How to Teach Your Child Independence

Many parents are deeply involved in their child's life. Doing it the wrong way creates dependence, but do it the right way and you'll teach your child self-reliance.

Stever Robbins
5-minute read
Episode #326

This is Stever Robbins. Welcome to the Get-it-Done Guy's Quick and Dirty Tips to Work Less and Do More.

It's back to school time. Europa's son Thomas---who we all think is a cyborg, though she has never confirmed nor denied this---is preparing to return to high school for the year. He's being troublesome. That means, lazy. We think he can apply himself more, and since we're grownups, we must be right. Europa says he's just a teenager, and we shouldn't worry about it.

I'm not so sure. Parents can make a big difference when it comes to how kids do in school.

When it's time for homework, Thomas is right on it. By "it," I mean his smartphone. Playing games where he gets to take over huge kingdoms, build factories, hire peasants, and go to war (like mother, like son.) What he isn't doing, however, is homework. When I point out that his algebra is due tomorrow, he doesn't even look up. "I'm smart. I don't have to prove it," he mumbles. And therein lies the problem..

I've been reading about "smart." Yeah, there's probably a genetic component to certain aspects of intelligence. At the very least, people have different thinking styles, and different styles are good for different tasks. But genetics is just the beginning. Actual performance has more to do with practice, risk taking, hard work, effort, and all those things that we would rather avoid, in favor of taking over kingdoms.

Psychologist Carol Dweck has discovered that the language you use when praising someone can have a huge effect on their performance--and it's paradoxical.

Don't Make it About Them

Whenever Thomas comes home with a good homework score, Europa tells him, "You're so smart! You're the smartest son any mother ever had! I should know, I made you myself."

From Thomas' point of view, however, this praise is a prison. If he only succeeds because he's smart, then if he tries something new and fails, it must mean it's hopeless-- because he's "smart." and obviously even a smart person couldn't do it.

Even more insidious is the idea that if Thomas fails at something, maybe it means he's not smart after all. If "smart" is an important part of his identity, he'll go to great lengths not to challenge that, even if it means failing deliberately.

Deliberate failure might be subtle. It might be, "not feeling like doing my homework," or preferring to play a video game. But at least it's under Thomas's control. He would rather be a smart person deliberately deciding to fail, than someone who tries but isn't "smart enough" to succeed.

Telling someone, "you're smart," praises their identity, and makes "smart" be an innate quality. Praise someone this way and they give up more easily, they take fewer risks, and they avoid challenges. They view their abilities as an unchangeable, innate aspect of who they are. Furthermore, you're telling them that their results depend on this innate thing. They don't want to risk going outside the areas where they know they can succeed.

Praise Effort

There's another way to praise: praise the effort, not the person. If Thomas comes home with a perfect score on his homework, say, "A perfect score! That's wonderful! You must have studied very hard and really applied yourself." People whose effort is praised apply themselves more, take more risks, and view setbacks as surmountable and temporary.


About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.