Dr. Maria Montessori believed that independence was the most important trait to develop in our kids. She believed it was key to their self-confidence, their ability to learn, their sense of identity, and would enable them to contribute to the world. Developing independence calls for a balance of hovering and neglect. One mantra for Montessorians is remembering that the child is saying, “Help me do this all by myself.” We have to create space for independence and then support from a distance. If the point of childhood is to become a functional adult, then we have to work backwards from 18, 22, 25 (when do you expect them to wear the full weight of adulthood?) and create steps for independence.
Dr. Michael Thompson, an expert on friendship, warns parents to let kids work things out themselves unless there is physical danger. Dr. Julie Lythcott-Haims and Dr. Wendy Mogul both have best-selling books teaching parents how to balance their child’s academic needs with their needs for independence. These authors and many others tie the national depression and anxiety epidemic in teenagers and young adults with a lack of independence (especially through disappointment and hardship) when children were younger.
When we do something for the child we are telling them, “You don’t do this well enough.” Sometimes we want to say that (sometimes they really shouldn’t have certain privileges), but other times we are focused on our own needs or standards and they actually completed the task well enough for their age. If we’re thoughtful and purposeful about it, we will find that there is a lot they can do on their own, while we stand back and observe and maybe encourage — patiently available.
At The Fulton School, we believe character traits are like muscles–you have to practice them to get strong. We have identified nine key character traits that we look for daily in the kids:
We believe these traits are both timeless and timely, and we know that the children’s lives will be more fulfilling and more successful (on many levels) if they are well developed. But how do we develop these traits in our children? I will spend the next nine weeks exploring what research and literature say about developing these traits in our children.
Many of these nine traits overlap substantially, as you will see in the coming weeks. They feed and reflect each other. Initiative, independence, and confidence are like three points of a triangle; today I will hone in on one point of that triangle.
The tricky part of encouraging initiative is that the child has to start it–you can’t! We develop initiative in our children most directly when we implement a new idea they have. If your child suggests a change in the bedtime routine and you think it’s a good suggestion and you implement it, you have just sent her the message that her ideas are contributing to positive change. It’s rewarding and stimulates more growth in initiative. If your child gets up to take his dishes to the sink unbidden, state your appreciation; if he does his homework on his own, tell him you’re impressed; if she puts away toys or gets dressed before you ask, tell her you like her initiative. You are encouraging something that is undervalued in adults. Sometimes we hover so much, we don’t give our kids the chance to stretch these muscles.
If you have a child who shows little initiative, have a conversation with him at a neutral time in a neutral way to let him know you would like to see more initiative. Depending on the child’s age and why you think he resists, you can brainstorm ways for him to take more initiative. If he follows through on it, practice it, acknowledge it, and go with it! Sometimes you may need to set the stage for him and let others know that this was difficult for him in order to pave the way. When he experiences success a few times, he will continue taking initiative on his own and hopefully it can take root as a habit.
What do you do when your child has a lot of initiatives that you cannot or do not want to implement? Thank her for her creative thoughtfulness and explain why her idea won’t work. Or maybe take part of the idea and tweak it. Here at school, we will go some distance to give an idea credit and action–whatever morsel of productivity we can find in it. We believe deeply that in doing so, we are nurturing initiative in our students.