January 14, 2010

How independent do we want our kids to be?

In the July/August, 2008, issue of Stanford Magazine, one of the most interesting articles was one that showed survey answers of the graduating seniors from the class of 2008. The question and answer that drew my attention was, “How often are you in touch with your parents (by phone or electronic means)?” 6.1% responded with “More than once per day, and 18.9% responded with “Daily.”
I am fairly certain that the parents of these graduating seniors did not talk to their own parents daily during their college years.

They probably attended college in the 1970s and 1980s, the pre-cell phone and pre-helicopter parenting decades. Part of the reason for the change in communication patterns is the amazing technology we now have, which allows us to stay connected much more easily. Twenty-five years ago, phone calls were much more inconvenient and expensive. Often, there was a line at the payphone in the dorm hall. And I think parents viewed college as the start of children’s adult lives. They were essentially “done” being parents, ready to be “empty nesters” who looked forward to traveling or pursuing other hobbies after launching their children into the world. From what I hear, today’s college parents are much more involved with their children, even contacting professors directly to discuss their child’s grades!

Thinking about my own college years during the 1980s, I don’t know exactly how often I spoke with my parents. My best guess is that I touched base with them about once every week or two. Sometimes I’d get busy or they’d be on a trip, and it might be closer to once per month. When I studied overseas in France for six months, I spoke with them infrequently. No matter what the exact number of phone calls, I am certain that we didn’t talk daily. I had a close relationship with my parents and still do, yet I enjoyed the independence of being at college, away from them. I don’t think they felt offended by my infrequent phone calls. In fact, I think they were proud of my independence.

I wonder now: What’s a healthy amount of talking between parents and their college-age kids? How often do I want my own children to call me once they’re in college? What about when they’re adults beyond college? I know I will look forward to hearing from them and knowing about their lives, and I want to stay involved. I know I’ll feel honored if they ask for my advice and opinion. A daily call might stroke my ego and make me feel very important. But, is that what’s best for them?

I think some parents would feel proud to be in the 25% that got daily (or more) calls and emails from their college student. Their child’s connection to them might confirm their belief about what great parents they are. But, maybe the connection also says something else. Maybe their child’s need to check in with them and get daily input and advice is an indication that they didn’t raise their children to be independent enough as adults. Common parenting logic says that the teen years are a time to slowly loosen the reigns and give your child more and more independence and responsibilities. The hope is that, once launched into the “real” world, your child will be competent to take on common tasks (such as laundry, cleaning, and cooking) as well as make good choices and decisions without parental rules.

Why is our children’s independence so important? I think independence is what allows people to spread their wings and do things like study overseas, take a job across the country, meet people outside their normal circle, and experience more of life’s adventures. Kids (and adults) who fear being separated from their parents may make different choices than those who are more independent. I think independence is a good thing, and I’d like my own children to be independent young adults.

What can we do as parents to foster our kids’ independence? For young children, allowing them to attend summer camp is one way to start fostering independence from parents at a young age. I’ve been brainstorming other ideas that can help foster my children's independence. When my child asks for my advice, instead of jumping in with all of my own ideas, I think I’ll ask them what they think. Maybe I can help them problem solve on their own rather than jumping in with my motherly advice right away. What about appointments? My oldest two children are in high school. Once my oldest starts driving (later this month!), I’ll have her make her own appointments (hair, dentist, etc.) so she can get used to managing her calendar and taking care of herself. I am certain there are many things we as parents can do to foster our children’s independence. I’d love to hear your ideas in the comment here!

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