Independence Day - Don't rush them into it

Teaching children to be independent is part of the parenting job. They'll have to learn to manage, sooner rather than later

Teaching children to be independent is part of the parenting job. They'll have to learn to manage, sooner rather than later. Or so it would seem. But, truthfully, who benefits most when small children are able to look after themselves? It is tempting to assume independence from an early age will be of long-term benefit to the child - especially for parents struggling to keep sane amid a sea of nappies, sleepless night and days filled with too many tears. How can anyone be expected to meet so many needs all day, every day? Surely it would be easier to teach them a bit of independence? According to Norah Gibbons, senior social worker with Barnardo's, "parenting is getting harder and harder these days, but it is a bad idea to foist independence on children before they are ready. Some children whose needs aren't met by an adult may become very demanding and needy, always acting out that feeling of rejection they felt at being forced to become independent too soon. "Others will learn to fend for themselves, but at a price. They can become too competent, actually unable to let anyone do caring things for them. They learn not to express their needs because their needs are not adequately met. "Part of childhood is accepting the expression of love through care. We show our love for one another through the care we give each other, and with a child, no matter what age, that sort of care means helping with their shoes on a tired day, or wrapping them in a warm towel after a bath on a winter's night." Penelope Leach, author of Children First, believes the push towards independence is more than just convenient. She sees teaching our children to be independent too soon as a reflection of how our society has turned parenting into "a narcissistic investment". Parents assume, she writes, that "children's prospects as . . . independent people can be improved by speeding them through age-appropriate . . . dependence." Then we can all stand around at parties boasting about our children's achievements. However - while it might mean the chances of getting to as much as a tea party are slim - letting children develop at their own pace is the wiser option, Leach writes. "Babies do what they have to do when they are ready to do it, whether or not adults try to motivate or teach them."

Allowing them to be dependent when they need it teaches children to trust, says Maire Morrissy, a La Leche League leader and mother of four boys, aged 14 to two-and-a-half. "Over the last few years there has been this big push towards independence. But, in my experience, the more secure the kids feel at an early age, the more they just become quite naturally independent. "Some time ago, one of our children got a bit of a fright on the way home from school, so we had to start picking him up every day again. He feels secure enough to come home himself now, but it wasn't easy at the time."

"In fact, coping with your childrens' dependence just isn't easy. Parenting is hard work; there are rarely quick fixes that work in the long run. Meeting their needs takes time, but it makes them feel secure, and that security is the basis of independence."

Which isn't to say parents should put up with 50-year-old babies hanging around the house waiting for their needs to be met. "It is extremely important to bring children up able to stand on their own two feet," says Gibbons. "Parents have to give children opportunities to test out independence, in a safe context, when they are ready. "It is about learning to make choices and decisions - allowing them to make choices teaches them to trust their decisions. So, for example, rather than suggest an activity for toddlers, ask them what they would like to do. If they choose a puzzle you know will be too hard, don't say no - they'll feel they made a bad decision. Let them have a go, and if they get frustrated, let them say they don't enjoy it themselves."

Morrissy has found that giving children choices works well, but within certain constraints. "There's no point asking them what they'd like to wear with five seconds to go before you run out the door in the morning," she says. "That sort of decision is better made the night before. Even at that, I've found a choice like `which jumper would you prefer?' easier to deal with than something as open to interpretation as `what would you like?' "

Indeed, togs in winter aren't great. But having given the children a choice, as long as it won't induce pneumonia, it is important to respect their decision. "Fostering independence means losing a certain amount of power," Gibbons says. "This isn't always easy, children may want to wear outfits which are fine, but not our taste. Becoming independent from us often means becoming less like us."

However, it is equally important to ensure the choices are appropriate. "You have to know where your child is at developmentally," Gibbons says. "Giving young teenagers too much freedom is actually hard on them. You don't have to allow them do whatever they want - it is a question of balance and learning to negotiate."