Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers. ~Charles W. Eliot

Friday, December 17, 2010

Declaring Independence

As parents, it falls to us to raise responsible, compassionate and independent children. In theory I have always appreciated the importance of helping my children develop their independence confidently. In practice, though, it's sometimes bittersweet and just plain tough. While I am in no rush for my children to grow up, I want to help them grow up into people they are proud to be. Independence is a key component. It can be difficult to find that balance between nurturing your kids and making sure they feel safe on the one hand and encouraging them to move forward on their own, on the other.

Tonight my family attended a holiday party for my husband's firm at a skating rink**. I am not a skater and our daughters are beginners, at best. My husband usually takes our kids out on the ice at parties but didn't feel like skating tonight so we sent them off on their own to rent skates and slide around. I watched from inside and tracked their progress with typical mom anxiety, particularly at that point where they dissolved from view and I had to take a leap of faith. Lo and behold, just when I was about ready to call a search party together, they emerged from the rental area all booted and laced up and took to the ice. The three of them clung to the side and to each other. From where I stood, it looked as if they were negotiating who would lead the pack.  The daughter who until moments before they struck out on their own was thinking she may not want to do this at all suddenly sprung out from the huddle and slid forward. The others followed. I watched gleefully as they made their way around the rink, cheering each other on and giggling all the way. I ran out to greet and photograph them as they closed their first loop and they warmed my heart on an otherwise cold night. They regaled me with the tales of how they made their way through the line to rent skates, requested their sizes and laced up and they were all full of praise for one another. I was so proud that they figured it out by themselves, didn't kill one another in the process and delighted in their time together. For me, loosening my hold on my kids and encouraging their independence is inextricably tied to arming them with values and skills and reminding them constantly in their good fortune to have each other. Tonight I had a magical glimpse into what I hope will be a long-lasting reality - my independent children leaning on one another and deliriously happy in their togetherness.

**Added 12/18/2010: My husband and oldest daughter woke up this morning, read this blog post and suggested that an addendum would be appropriate to give context as to why I gushed so much in this post so here it is: The skating party we attended was at Bryant Park. The beautiful skating rink at Bryant Park is packed with people and while there are private party areas indoors at this venue, the skating rink is open to and used by the public. Hundreds of skaters means hundreds of people waiting in line to rent skates and going through a long process requiring patience and persistence. My kids, who are 12, 12 and 14 are old enough and resourceful enough to maneuver their way through the process but, until last night, they had never had to do it without parental guidance and assistance. Last night they made their way through the mob, got their skates, figured out what to do with their shoes, put their skates on, made it on to the ice, whirled around, had an awesome time, returned the skates, got their shoes back and on, came back inside and proudly told their tale. Even with the context, this may not necessarily seem like the biggest deal to anyone but me but, as a parent, you learn to appreciate that even the seemingly small things can be packed with significance and, to me, last night's accomplishment was no small thing.

I'm not sure that you can raise responsibly independent kids if you don't spend a great deal of time focusing on, instilling and living a life steeped in good values. I can't think of an author/illustrator who conveys good values more effectively or enjoyably than the immensely talented Jon J Muth. Start with The Three Questions or Zen Shorts and build your collection from there. These are the kinds of picture books you read with toddlers through teens. Muth's books are the perfect gift for a child entering Kindergarten. The art is spectacular and the messages so meaningful. I find that I still like going back and reading through them on my own. Stillwater, the sage panda in the Zen books, offers pearls of wisdom that never get old.

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