Most people want to be independent. It is hard to be dependent on others. I remember my grandmother would always tell me, “I don’t mind growing old as long as I am able to take care of myself.”
So it doesn’t surprise me when I see parents frustrated by their kids’ behavior. I hear many parents complaining about their toddlers, with complaints that go something like this:
“She is driving me crazy! All day long I hear, ‘I want to do it myself!’ She won’t let me help her with a thing!”
I also hear parents lamenting about their older children and teens:
“They think they know better. They want to do whatever they want without a thought to the consequences!” (Related: There’s A Reason Your Teen Is Totally Ungrateful.)
What is it about our kids that makes them act in this way? Why do they insist on their way–or the highway?
The desire to be independent is like a basic human need. Being independent helps you feel that you have some control over your decisions and your fate. It is empowering to be able to think for yourself, take care of yourself and know you can survive in this world. It is the basis for people’s self-respect and belief in self.
In Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals) we say, “Prevent us, please, Lord our G-d, from needing the favor or handout of mortal beings, instead of your full extended, sacred and wide-open hand, so that we should never feel shamed nor debased.” G-d understands that we humans like to be in charge of ourselves and not beholden to anyone but G-d.
Kids also feel this need to be independent and they will fight for their autonomy. What is confusing for parents is that they also sometimes like to be babied. They will swing back and forth between independent and dependent behavior.
That is why young children might cry that they want to buckle their own seat belt and then five minutes later they will cuddle in their parents lap. That is also why teens will confide in their parents as if they are their best friend one day and the next day they will sulk in their rooms and only talk to their friends.
As early as 2, children want to make their own decisions and have control over their lives. They are learning to individuate from their parents so that they can stand on their own. They need to practice independent behavior so that one day when they are adults they can be independent. This is the cause of many power struggles and conflicts between parents and their children.
But it does not need to be this way. We can avoid the power struggles and conflicts that arise if we give our kids lots of little choices. This helps children feel in charge within a safe framework and respects their very valid need for autonomy.
Giving children choices teaches them how to make decisions and build their self esteem. They learn to develop problem-solving skills. This makes them feel more powerful and in control of their lives and gives them the skills they need to be healthy, responsible and independent adults.
Choices can be about nearly any aspect of our daily activities with our kids:
Option: The Task
Younger kids: Do you want to play with the Play-Doh or the blocks?
Older kids: Do you want to set the table or wash dishes?
Younger kids: What do you want to do first and what do you want to do second?
Older kids: Are you planning on taking a shower for Shabbat right when you get home or in an hour?
Younger kids: Do you want to work on the desk or at the table?
Older kids: Do you want to go to the library or the bookstore to get the book you need?
Younger kids: Do you want to use pencil or markers for your art project?
Older kids: Do you want to use the computer or will you handwrite your report?
Mini choices like these create a sense of autonomy for your children without forcing you to abandon parental guidance.
Adina Soclof, MS. CCC-SLP, works as a Parent Educator for Bellefaire Jewish Children’s Bureau facilitating How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk workshops as well as workshops based on Siblings Without Rivalry. Adina also runs parentingsimply.com.