our children can function, they learn, through experience, that they are valuable, capable, and lovable.

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