Preparing for Independence

By: Delana H. Stewart

Over the past years I have written and shared with expatriate families around Asia and the Middle East about preparing TCKs for life back in their host cultures. People have often asked me how we have raised our sons to be independent and ready for life on their own. There is not one right way to go about doing so. There is not a right way for boys and a right way for girls. Each family needs to consider each child within their family, needs, personalities, intelligence, etc. However, that said, I do want to emphasize the importance of sketching out a plan for independence and how you will get from A to Z. Do not wait until your student is a junior in high school to say: “Hmmm, I wonder how to get him/her ready for the big world out there.”

During one time in our home country, my husband and I noticed how much longer adult children seem to be staying in the nest and living off their parents. Some are staying well into their 30’s. With free room and board and little responsibilities (in some cases) this does not surprise me. One day a co-worker with very young children expressed concern that another co-worker’s older high school students were not showing readiness for independent living. “Yes,” I agreed, “families do need to prepare their kids for this big step of life on their own.” I also then turned to my friend and asked her what she was doing to prepare her preschoolers for independence. There is a difference between a child who thinks he/she is ready for independence/freedom/liberty and actually being ready.

While recovering from surgery, I read an article in Better Homes and Gardens by Chrystle Fiedler entitled Give Me Liberty (August 2007). She provides some tips for helping children from an early age step out into the world. I also have some suggestions based on testimonials from co-workers through the years.

young, early grades, indepenceThe Early Years (3-8)

Offer opportunities for your child to play with other children supervised by adults other than yourself. This can be 30 minutes to partial days. It may be for a night out or part of a weekly swap for “Mom” time. Though some five-year-olds might be ready for a sleep-over, at this age it might be a good time to have an almost sleepover. They pack a bag with a favorite stuffed toy, toothbrush, and pajamas. They are told that they will not spend the night but they will have dinner and a pajama time prior to mom and dad picking them up. When children are ready for their first several sleepovers, Ms. Fiedler recommends that we “tell them it’s okay to be nervous” and give them some tangible tips for doing something about it, like “you can call and check in, you can bring something with you, you can give yourself a pep talk.” Telling a child there is nothing to be anxious about does not prepare them for what to do if and when anxiety arises. Once they know that you realize it is a possibility, they are more likely to face it on their own and say… ‘Mom said I might feel this way.’


The Middle Years (9-13)

Children in this age range are ready for more independence. Chores should become more serious and more outward focused. In the early years, whereas kids needed to learn how to brush their teeth, bathe themselves, and make their beds, the middle years are a good time to focus on their contributions to the family and house as a whole. Additionally, when going on a trip, Mom or Dad probably packs the bags for the children. When they reach the middle years, it is a good time for parents to show them how packing is best done and what should be included. Next, they will need to do the packing while supervised. A list can be made together and then the items checked after the child has done the packing. By the teen years, youth should be handling their own preparing and packing of belongings for trips. Granted, depending on your teen, you may still need to double-check and make sure all the essentials are there (like deodorant). Ms. Fielding tells of a teacher named Vicki Caruana who taught her 15 year old son to do his own packing. As often as we get to experience packing overseas, I would definitely recommend starting the teaching process with your 9-13 year olds. Some of them will catch on quickly and greatly help you prepare for future trips. Others may reach 15 or 16 and still not have a clue about how to pack appropriately. Ms. Fielding quoted Vicki as saying: “I wasn’t sure if he brought everything but I’m not always sure if I remember everything. When he unpacks he’ll discover if he did it right, that’s the natural consequence.”

Many years ago, one of our supervisors told us about sending his 12-13 year olds ahead of him to the US, or had them return back overseas after he and his wife returned. He introduced us to the idea of using an airline escort program. In most airlines, you can pay a fee to have a flight attendant or other airline personnel accompany your child through the airport and to the next flight. The flight attendants then take care of your child until arrival and then they are taken by either flight attendants or airline staff through customs and through baggage, and hand them directly over to you or to the person you’ve designated. The designee has to present a photo idea with the appropriate information (DL# or passport). My kids loved doing this, and especially loved getting to go to the front of the line for boarding and for customs. They felt like VIPs. Children have different personalities and needs, and the locations they are flying from and to also vary, but consider when and if this might be an option for your kids. As older teens (15-17) they will then be ready to make a solo flight unescorted. Remember, once you ship them off to college, if you want them to come and visit you, they will be making an international trip by themselves. They need to experience this in increments.

Older Teens

A senior co-worker who has now retired advised us to be in our home country for at least our son’s first semester of college. I think this is great advice, and if possible arrive a few months early as well. This gave us and our son time to adjust to being apart, while still having a few opportunities to see each other. The preliminary months also allowed us to cover some last minute preparations, like setting up a bank account that we could access online, getting him registered with selective service, etc. Preparations for his first year of college actually began long before (and I’m not just referring to the importance of these stages of independence). During his high school years, I wanted to make sure he could use all household appliances. Two summers before college, he had the opportunity to stay with grandparents and take a dual-credit college course at a community college. While living with them, I encouraged my parents to help him use appliances that we did not have overseas. He also needed to learn basic cooking skills from me and basic car/home maintenance/repair from his dad. We got a great list from Sonlight many years ago and began through the years working through this checklist. The summer leading up to his departure for dorm life, we even encouraged him to use the self-check lanes at some grocery stores. I have shared before about dual credit opportunities that exist. When we sent our second son for dual credit courses at a community college, we learned that we could apply for a grant, which ended up paying his full tuition and books.

As much as possible while overseas, involve your teen in making appointments, especially in their last two years of high school. Get them to call the dentist, doctor, etc. They will be graduate, life, college, indepence, careerhandling these issues when they get to college. Help them become comfortable with it now. You will have to be creative about finding appropriate things in your area. Perhaps it is perfectly okay for a teen to ride the bus, subway, or taxi by himself. Maybe a teen could purchase something from the apartment magazine stand or marketplace. If you are not comfortable with your daughter riding a local bus by herself, maybe a trusted local teenage girl or young adult would accompany her on a planned trip (if this something that local teen girls do…I realize that in some locations this would not at all be possible. But keep these things in mind when you are visiting friends in other countries or when you are in your home country). Talk about your goals for independence and explore ways as a family to reach those goals.

Ms. Fielder gives some great advice regarding once our teens get to college, “If your child calls up with a late paper or roommate problem, instead of trying to fix it, listen, and then offer suggestions.” Encourage them to talk to their resident adviser or dorm director. Also, if they have become involved in a local church, there may be a pastor or leader or friend who could help them explore options in solving a problem.

Finally, Ms. Fielder lists five signs that you are hovering too much:
• You fight all their battles for them. {Let them write their own papers, pay their own fines, and earn their own playing time.}
• You wake them up every morning.
• You remind them constantly of the time. {Let them be late and deal with consequences.}
• You do all their laundry for them. {Note, she states that they are capable of doing their own as soon as they reach puberty.}
• You call their cell phones multiple times a day.

Help your kids be responsible and independent!

You may also want to read:

Preparing Our Children for Life on their Own


The College Experience Questionnaire

Writing a Good College Essay

Letter of Inquiry to a College

Preparing for College


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