Teaching Independence and Self-Reliance in an Age of Appeals to Authority
I have a question for you.
When you were a child, was it considered a good trait to be self-reliant, independent, and capable?
I know that when I was a kid—I grew up in the eighties and early nineties—parents and leaders in school, church, and the community considered these traits to be good and noble. It was pretty generally accepted that these were among the traits everyone would want to nurture and develop in themselves.
Kids were often encouraged to figure things out without the help of an adult. In fact, we were praised when we solved our own problems or figured out our own ways to get things done. I look back to movies like The Goonies, and The Sandlot and I totally relate to the freedom that those kids had to make trouble, cause problems, and then find their way through it with little to no adult supervision. Movies like those give me a sense of nostalgia, but I suspect that a lot of kids growing up today would just view them as fantasy—no more realistic or relatable than Harry Potter.
I don’t get the impression that a lot of parents, teachers, and leaders praise their kids for independent thinking and self-reliant behaviors anymore. It seems to me that somewhere in the last thirty or so years the traits that we all once agreed were “good” are now viewed as those possessed by “selfish kids,” or “troublemakers,” or maybe even those with some type of disorder.
I sometimes get critical emails or comments about The Tuttle Twins series that point out the fact that Ethan and Emily are allowed to take on so much responsibility on their own. They ride around town on their bikes without any supervision. They get involved in community efforts, and start businesses without their parents doing all the work. They go off to summer camps where all kinds of troubles arise, and they’re largely left alone to figure things out for themselves. Some people think it is unbelievable—or even irresponsible—that I portray childhood this way.
This portrayal of childhood seems so normal to me, and I suspect it does for a lot of you as well. But there has definitely been a shift in the way that parents view the capabilities and independence of children. I know the term “helicopter parent” is overused, so I’ll refrain from exploring that route, but something has definitely changed—and I don’t know that I think it’s entirely innocent or accidental.
What I’ve observed in working with kids, and even entering classrooms on occasion for book readings, is that the traits that seem to be universally promoted as “good” today are those of obedience, submission, and appealing to authority for guidance. It seems that children are told over and again from the time they are very young that they need to look for an adult to help them in whatever difficulty they are experiencing.
I’m not saying that parents and leaders don’t offer valuable and vital contributions to healthy upbringings—of course they do! Involved parents and good role models are essential for children. But there’s a difference between kids knowing that there are wise and capable adults who are always there to help them and teach them, and children believing that they have to seek the help or counsel of an adult in order to solve problems or overcome tricky situations.
I look at the things happening in the country right now, and I can’t help but see a bunch of kids who have grown up believing that the only way to make things better is to appeal to government to create laws to try to force things to be “fixed.” I know that if I wanted to create a population that would happily submit to authoritarian government I would start by teaching them from the time they were young that they were not capable of solving their own problems and that they must always look to an authority to save them.
One of my favorite parts of all of the Tuttle Twins series is in The Tuttle Twins and the Golden Rule. The summer camp the twins are attending is inundated with rain and they’re faced with serious flooding. Despite some major issues between teams of campers marked by dishonesty, broken trust, and lots of hurt feelings and attempts at justifying revenge to make them feel better, the kids all have to unify and work together. They have to act fast to save the camp from the rising water.
Each team took a different task and got to work. The Bears and Turtles worked together filling sandbags. Shoveling over and over was hard work!
The Rattlesnakes and Eagles formed a human chain to move each sandbag to the water’s edge and stack them to build a wall. The counselors helped here and there, and made sure everybody was safe.
“They need some extra help,” Mrs. Miner said, seeing the children struggle. She began walking towards them to lend a hand.
“No,” Ron replied. “What they need is this experience of working together to solve a problem. Let’s let them do the work, and enjoy the benefit.
“When the children had finished, they were tired, hungry, and covered in mud. But they had achieved their goal! The group watched as pools of water came close to the camp, but were stopped by the wall of sandbags.
“We did it!” many of them exclaimed, giving high fives to one another.
“Wait until our parents hear about this!” Ethan remarked to some of his friends from other teams.
The kids all learned that they were capable of doing something really big, and really important—even working with those they had earlier viewed as their enemies. And best of all, they did it without adults holding their hands or babying them through a scary and possibly dangerous time. They felt empowered because the adult leaders trusted them to be capable of managing such an important task.
One of the overarching themes in all of the Tuttle Twins books is that kids are capable of understanding complex ideas and accomplishing big, important things. We consistently get feedback from parents who say that their kids like the books in part because they don’t treat them like babies.
I’m really glad that messaging comes through loud and clear for kids when they read the series, because it’s so important to me that kids feel empowered and capable of directing their lives and taking on the tough tasks that lie before them.
Our kids are facing a future we couldn’t have imagined when we were their age. There is so much gloom and doom in the news and media, and I worry that they are being influenced by it and feel like their future isn’t going to be as bright as those that came before them. I don’t believe that’s true—I think that our kids are going to do things that we couldn’t have ever done!
I just want to make sure they’re getting a lot of good encouragement and that they know that there are a lot of people who believe in the awesomeness and ability of kids to do important things.
Our futures are in their hands! I’m counting on them to be amazing!