Declarations of Independence

Are any of you parents of children taking drivers ed, or those newly licensed to drive? One such parent informed his daughter she was not to confuse having a license with parental permission to drive, or to take the car out alone. Learning to drive and then passing the driver’s test seems in many cases to be a precursor to leaving home for college. It also awakens parental anxieties about children off on their own.

Despite obvious differences in size and various skills, there are startling similarities in the developmental issues that arise between parents and children during the two to three-year-old period and adolescence. These issues relate to the emerging feelings and assertion of feelings around independence characteristic of those periods. Also, the feelings aroused in parents about increasing loss of control over their children’s lives and behavior.

Listening to these concerns, I was reminded of watching the youngest preschoolers as they zip around on scooters these days. In the past, a familiar sight was that of a two-year-old running ahead of mother to get to the street corner first, with mom calling out reminding her to stop at the light, not at all sure if the child would be able to stop herself on time. Now this scenario takes place with scooters, which move children along faster than a parent can keep up.

Although driving a car may seem to present a higher level of potential danger than zooming ahead on a scooter, the issues they present to parents are very much the same. In both instances involved is not only the level of competence of the child or adolescent but the young person’s judgment in assessing that level of competence. The child’s self-appraisal as well as the parent’s appraisal of the child are called into play.

It may seem as though the more fully developed cognitive and emotional skills of the adolescent would make for more mature and reliable judgements of ability. However, also understood about adolescent development is that adolescents are well-known as risk takers who deny the possibility of harmful outcomes for themselves.

Preschoolers have a more limited ability to assess both risk and their own skill level, while the developmental push for independence is a driving force. At the same time the ability to control impulses is in a state of flux and a young child may perceive the need to stop without being able to bring it about.

The question that remains for parents is the same in both situations, namely how much control over a child’s behavior can they exert in order to keep the child safe while supporting the child’s drive toward independent functioning?

While this formulation might seem to suggest rational decision making, in reality strong emotional factors are at work. For children, the strong emotion is the push for independence that can lead to rebellious or defiant behavior. Parents, however, while supporting the idea of independence, are more motivated by their wish and need to keep their children safe. At times that parental need conflicts with a child’s need to assert his independence.

A byproduct of parents’ wish to keep their children safe is the attempt to keep a child from making a mistake. Parents think of their own mistakes they have come to regret and can become invested in trying to prevent their children from doing the same. But parents are handicapped in their responses to their children when the goal is to prevent mistakes. Mistakes are part of learning. Children need to learn from their mistakes just as we did – and continue to do as parents.

Making mistakes doesn’t make us bad parents. We use our best judgment in assessing our children’s capability and when their or our judgment is wrong, we are there to support them and hopefully help them learn from their mistakes.