Parenting for independence

In this week's edition of The Journey: From Boys to Men, one mum shares her thoughts after reading Michael Grose's book, The Spoonfed Generation.

Fifteen - that’s the age at which Australian parenting expert Michael Grose says children should be capable of looking after themselves, and their mum and dad become redundant as parents.

While you hold that big breath you just inhaled, consider that in past centuries children often did leave home at this age to take up apprenticeships or other work.

As Mr Grose says, and parents of older teenagers know, it’s at this age that boys are hardwired to fight with their fathers. Girls, too, are also programmed to push parents away around this time in their lives in a bid for more autonomy.

In his book, The Spoonfed Generation, Mr Grose argues that modern parenting - giving children too much and expecting too little - is largely to blame for the apparent epidemic in anxiety among young people.

Having been successfully raised with a level of benign neglect that would now be illegal, I have much sympathy for Grose’s argument.

But even I struggle to maintain the patience and courage required to let my children gain for themselves the skills and insights required for looking after themselves. I have, however, learned that some steely nerves and allowing some extra time for mistakes and mess can reap tremendous rewards.

A simple example is allowing my four-year-old boy to dress himself amid the morning rush to get to school and work on time. The old underpants on the head comedy routine isn’t so hilarious when you have five minutes to get out the door!

With older children, allowing kids to own their problems is a fabulous way to engender independence, but this can take some fortitude. I saw this first-hand when my son started high school.

As he struggled with transitioning into Year 7, my own work schedule suddenly became less in tune with his school hours.

My default position was to trust him to do the right thing with his new-after-school freedom - that is hang up the washing without pegs in odd places and complete his homework before I arrived home. This way I could look over anything he wanted me to then we could have some relaxing time together later in the evening. Sounds great in theory, right?

I arrived home to unfinished chores and incomplete homework - and having for the first time ever to nag my once gorgeous boy about finishing what I had asked him to do.

Then the emails started coming from school about homework not being submitted.

Lacking any natural inclination to micromanage, I appealed to his responsible, mature and ambitious self that I knew was buried somewhere under the hormonal changes and rebelliousness, urging him to think about the profession he aspires to join and the benefits this would bring to him.

I also told my son I really didn’t want to start having the sort of relationship with him whereby I was checking up on him all the time, but instead wanted to enjoy trusting him to do the right things as I previously had. (And, I admit, there were at times some comments about how he could end up flipping burgers all his life if he spent all his unsupervised time watching silly gifs on Instagram instead of harnessing his own creativity.)

Finally, at the end of Year 8 his grades improved markedly.

When he was telling me recently about how he was enjoying the extension work he was now doing, we talked about that period when he was struggling to manage his time. I asked him what he’d learned and whether he would have preferred me to micromanage him.

He said he had learned a lot more about how to manage himself better by working it out for himself, adding that he saw other boys with parents who imposed a lot of rules rebelling in various ways.

His response: “I learned not to leave everything to the last minute because having to do stuff in a big rush is horrible.” Even with my nonsense detector on high alert, his words reassured me that he wasn’t just playing to his mum’s gallery.

And while he could still learn a thing or two about household chores, the proof of his insights about homework and time management is in his much-improved performance at school.