Self-Reliance as a Core Value of Parenting

Whatever happened to “self-reliance?” It seems that parents don’t value this quality in their children anymore. When I was a kid, parents bragged about their kids’ ability to do things on their own, and they were embarrassed if their kids seemed helpless.

My parents made my sister and me walk with friends to and from school – over a mile each way – starting in first grade. My dad had us work at his pharmacy from the age of 9 or 10, not because we were poor, but because he saw work and saving money as fundamental virtues. In addition, we always did our own homework by ourselves.

I feel like a weirdo these days because I still value self-reliance as much as my parents did, while most parents have largely abandoned the whole idea.

In her study of parenting advice in the 20th Century,* Markella Rutherford finds that parents have come to consider schoolwork and, more generally, preparation for college, as their children’s “work,” and they have severely limited their children’s freedom outside the home.

Thus, we have a generation of teenagers entering adulthood with very little idea how to get anything done for themselves.Take the example of the teenage boy I encountered in a bike shop a few weeks ago. He was much taller than me – about 6′ 2″, and he was holding his bike, but he didn’t say a word to the bike repairman. His mom did all the talking. She explained the problems with the bike and discussed the price of the repair with the repairman. The kid just stood there. I felt sorry for him. Why can’t he explain the problem and make the repair decision himself, with his own money?

Kids get driven around everywhere, rarely venturing out on their own. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control, in 1972, 87 percent of children who lived within a mile of school walked or biked daily; today, just 13 percent of children get to school under their own power on a daily basis.

I find the traffic jams in front of most elementary schools in the early morning and late afternoon appalling. Dozens of cars line up, creating a queue that is often 5 minutes long or more. At pickup time, the kids hang out there the whole time, breathing in the fumes from all the cars, when they could be getting exercise walking in the fresh air.

Most teens have never held a job of any kind. In 2007, about 41 percent of the nation’s 16 to 19 year olds participated in the labor force; in contrast, 58 percent of this age group was active in the labor force in 1979. (See this article.) I’m sure this number was even much higher in previous decades. Thus, in contrast to children of older generations, children of today enter adulthood with no idea how to work and no experience managing the money they earn.

Regarding homework, a recent study showed that 43% of parents have done their kids’ homework for them at least once. This is not teaching. This is just cheating, pure and simple.

Can we really say that parents are doing a great job if their children don’t do things like walk to places on their own, work at a job in their teenage years, and do their own homework all the time?

I’d say “no” because to me, instilling self-reliance in our children is one of our most important jobs.

What do you think?

* “Children’s Autonomy and Responsibility: An Analysis of Childrearing Advice,” by Markella Rutherford, Qualitative Sociology, (2009) 32, p. 340.

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6 Responses to Self-Reliance as a Core Value of Parenting

  1. Bob Schulman says:

    In the world of game theory, this is known as Nash equilibrium. If your singular payoff goal is getting your kid into a selective college, so your kid can “have a good life” or so you can brag about your kid, arguably the best thing you can do is do everything possible to get them a good college application, including grades, test scores, etc.

    The only way I know of to change the behavior is somehow get parents to change their payoff goal, or change what it takes to achieve that. I highly doubt parents will change their goals. However, if colleges were to value kids with demonstrated self-reliance, behavior would change quickly.

    Suppose we start to hear stories of protected kids with “perfect” transcripts, extra-curriculars, etc, but they don’t get into the top schools, while other kids with fewer structured activities, lower GPAs start to dominate those spots? Once parents and kids believe their best chance is to be self-reliant, behavior will change. Until then, it won’t.

  2. Mike Lanza says:

    Bob – Of course, the big question is, what is your payoff goal? You stated that it is getting your kid into a selective college for most parents. Yes, if that’s true, then self reliance is irrelevant. However, if their children “having a good life” in the future or in the present is also a goal, or perhaps even a more important goal, then I believe that parents are doing their children a disservice.

    I think that parents should realize that getting into a selective college is one among many means to the ends they desire for their kids, not the end in and of itself.

  3. cashel says:

    I also expect that if you asked any college admissions official what they’d really love to see in an application these days which is generally missing, it is probably “self-reliance” 🙂

  4. kteacher says:

    I teach elementary school and witness the lack of self reliance daily. In the earliest grades we call these “self care” skills. Children enter school not knowing how to put on jackets, tie shoes, peel a banana or blow their own noses etc. I have asked a few parents about this and most responded by saying that it was much quicker for them to do these things for their child! When I replied that while this was true, but pointed out that part of parenting is helping a child develop independent life skills, most seemed amazed! Yes, 5 and 6 year olds may not do the above mentioned things quickly and neatly but they can do them and they will get better at these things as a result of doing them. Additionally, mastering self care skills is great for a child’s self esteem. They can be given sincere praise for real achievement, not just empty praise. I do not exaggerate when I say there are children in 4th grade in my school who cannot tie their shoes! In creating a climate where there is only one goal i.e. getting in to a top tier college or some other lofty goal, we are forgetting how very important it is to help our children become well rounded human beings not one trick ponies.

  5. Mike Lanza says:

    kteacher – That’s one reason (among many) that I’m glad I have three boys. Many times, our oldest, 5-1/2 now, just doesn’t get his self care unless he does it himself. We might be dealing with a cranky or sick little brother, so he needs to blow his own nose or put on his own clothes.

  6. Virginia Balogh-Rosenthal says:

    I totally agree Mike. From a young age, I had my kids ask their questions directly to the doctor, store clerk, librarian, etc. I also had them arrange their own play dates by phone. In second grade, I was amused by my son’s comments (“Boy, this is hard work!!”) as he attempted to coordinate a trip to an amusement park with his friend which required multiple phone calls back and forth.

    Now that my boy/girl twins are in middle school, I am pulling back from mediating their problems with teachers. My son complained that his history teacher was unfair to him so I emailed her to get her side of the story. A few days later, my son demanded I email her once more to tell her she was wrong. “I don’t think so,” I replied. “You will meet many people in life who you don’t like and you will have to get along with them regardless. You need to figure out a way to make it work in her class.” He was not happy with my attitude, but, needless to say, he absolutely figured out a way to cope and I think it gave him a new confidence.