Looking back, many of us will remember specific moments when our children took a significant step to independence. The feelings we had the first time we left them with a babysitter, the first sleepover, the first day at school or the first trip to town may be etched on our minds. We know that our task as parents is to encourage our children to move from dependence to independence, but it can be so hard!
As parents we're hardwired to protect our children. It's as if we want to keep them on the end of a tight piece of string to make sure they stay safe and are equipped for every eventuality. But a wise friend once said to me, 'Don't use string, use elastic.' If we use string from the beginning, then as they seek their independence, that string will go taut and eventually snap. But if we use elastic, it will gradually stretch as we give them more responsibility as they grow up.
I like the idea of parenting with elastic. It makes the road to independence much easier for our children and also for us. From the day they take those first few faltering steps, we are beginning a process that will ultimately end with them standing on their own two feet long-term.
We can start this process when they are quite young by offering a choice of two alternatives for everyday occurrences. For example, 'Do you want your drink in the blue cup or the yellow cup?' 'Would you like peas or beans for tea?' 'Do you want to take your bike or your scooter to the park?' We can then move on to giving them limited choices, such as what to wear - even if the pink flowery, orange check, red spots and green striped combination will require sunglasses all round.
As they get older we can give them freedom to choose how to spend pocket money, what colour to paint their room, what music they listen to, how to spend their time.
In giving our children limited choices appropriate to their age, we also give them the freedom to learn from the consequences of their decisions, which nudges them further along the road to independence. A friend who is a childminder teaches this to the children in her care: 'You can choose to put your wellies on now - good choice - and we can go out to the park. Or you can continue to lie on the floor - bad choice - and we will run out of time and not be able to go.' The key here is that if we give our children the choice, we need to be OK with either option - not always easy! I remember allowing my daughter to choose what to wear for a big family celebration when all the great aunts, uncles and grannies would be there. I had to bite my lip hard as she came down the stairs all dressed up and ready to go in a flowery summer dress, a stripy cardigan, spotty socks and her very favourite shoes - big, black patent Dr Marten boots with rainbow laces!
In my mind's eye I had imagined her wearing her flowery dress, but with a plain navy cardigan, white socks and classic little navy shoes, but giving her that responsibility meant I had to learn to live with her choice (and with the family photographs afterwards displayed on everyone's mantelpieces!)
Our ultimate goal is to equip our children with the tools and the values they need to make good and wise choices in a world where choices are unlimited. Introducing them to the concept at an early age, will help flex, develop, and build their decision-making muscles as the years go by. And it will help them, and us, be ready for the day when the choices they must make are far more significant.
There will undoubtedly be some mistakes made on the way, but for our children, learning lessons while we are around to pick up the pieces is generally easier than learning them once they have flown the nest and are away from our care. Parent with elastic - it's never too soon to start.