How To Raise an Independent Thinker
Development & Learning
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When my daughter Molly was nine, she and I were having a conversation about envy and jealousy. She was in one of those philosophical moods when she loved to talk about her views on everything. I asked her if she still felt envious of her older brother, Casey, as she had in the past. Molly had always struggled in her childhood, and he did not. She plunged right into the subject talking about the time in her life when she wanted to be him.
He had a favorite matchbox car that she grabbed a hold of one night and wouldn’t give it up until she finally broke down in tears confessing that she just wanted to be him. In her mind if she had this car, she would be able to transform herself. He had a much easier time with friends, with doing things he was asked, with life in general. His temperament allowed life to roll off his back. She was intense in every way.
That day, Molly told me about times she used to give Casey something she didn’t want anymore. If he liked it, she would then want it back. He endowed things with value for her. She explained that Casey taught her “the basics”, and because she loved him so much she would always go along with him and like what he liked. Now, at the ripe old age of nine, she said she was more herself and could decide for herself what she liked.
“Like Nirvana. Casey loves them and I hate them,” she said matter-of-factly. “But Bob Dylan… I didn’t really like his music, but because Casey did, I decided to let him take me along, and then I decided that I did like him after all. But Nirvana—I never liked them even when I tried.”
She explained in great detail how Casey would always lead the way for her and then she would decide for herself. “And then sometimes we would go off on different tracks, and I would be looking down at my track and then all of a sudden I would look up and there would be Casey. But I was there because I wanted to be, not because he said I should be to be cool or anything or that he wouldn’t like me if I wasn’t. He would teach me the basics and then I’d follow and then I’d be able to decide for myself.”
It occurred to me after listening to this amazingly articulate description of how and what Molly learned from her brother, that she was describing connective parenting—the way in which children learn best—that gentle guiding influence always there teaching without force or insistence so that the growing child can internalize the learning, follow the influence, and then have the freedom to decide the track to choose.
Could it be any simpler? Out of the mouths of babes comes some of our best wisdom. We need to be still enough to listen in order to discover how children really do learn the best. We must get off our high horses of rightness, believing that only we know what’s best, and dictating orders before we can truly take in what is right in front of our noses.
Most parents believe it is their job to know the right thing to say and do and that children must listen to them and do what they are told. With this mindset, a parent doesn’t allow room for the kind of independent thinking that is so critical for solving problems and making good, responsible decisions later in life. The more parents see their job as guide—” This is what matters to me”—as opposed to autocrat—“You will do what I say because I say so”—and the more children know they can speak their mind, argue their point of view and be heard and considered (often annoying and sometimes timed inconveniently), the more they will use the influence of their parents.
The irony is that values pass down far more deeply when they are not crammed down one’s throat, when the child doesn’t feel threatened or obligated by those values. Indeed the more we let the reins out as our children grow, the more they develop a strong head on their shoulders and the ethics to be accepting of others with their own values.
Molly is an adult now, remains in awe of her brother and enjoys being with her parents. She has found her own track, which is entirely different from the tracks of her other family members, but her values are embraced in her family.