This article is based on Episode 2 of the 99 Parent Podcast.
Self-Reliance is the greatest gift any parent can give a child, for it is a habit of mind that follows him all his life and levels the mountains as he goes.
-Willard and Margeurite Beecher, Beyond Success and Failure
Children face a lot of struggles in today’s world. From keeping up with mountains of schoolwork, to dealing with the stress of internet-fueled peer pressure, to being hovered over by helicopter parents.
Ironically, even though kids are growing up in a time of information abundance, one of the most important things kids should learn about while they’re growing up is one that is seldom taught: self-reliance.
What exactly is self-reliance? In short, it’s the ability of an individual to handle the problems required of them in life. But it’s even more than that. What comes with self-reliance is deep confidence in one’s own abilities, the knowledge that one can rely on an unchanging part of him or herself, and that one’s success or emotional stability isn’t reliant on the whims of others.
Before I discuss self-reliance though, I’d like to quickly expand on what happens to a person who has a low sense of self-reliance, or as it’s more commonly known: psychological dependence.
I discussed the concept of dependence to a fair degree in an earlier article, but I’d like to dig in just a bit.
If you can remember, dependence is a general mindset where a kid (or adult for that matter) believes they can’t tackle what’s required of them to effectively live in the world.
They require outside an outside entity to handle much of their life for them.
This dependence – this lack of belief in one’s own abilities, can wreak havoc on kids. Therefore, if we as parents can understand this mindset, it can help us more effectively raise our children.
I’ll be drawing heavily on information from the book Beyond Success and Failure as well as material from the book Raising Self Reliant Children in a Self-Indulgent Raising Self Reliant Children in a Self-Indulgent World
Understand the Disguises of Dependence
To best illustrate this I’d like to relay a story from when I was a kid.
Me and the Lawn
I was a pretty-underachieving child. I had very little drive or ambition and a fairly negative outlook on life.
For a variety of reasons that I won’t get into here, I believe I was way over-empathized with as a child. Every complaint of mine, no matter how small, would be taken very seriously by my mother. Many times too seriously.
This dependent mentality was fully on display when it came time to mow the lawn once a week.
Now I didn’t like mowing the lawn. It was hot, it made me sweaty and I’d get grass clippings all over myself. Yuck!
Rather than realizing that I had a job to do and it would better to just push through it and get it over with, instead I’d sit on my front step avoiding the work.
So I’d end up frittering away a large part of many Saturdays just sitting on that step.
Logically, I knew that this was a really dumb thing to do because I would end up mowing the lawn by the end of the day anyway. But that didn’t matter to me – I kept avoiding the work.
The net result of my avoidance? I’d end up burning away my Saturdays for no apparent reason.
But the thing is – there was a reason. Emotionally something inside of me had been reinforced that made sitting on that step the entire day a more desirable option than just doing the work and getting it done with.
I somehow felt that if I wished hard enough, the work would go away.
What Was the Deal With Me and That Lawn?
Over the years, I’ve thought how strange it was that I did was, and I didn’t understand it until I puzzled it out about ten years ago.
I now believe that because I had been so emotionally indulged, that I’d gotten used to my mother “bailing me out” whenever I started whining about something I felt was uncomfortable or difficult.
This set up a mental pattern that whenever I experienced the feeling of discomfort or distress and I knew my mother was in the general area, I could often get out of a task or it would become easier because my mother would take pity on me.
When it came to the “moving the lawn problem”, I subconsciously attempted to use my manipulation tactic again.
Well, the only problem was that it didn’t work, yet I still sat there the entire day, weekend after weekend – classic behavior of an unmotivated child.
Symptoms of a Dependent Mindset
The dependent mindset showing up as a lack of motivation, as it did for me with my lawn mowing debacles, but it can show up in quite a few other ways as well.
Here are a few symptoms to be on the lookout for in your kids. These can all point to a dependent mindset.
- People with a dependent mindset are Resentful – Resentful people tend to say things aren’t fair a lot or ruminate on saying they are owed things by others.
- People with a dependent mindset are overly-sensitivity to the emotions of others. This can often come about because they’re dependent on other people liking them in order to achieve their goals in life. This causes the dependent person to be are scared to death of making other people angry so they focus on other peoples’ emotions like a hawk.
- People with a dependent mindset have low self-worth. This may come about because by definition if a person depends on others to manage things in their life or maintain their emotional state, they may think that they aren’t bringing anything of value the table. People need to feel competent and needed. Even kids.
- People with a dependent mindset trust others more than they trust themselves. This is almost self-evident. A person is often dependent on others because they don’t feel confident in their own abilities and judgment.
- People with a dependent mindset can be ignorant of what they even want for themselves. When one trusts others to make decisions for them for so long, they can even forget what they want for themselves!
- People with a dependent mindset have low self-confidence. This goes along with the idea of low self-trust. Not trusting oneself to be able to handle the tasks of life.
- People with a dependent mindset regularly use wishful thinking as a strategy. By this, I mean not dealing with the reality of situations and instead just hoping things were different. Wishful thinking was a large part of why I was sitting on that step. I wished someone would rescue me even though it logically didn’t make sense. This can show up in someone always say they hope something will happen or wish something won’t happen. That wishing and hoping points to a mentality that the person doesn’t feel empowered.
If a child shows symptoms of a dependent mindset, what can we do as parents?
In short: We can help create an environment that helps them improve their sense of self-reliance.
So what exactly is self-reliance?
The dictionary defines self-reliance as “reliance on one’s own powers and resources rather than those of others.”
That sounds a bit abstract, doesn’t it?
To better explain what self-reliance is, I’d like to tell you another story from my childhood.
Summer Work at Grandpa’s
I had an interesting experience when I was 15 that helped bring the effect of my emotional dependence into sharp relief.
And it made me realize there was more to me than the lazy child sitting on the step avoiding mowing the lawn.
In the summer of 1987, I had the opportunity to stay at my grandparents’ house in Milwaukee. I always enjoyed being around them. My Grandma was always happy and kind while my Grandpa was entertaining to be around, although he could be a bit strict and sometimes a little intimidating.
Before I get into the particulars of my visit, I’ll give a quick overview of my Grandfather. He was born in 1912 and was a World War II vet. He was someone I enjoyed being around and I respected him greatly. He had a bit of bravado and an inner toughness, something that I found foreign.
The specific experience I had during the visit involved cleaning a very dusty, dirty, old garage that hadn’t been properly attended to for several years.
The garage was a separate building on Grandpa’s property, and he had a bunch of accumulated junk in its attic.
Grandpa told me that he wanted the whole place cleaned up, from top to bottom. He wanted me to purge large amounts of material from the attic, and fully clean the bottom part of the garage where the cars parked.
The endeavor took me several days to complete. Now Milwaukee summers are nothing compared to the summers of Phoenix, where I now reside, but it wasn’t exactly pleasant getting hot and sweaty for hours on end – especially for a boy who was not used to hard work.
What I remember most about that endeavor was my mentality. I just accepted the job I’d been assigned and got to work without complaint. There was no point in conducting verbal bargaining with my Grandpa, and interestingly enough, there was no desire to do so within me either.
No feeling sorry for myself, no dragging my feet, no delaying the inevitable as I had done back home.
That part of my mind was completely quiet for one of the first times in my life. I just set to work and did a great job.
After completing the task, I was proud of myself. I suppose in the back of my mind I was a bit puzzled since that was pretty different from the way I normally behaved.
When my parents arrived to pick me up, my mom was surprised to hear about how much work I readily did with no complaint.
My behavior was so different from what she had come to expect of me, it took her aback and I speculate it even shifted who she thought “I was” by a little.
Behaviors Associated with Self-Reliance
Let’s now dive into what self-reliance looks like in a person. Earlier I had ticked through a list of some signs that someone has a dependent mindset. Let’s do the same for self-reliance.
- Self-reliant people value themselves.
- Self-reliant people solve their problems directly. Self-reliant people focus on their problems and solve them directly, rather than try to guilt others or whine about how their situation is unfair.
- Self-reliant people maintain their individual identity while also being valuable to society. This is an important point. Self-reliant people rely on themselves to get things done but they aren’t loners. They use their abilities to help themselves and help others in society. Self-reliant people have something unique to bring to the table when interacting with others.
- Self-reliant people believe they should help themselves and others rather than be a burden to others. Notice how this is a different idea than the mentality of a person with a dependent mindset or that of a very young child. Immature people and young children tend to look for what they can get from others or how others can take care of them.
- Self-reliant people don’t complain much. They accept the world as it is and use their own powers of initiative, skill and hard work to achieve what they find important. This isn’t to say that self-reliant people don’t point out things that need fixing, but they don’t complain about things that can’t be changed. They accept reality as it is – or at least as they best understand it.
- Self-reliant people don’t shy away from necessary conflict. Sometimes conflict is required in dialogue. I’m not talking violent conflict here but rather honest disagreements.
- Self-reliant people are comfortable being alone. There’s a difference between being alone and being lonely. Too often in our hyper-connected world, people can be afraid of being alone. Learning to be comfortable being with oneself is an important part of being self-reliant.
- Self-reliant people aren’t wishful thinkers. Instead, they take a hard look at the world around them. They accept those things they can’t change and identify the things they can change. And then they take appropriate action.
- Self-reliant people are hard to manipulate. Charlatans and predators don’t like self-reliant people because they can’t use emotional manipulation to trick them. This is an incredibly important reason why it’s important for kids to have a self-reliant mindset. The more kids are confident in who they are, the less likely they’ll be tricked and manipulated by predators.
- Self-reliant people value creation more than consumption. They’re more passionate about creating a youtube video than watching one. They’re more interested in creating a video game than playing one (maybe is a bit much to expect out of a kid but, but you get the idea). In general, self-reliant people fall more in the creator column than the consumer column.
Self-Reliance in History and Before
Here’s an interesting exercise: Let’s look at how our ancestors lived compared to how we live today. And the effect it each environment had on the self-reliance of children during times.
So I want to take you back 10,000 years ago. A time before civilization. A time before humans had settled into towns and cities. Even a time before farming.
The lives our ancestors would have resembled that of some of the hunter-gatherer peoples still in pockets around the globe today. They may have also resembled the lives of some peoples who eeked out a more primitive existence just a couple of hundred years ago.
Our distant ancestors were often nomadic, following the animal herds to avoid starvation.
In this type of environment, kids would have been required to grow up very fast. These kids would have had to be active contributors to the group from an incredibly early age.
Kids would have been tasked with fetching water from the river and helping their parents find and prepare food. The would have helped pack up supplies as the group needed to move onto their next destination.
It is not inconceivable to imagine young children having to do fairly hard work for much of the day, day in and day out.
The parents and other clan members would have had to rely on young kids to actively contribute – it was a matter of survival, after all.
There would have been little tolerance for whining and other self-indulgent behavior.
Early 20th Century
And you don’t even need to look as far back as pre-history. Let’s take a look at life in the United States at the start of the 20th century. At this time, 70% of people lived in rural areas.
For those living on the farm, everyone had to pull their weight. Kids would often work ten hour days right alongside their parents.
The kids would be essential members of the family. They wouldn’t just be small people requiring a steady diet of praising and scolding as is the case today. Their parents relied on them as very important workers.
Kids grew up with a much stronger sense of self-reliance than today. They knew they were needed and given appropriate responsibilities by their parents and extended family.
This was required because of the incredible economic and other hardships.
Comparison to Today
So where does this leave us?
On the one hand, things are much better today than pre-civilization and early 20th century for obvious reasons.
On the other, the vast majority of today’s kids are growing up environments that foster dependence rather than self-reliance. And that shows up in problems within the family and even mental health.
What Can Parents Do?
OK, that’s great you may say – so kids of earlier generations were much more self-reliant… Because they needed to be!
But what can we as parents of today do?
Well, combining what I’ve learned from the books I mentioned earlier and a few of my own thoughts, I’ve come up with the following ideas for how modern parents can help their kids become more self-reliant.
Tip #1: Let kids do more for themselves AND Allow them to experience the positive and negative consequences of their decisions
By backing off and allowing kids to control more of their lives, we give them the opportunity to take valuable steps toward maturity and self-reliance.
Take a step back for a moment and think about the tasks you regularly do for your kids. When you consider their age, how many of these things shouldn’t you have to do?
Are you doing some of your child’s tasks because you feel that you really need to, or are you doing them out of habit? Or are you doing them because you see your child as immature or irresponsible, not to be trusted with important tasks?
I bring these things up because, in order for us to be able to decrease some of our behaviors that limit our kids, we have to realize what’s causing us to behave this way. Many times are kids are capable of doing a lot more for themselves than we allow them to do, simply because of our mental blocks.
Also, the views we hold of our children influence how they act – and can actually limit the level they rise to. With this in mind, as a general rule, it’s better to give your kids more, not less responsibility.
Now, this is all great for me to say, but all this stuff is something my wife and I struggle with all the time.
Some New Tasks For Our Kids
Recently, we’ve been trying to get our boys to do more for themselves and the family but this is definitely a work in progress.
Here are a few things we’ve recently added to the list of things our eight-year-olds need to themselves (they have more responsibilities but these are a few of the more recent additions):
- Make their own lunches before school
- Use the microwave to heat up their own food
- Fold and put away their own laundry
- Have their room cleaned each weekend or they don’t get to play video games until they do. Just a quick side note here: our boys aren’t allowed to play games during the weekdays. This is probably stricter than most parents, but I’ll elaborate my thinking behind this policy in an episode.
A Good Rule of Thumb
When it comes to what to do for our kids, I try to keep the following rule of thumb in mind:
Never do for a child what they can do for themselves
I know it isn’t realistic to be able to adhere to that 100% of the time, but it’s something to keep in mind when your about to do a task that your child may be capable of doing..
Tip #2: Give kids real responsibilities. This lets them know they’re essential members of the family.
We’ve all heard the advice that kids should have regular chores. But really, this is only part of what I’m talking about here. What I’m talking about is a mental shift we as parents have to make about who our kids are and what role they play in our family.
Kids need to know they’re important and essential to the success of the family. They need to know that they have something to offer the family and the world.
I’m not talking about the lip service where parents say their kids are great and all that. I’m talking about putting kids in a role where they’re really helping us out. A role that says that to our kids “You’re a necessary component for the family’s success”.
So what does this mean exactly?
It means giving kids responsibilities. Real Responsibilities. Like cooking dinner now and again… or at least doing what they can to be an essential help to Mom or Dad.
Stuff like mowing the lawn is pretty obvious. But other responsibilities as well. Maybe helping you develop a shopping list. Or better yet, developing the shopping list themselves after doing an inventory of what’s missing.
Even helping younger siblings to get ready for school.
Yard Work Can Really Teach Kids
My twin boys mow the lawn. Not with a power mower but using a manual push mower. And I might add they already have a much better attitude than I did when I was their age, that’s for sure!
One boy pushes the mower while the other one clips the edges with a grass clipper.
This is a mandatory responsibility, but I do pay them – but since it’s a small yard so I don’t pay them much.
I pay on a graded scale. If they do a job that requires me to tell them to go back and do some stuff the missed, then they get the base amount of $4 total between the two of them.
If they did a pretty good job but it’s not perfect, then I give them $5. If they do a pristine job. What I refer as a quality job I’ll give them a whopping $6 between the two of them.
$6 is that’s the amount I gave them after their third mowing.
The interesting thing is that I’m teaching them two things here. One is that they’re doing an important job and are real contributing members of the family – anytime someone looks out on our back yard they can see their handiwork.
But also, by really stressing the quality aspect of the job. I’m teaching them to take pride in their work. That type of pride and budding work ethic can serve them well later on. It also improves their view of themselves.
Tip #3: Let kids know that they are doing important work
When you have kids play more essential roles in your family and when the kids are really helping out, call attention to how much of a help they’ve been. How much you appreciate the job they’ve been doing. And not in that condescending way adults sometimes revert to when they praise kids. In a real way based on the kids’ contribution.
See, the thing is, when you get in this general pattern with your kids…When they start becoming essential, helping members of the family, those are some real steps toward self-reliance.
A direction away from anxiety and one toward confidence.
For instance, the other day I did something I’d never done before. Now this may sound trivial and in the whole scheme of things it was, but it was important in a small way.
The Ice Cream Lesson
One of my sons wanted an ice cream cone at the mall. Now normally, I’d go up to the counter with him, ask him what he wants, then proceed to tell the person behind the counter his choice. I’d pay and give him the cone.
Because I’ve been thinking about this self-reliance stuff lately, instead I just gave him some cash and told him to go up and order the ice cream himself, while I waited at the table.
And you know what? He did it. He was a little nervous at first but after he did it he was really happy and proud of himself.
In fact, he was so proud of himself that when he saw his mother 15 minutes later he bragged about his accomplishment.
Small stuff like this can really add up.
The responsibilities we give our kids are essential life experiences that help them grow up and learn to stand on their own two feet
Perhaps we would better serve our kids to think of ourselves a little less like nurturing protectors and a little more like the CEOs of our family, with our kids being valuable, trusted employees.
Self Reliance is An Essential Trait for Kids Today
Our societies are changing rapidly, and many times in ways that aren’t that great.
But the good news is that helping our kids become more self-reliant will not only give them confidence and decrease their anxiety, but it will give them the tools to take on life’s many challenges, no matter how difficult.
So start quietly observing your kids behavior, what their responsibilities to the family are, and your attitude toward them. Then gradually start moving the home environment toward one that fosters your children’s self-reliance.
Paraphrasing the quote at the beginning of this article: the gift of self-reliance will “level mountains as your child goes through life.”
That sounds like a great gift to me.