On her first day of kindergarten, my eldest daughter strutted down the hallway of our home, ready to take on the challenge of school. I can’t remember her outfit exactly, except to say that it was a visual assault, a crime against fashion—pinks mingled with reds, yellows collided with greens, polka dots taunted florals and stripes.

“No,” I said as I shooed her back into her room to change. But I was not going to win so easily. My daughter stood her ground. I braced myself for combat. Thankfully, in the nick of time, my husband, who had overseen the interaction, called me to the sidelines. “Is this a battle you want to fight?” he asked.

While taking a moment to pause, I saw the situation more clearly. I have always encouraged my daughter to march to the beat of her own drummer, to embrace creativity and to take initiative. “It’s okay to colour outside of the lines.” In forcing her to change her outfit, my actions would fly in the face of what I truly believed. I would be reinforcing a completely contrary lesson. Furthermore, I shamefacedly admitted to myself that the issue was more a matter of personal embarrassment and fear of how my daughter’s appearance might reflect on me as a parent.

Our identities were becoming enmeshed. The only thing for me to do was to retreat. And so, my daughter left for school feeling confident in her true self and I received my first lesson on letting go.

All By Myself
“I can do it by my own,” insists my three-year-old girl. She wants to buckle into her car seat by herself, just like her older brother and sister. I want to get this show on the road, so to speak. I hate being late…all the time. I try to fight her but she is determined. “It would be so much easier if I just did it myself,” I think. But that would be just in the interim. When it comes to the bigger picture, I know that she must win. (But for now we settle on cooperation).

Meet my “Little Miss Independent.” She is no different than my other children, no different than most children who, once toddlerhood strikes, crave any opportunity to gain a sense of mastery over their world. What is different about this child, however, is how early she took over the reins. What I never would have expected from my two eldest or even allowed them to do, my third managed with ease as early as 18 months—washing her hands on her own, putting on her own socks, boots and coat, eating with a fork, laying the table, even going down the big yellow slide at the park all on her own. Was she “gifted with independence”? No. True, she was motivated by the allure of being like “the big kids,” but more likely I simply hadn’t allowed my other two children the space or the chance to unwrap the gift of independence. And what a gift I would have given to myself much earlier in my parenting experience.

When we provide our children with opportunities to be more self-reliant, having them tend to their own age-appropriate self-care or helping with such tasks as unloading the dishwasher, putting their laundry away or even rolling meatballs, we make it possible for other virtues such as responsibility, confidence and helpfulness to surface. Doing so often requires that reasonable boundaries and expectations be set. It also calls for patience and understanding that mistakes will happen, messes are inherent and perfection optional. And don’t forget trust. Over Sunday night family dinner, my mother-in-law has the children take turns serving dessert on her fancy vintage china. Hands shake, plates wobble and forks toss about. We all cringe until the table has been safely met, opening our eyes to the sight of a proud and beaming victor. We haven’t had an accident…yet. And what a treat it is to be served for a change.

Intimately Independent
My one-year-old baby sleeps in the playpen beside our bed. Every night, I spend the last moments of my day watching her before tucking myself in bed. Sometimes I pull her up onto the bed with me, holding her tight, her face near mine. I have just weaned her and it makes me sad. I can’t believe how quickly the year has passed. “I wish she could stay small,” I think to myself but then I remember my husband’s ominous words, replayed three times before with my other children: “Be careful what you wish for.” I feel bad. After a while, the baby begins to wriggle about. The bed starts to get warm despite having kicked off the sheets. In the end, I recognize that if either of us is going to get any sleep, she needs to go back into her playpen. She comfortably falls into a deep sleep. She seems relieved.

As a grown daughter, I bite my bottom lip and clench my fists every time my parents lovingly nag me to send thank you cards, to eat my greens or to cover my head before going out into the cold. I feel stifled. I need boundaries and personal space. Every cell in my body urges me to yell out “Cut the cord already!”

Having said all this, when it comes to my own children, I feel like a hypocrite. What is good for the goose should be good for the goslings, yet providing them with the space to be independent and to access their own resources is not so easy.

It is my joy and call to service to do things for my children. I miss the kind of intimacy that I shared with them when they were babies, that special connection that I will never have again. If only I could bottle those moments, I wouldn’t be so afraid of forgetting; perhaps I could loosen my grip. Then enter “Mama Bear” with strong protection instincts, wanting to spare my children from painful wounds, both physical and emotional. The bigger truth is that I like to feel needed, wanted, purposeful. As my children discover their own egos, I am left with the challenge of relinquishing mine.

Does allowing our children to be independent mean that we need to surrender our need for intimacy? What does intimate independence for both parents and children look like? For me, it is about discernment in my actions and my words. For example, knowing when to comfort and/or intervene and when not to “hear,” recognizing the line between “family snuggle time” in my bed and the night after night 2 a.m. “sleepover,” spending time with my children while protecting myself from being monopolized. When I speak, does my language feed guilt or a need for approval, or does it empower my children to know their value and to think/act according to their own integrity? Do I step back from wearing my children’s problems? The balance between intimacy and independence comes down to healthy boundaries that allow us to be understanding and caring with our children while still providing them the space to discover the gems of their character.

Lines Crossed
Just passing by—every day for a week, your first week of kindergarten. I happened to see you, coincidentally at recess. I watch you through the fence, obscured by a large pine tree. I don’t want you to see me but I still feel the need to hover—at a distance. Why do you walk about aimlessly on the playground? You feel lonely, rejected, left out, friendless. That’s how I would have felt.

As I watched my son sleeping one night, for a split second, I saw my brother’s face. Suddenly all the battles that I had been having with my son made sense. Unconsciously, I had been unraveling my own story, and it was getting horribly tangled with his. I had been re-living my relationship with my brother, through my son.

Growing independence in our families requires that we be mindful of how our own experiences influence our role as parents. Do we acknowledge our untended wounds and personal triggers and then check them at the door? Do we resist the urge to appease our regrets and relive our dreams through our children? What does their story look like, independent from ours? The answers to these questions can help us to be more perceptive, and enable us to better honour our children’s true selves, as well as our own.

Tough Love
I push my seven-year-old daughter towards the washroom at the café. “Be confident. Call on your courage.” I know she can do it. She has to do it. I am tied to three other kids and I have no choice. I feel guilty that I cannot “scaffold” her. Am I forcing her to grow up too fast? I shake off my internal critic. It’s not such a bad lesson.

Independence can be hard at times, for our children as well as for ourselves. Sometimes it seems safer to bubble-wrap them and keep them close than have them feel the harsh blows of life. However, when we constantly hover over our children and deny them the space to fail, fall, “fight” and find solutions, we can miss teachable moments out of misguided compassion. We overlook the knowledge that often, the best growth and learning occurs when risks are taken and unknown waters charted, despite feelings of fear and discomfort.

Lead the Way
Independence, for my children as well as for myself, is like a waltz. It is a dance with prescribed form, one where we are very much connected and share a special intimacy, yet remain a healthy arms-length distance apart. We hold onto our gowns to keep ourselves from tripping over each other. There is still so much to learn. We constantly step on each other’s toes and grapple with who takes the lead. However, with practice, and a good dose of humility, understanding and mindfulness, I look forward to the day when I can follow my children’s lead, putting my trust in the grace of the dance.

Janine Fernandes-Hayden is an educator, trained Virtues Project Facilitator, and Salt Spring Island mum of four children, aged 1, 2, 5 and 6. She hosts a parent and kids radio show called “The Beanstalk” on Salt Spring Island airwaves at CFSI 107.9 FM or online at web link.