How To Raise Independent Kids

Encourage your kids to explore the unknown, take on difficult projects and confront what they fear

By Craig Kielburger and Marc Kielburger

When does a child become an adult? At puberty? When they get their driver’s license, when they start their first job, or when they leave home for university? The transition to adulthood isn’t as clear as in the middle of “Hakuna Matata” in The Lion King. But there are ways to mark key milestones in the evolution from child to adolescent to adult that will set your kid on a positive path toward independence.

In eastern Africa, rites of passage for teenaged Maasai boys include a series of physically painful trials to hone their mental strength and endurance. Traditionally in their final test, they are sent into the wilderness to fend for themselves until they kill a lion and can then return to the community. Only then are they deemed ready to meet all the challenges and responsibilities of adulthood in the Mara.

North American teens don’t need to endure burning embers and fire ant stings to prepare for adulthood, but as anthropologist and psychologist Mary Pipher says in her book Reviving Ophelia:

 

“As a culture, we could use more wholesome rituals for coming of age. Too many of our current rituals involve sex, drugs, alcohol and rebellion. We need more positive ways to acknowledge growth, more ceremonies and graduations. It’s good to have toasts, celebrations and markers for teens that tell them, ‘You are growing up and we’re proud of you.’”

 

Psychologist David Baum, who specializes in life transitions, explains that teens crave responsibility but are treated like adults-in-waiting, too young for challenges or to fight for their beliefs. He points out that they are on the receiving end of everything—homework from teachers, instructions from parents, pressure from peers—and they need opportunities to have agency over their own lives.

These rites of passage can start from a very young age—small responsibilities like household chores, or deciding what to eat for lunch—and lead gradually to major challenges like volunteer trips overseas or a gap year between high school and university.

To prepare young people for greater responsibilities when they are ready, set age-appropriate expectations for them such as maintaining their own bicycle or caring exclusively for the family pet. Let your kids plan and lead a family outing, or shop for and cook dinner once a week.

Craig’s journey included Scouts, with winter hikes and sleeping in carved-out snow caves, and a trip to South Asia when he was twelve. Marc’s entailed volunteering in a last-chance program for high school dropouts while he finished his high school credits in night school, followed by a trip to Thailand to volunteer in an AIDS hospice after his first year of university.

The key as parents is to make room for your kids to take on responsibility and to struggle with the challenges. Encourage them to explore the unknown, to tackle difficult projects and to confront what they fear. Be around when they fall, help them process the lessons, and celebrate their successes, small and large.

Craig had to leave behind our parents to visit south Asia at age 12, when he found a guide and mentor in Alam Rahman—a Bangladeshi-Canadian university student who told Craig,

 

“Your greatest teacher is the world around you. Take time to look at it.”

 

Today, Craig divides his life between pre-Asia and post-Asia—a trip that inspired him at a very young age to re-evaluate his life and the contribution he hoped to make.

Your kid doesn’t have to travel to the other side of the world—a solo bus ride or grocery run can work. The key is that it has to be done on their own, it has to be hard enough that they meet and overcome challenges, and is they don’t succeed to keep at it until they do.