I, like many of us, have spent time this summer at bus stops, saying goodbye to my children as I send them off to camp.
Whether it is for the day or for a month, the scenes are the same. There are some children who walk to the bus, holding their parent’s hand until the very last minute before they board. Then there are those who run ahead and, without looking back, get on before the parent has even reached the vicinity of the bus. Finally, there are some kids who hold onto their parents, lingering with a long hug, or sometimes tears, before finally being coaxed to board with the other children.
What makes for the variability in different children’s reactions? In part, it may be related to temperament. Some children are naturally more adventurous and are unafraid to venture forth, while others are more naturally reticent until they feel comfortable with the environment. But temperament is only part of the picture.
Most of us would say that by the age of 18, we would like them to be capable of getting themselves to, and on, a bus without our help. Children themselves would also like to have such independence — how often do we hear, even from the youngest ages, “I can do it myself”? Between the will to accomplish a task and actually accomplishing it, however, there is a gap. That gap is called courage.
To be able to reach independence, a child must be able to take a chance on the unknown and have the confidence to believe that he or she can handle the situation as it unfolds. With experience and training, the skills needed to survive new encounters will develop, but without courage they will never get put into play.
What can we do as parents to help our children develop courage? First, we can believe with a full heart that our children are capable. We must think to ourselves, sometimes despite a child’s temperament, that a challenge is surmountable even if it’s uncomfortable.
Second, we need to step back and allow them to struggle. Often, this is the most uncomfortable part for parents. We feel needed when our child hangs on to us, and guilty if we don’t address their discomfort in that moment. The thing to bear in mind is that when we over-perform on behalf of our children, we send them the message that they cannot accomplish without us. That message, while not obvious in the moment, can be very discouraging and undermine the goal of raising an independent child.
Does this mean that we aren’t there to help our children through difficult times? Certainly not. Our children need our love and encouragement like they need oxygen. There are two considerations, however, that can make all the difference.
The first is timing. Spend time together and work on solutions that may make the transition to the bus easier before reaching the actual bus stop. That way, they are prepared to handle the transition — and so are we.
The second is to support them without taking the lead. A story will help illustrate this point:
A woman I know sent her two teenage children on a hike in one of the national parks in Israel. Due to the climbing along the way, it was a one-way trail — you could not turn around and go back the way you came, only move forward.
A few hours later, the woman went to meet the children at the exit of the trail. Her son soon emerged, but without her daughter. Frantic, she ran to her son, who told her that the daughter was stuck at the bottom of a cliff and too afraid to climb out. The woman called the park rangers, who arrived and went back into the park with the son. Shortly thereafter, both of her children emerged with the rangers, safe and unharmed.
Relieved beyond words, the mother asked the ranger how he rescued her daughter. Did they throw a rope down and pull her up? Did she get attached to a harness and get lifted out? “No,” he said. “I stood behind her and told her to climb. I told her that she could make it alone, but if she fell, I would be right behind her to catch her. She climbed right up and we walked out.”
Being with our kids through their scary moments without taking the lead — without taking away the thing they fear — is powerfully encouraging. Let’s believe in our kids’ abilities to handle their challenges, give them a kiss as they get on the bus of life, and watch them exercise the courage that will allow them to wave goodbye, knowing that we will be there when they come home.
By Laura Goldman