If my kid didn’t know how to use a can opener, and I said we couldn’t eat anything until they figured out how to use it, and it took them six hours to open the can, I’d feel awful — unkind, unhelpful, power-tripping, petty.

Dad John Roderick shared this story about himself and his 9-year-old daughter on Twitter recently, and as a result of the backlash/Twitter hate, has deleted his account. “I hate you!” his daughter yelled at one point as she tried to open a can for hours and Roderick didn’t help. As Roderick told it, he was unfazed by his daughter’s distress, saying this parenting style is how she would learn to care for herself. (He did not respond to an email request for comment Monday, but later posted this apology and explanation on his website.)

Too often, at least on the Internet, it seems like there are only two paths for parents: Either you’re incredibly tough on your kids, or you’re doomed to be the dreaded helicopter parent, endlessly fussing and hovering and rescuing.

But there’s a less-discussed middle ground hiding in plain sight: Parents really can maintain a close connection with their kids while also encouraging them to be capable and independent. Here’s how.

Parents crave involvement

Here’s what research tells us about parents: No matter their own gender or educational attainment, about 75 percent of parents favor “intensive parenting” over a more laissez-faire approach, according to a 2019 study conducted at Cornell University. In intensive parenting, “parents are expected to enroll children in extracurricular activities, participate in children’s play at home, elicit their thoughts and feelings, reason with children, ask questions and encourage children to express their opinions, and advocate for their individualized needs with teachers and other professionals,” says lead author Patrick Ishizuka in the study, published in the academic journal Social Forces.

What are we to make of this strong parental desire to be involved? We could write it off as evidence of an unhealthy obsession with our children, and it can sometimes veer in that direction, but we don’t have to see it as bad news. Instead, it should be viewed as an opportunity to undertake a middle road in parenting, one which fulfills parents’ natural desire to meaningfully support and connect with their kids and which fosters children’s healthy independence.

Raising capable kids is a long, gradual process in which parents’ willingness to be deeply engaged with their kids is critically important. It isn’t hurriedly rushing through a list of life skills before our high-schoolers head off to college, but rather, it’s building the skills and confidence that enable our kids to take on both the challenges that we can foresee and, especially, those we can’t foresee.

If the covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that resilience, adaptability and a can-do approach will be key attributes for our kids in a world that feels increasingly unpredictable.

An apprenticeship approach

We certainly don’t have to take Roderick’s sink-or-swim approach to develop these qualities in kids, and, in fact, we shouldn’t.

When our goal is positively guiding children toward capability and confidence, it’s helpful to think of childhood as an apprenticeship. “Little by little, with care and guidance, we hand our child life and its problems, challenges and satisfactions,” wrote veteran psychiatrist Rudolf Dreikurs in “Happy Children: A Challenge to Parents” more than 50 years ago. Instead of the extremes of coddling or leaving kids to tough it out alone, apprenticeship parents continually balance challenge and support for kids.

Rather than just changing batteries for them, for example, we show them how to use the screwdriver and let them have a try. We show them the markings for positive and negative terminals and give them a chance to insert the batteries before we jump in. Instead of speaking to the doctor about a child, we let them try to answer the doctor’s questions and only step in if our child needs a hand. Neither taking over nor leaving them to flail, we gently and patiently help them grow toward the confidence to do things on their own.

Letting go — kindly

Clearly, parents’ attentiveness and time investment are important in this apprenticeship approach. But we know that parents, busy as they may be, are willing to provide this. When parents spend lots of time and attention monitoring homework assignments, it’s not helpful to simply scold them to back off. Instead, we can trust that parents are right when they believe that it’s important to be closely engaged in their child’s life and success — but with an important tweak.

Instead of closely monitoring homework assignments, for example, parents can teach children to monitor homework assignments, perhaps beginning by asking the child about homework rather than automatically searching the child’s folder. The upfront time is similar — but the apprenticeship approach reaps more long-term benefits for both parent (who will ultimately be able to step back) and child (who learns to feel and be capable).

If children are to develop this all-important “quiet confidence” in themselves, as author and parenting educator Vicki Hoefle calls it in “The Straight Talk on Parenting,” parents must let go of some anxiety and believe in their children’s capability. That means allowing children a chance to try, accepting that mistakes are part of the process, and giving children more responsibility — all while coaching kids through the emotional ups and downs of this growth work. Parents must also hone their intuition about whether their child needs challenge or support at any given point.

Shifting from a rescue approach to an apprenticeship approach isn’t always easy for parent or child, and we will make mistakes. But we also can be sure that it is worth it, just as we can be sure that we don’t need to go to harsh figure-it-out-yourself extremes to make kids capable. Our kids will get there eventually, and it’s more than okay for parents to run behind the two-wheeler, holding on a little just for now. Soon enough, it will be time to let go, and they’ll race off on their own, beaming with confidence.

Sharon Holbrook, the managing editor of Your Teen magazine, is writing a book on raising capable kids in a kind, connected way. Find her at sharonholbrook.com.

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