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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