Raising an Independent Child

When you're bogged down in the day-to-day challenges of parenting, it's easy to forget your most important long-term goal: preparing your children to exit the nest.

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The purpose of raising a child, simply stated, is to help that child get out of your life and into a successful life of his or her own. If that sounds a bit cold, it's only because we tend to think sentimentally, rather than practically, about the raising of children. It has nothing to do with rushing the child out of the family as quickly as possible. It simply means that it's the job of parents to slowly but surely help the child stand alone in every way -- socially, emotionally, and financially. This is, after all, every child's mission.

At any stage of your child's development, your objectives as a parent can be defined by asking, "What can I do now to help my child take another step toward a life of his or her own?" For an answer, here's a look at the major stages of a child's development.

During infancy, you need to build a solid foundation of trust and security in the parent-child relationship. Strangely, then, parents promote independence by first meeting the infant's dependency needs. This bond is sealed through closeness and affection. Holding, rocking, smiling, nuzzling; all these actions tell your child, "You can count on me. If you need me, I'll be here."

Toddlerhood occurs after trust is established. Two features dominate this stage: First, the toddler's need to explore and experiment; second, the emergence of self-help skills. Both signal the start of self-sufficiency.

Use patient, nonpunitive methods of toilet training, the most important of all self-help hurdles. The more positive this experience, the more confident the child will be when meeting other challenges.

During the preschool years (ages 3, 4, and 5), the child's primary task is that of learning to give and take with other children. It's important that the child be exposed to both guided and unstructured social play. If there are no other young children available in the neighborhood, now's the time to enroll the child in a nonacademic pre-school program where social skills can begin to be honed.

That brings us to middle childhood (ages 6 through 10), characterized by the need to develop achievement motivation. By discovering and developing interests and aptitudes, the child acquires a sense of individuality and self-confidence. In addition, the child learns to set goals, a prerequisite to achievement. Promote this growth by helping your child find hobbies and other chances for accomplishment.

Then, there are the dreaded preteen and early adolescent years, when youngsters are trying to separate from parents and find a comfortable niche within the peer group. Parenting the young teen demands tolerance, patience, and a willingness to let the child make a certain number of mistakes. The trick is to guide without interfering. This involves teaching that freedom and responsibility go hand in hand. The youngster's curfew, for instance, might depend on grades or chores around the house.

Finally, we arrive at adolescence. As life becomes more complex, the teen needs guidance in decision-making and matters of the opposite sex. A part-time job is one way for the teen to gain experiences that will smooth the transition to adulthood.

It all adds up to a loving, self-confident, achievement-oriented young person with a strong sense of individuality and self-esteem. This former child is now ready to take that all-important step into a success-filled life of his or her own. That is, after all, what you've been working for these last 18 years or so, isn't it?

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