How Much Independence
Should We Give Our Kids?

1st June 2013

Image Credit: Garry Knight

We all want our children to grow up into confident, independent adults, but how can we achieve that? New research from the NCS (National Citizen Service) shows that parents have many concerns about this issue.

Many parents think that their children should be doing more about their futures, while they feel that their kids are prioritising their friendships (57%), looks (33%) and love lives (26%) over above improving their career prospects.

Professor Tanya Byron, clinical psychologist specialising in children and adolescents and TV parenting expert, believes that giving teenagers opportunities to be independent is vitally important for their future and their wellbeing. eParenting asked her about the importance of letting children develop their independence and how they can help them to develop these skills that will help them throughout their lives. So Tanya, teenagers have always wanted more independence from their parents.  It’s kind of what growing up is all about, do you feel that perhaps today’s teens are more frustrated by their parents than previous generations? 

Tanya Byron: Well I was a teenager once myself and I now have two of my own and I think probably part of being a teenager is to get frustrated with one's parents, and one's parents getting frustrated with teenagers.  But there is also more anxiety for parents in terms of their children becoming more independent and less supervised. I think in this day and age we live in a very risk adverse culture and there is a lot of fear and anxiety around about the safety of children and young people. 

We do know that kids have far less opportunities to take risks and to learn how to assess risk and to challenge themselves, because they have far less outdoor freedom.  So I think maybe the frustration might be that when young people are trying to develop their independence it is quite difficult for them to find outlets for it and for parents to feel confident that these outlets exist.  Do you think that being accustomed to having less independence has made youngsters feel they need to fight for their independence more or need to be encouraged to fight for their independence more?

Tanya Byron: I wouldn’t encourage anyone to fight for anything, but obviously independence is something that young people push for and it’s something often that parents push against.  What we do know, and I see this as a clinician in my clinics, is that more and more young people are presenting with anxiety disorders and this is, I believe, because they are being denied opportunities to develop all those key living skills that come with becoming independent and so they are lacking in emotional resilience. 

We need to think about how we can offer children and young people safe places where they can there develop these critical life skills so that when they do go out into the world on their own, they can live truly independent, well-functioning and productive lives.  Do you think that part of the problem is that parents (though it comes from a good place) are so concerned about their children that they have maybe given less independence as a result of that?  How would you encourage parents to let go of that? 

Tanya Byron: Well, the reason that I am talking about these issues is because I want people to think about the National Citizens Service.  This service is promoted directly by the Prime Minister as a really useful way for sixteen and seventeen year olds to be given the opportunity to develop all these independent living skills that we have been talking about. 

For three weeks in the summer holidays a young person can join a group of other young people and they spend two of those three weeks living away from home having the most extraordinary experiences.  There are lots of outdoor activities, lots of team building activities, they are mentored and safe, but they are also given experiences where they can start to develop some core, fundamental independent living skills such as problem solving, decision making, team building and team leadership and so on.

There are lots of different modules on offer, where young people get opportunities to go into local services, local communities and local businesses and are taught a range of skills from how to manage money through to first aid, in partnership with St John's Ambulance. They are also given opportunities to look at how marketing works, so they are able to develop a range of skills to enhance their life CV. The National Citizens Service is an answer to a lot of the anxiety that parents have, and will enable their kids to learn these independent living skills.  And do you also think that schools have a responsibility to teach some of these independent living skills?

Tanya Byron: We all have this responsibility to teach these skills and to encourage children and young people.  Schools obviously are a place where a lot of that kind of learning goes on.  However schools all have agendas and targets and a curriculum. The risk adverse society that we live in means that there are many restrictions in schools in terms of experiences that children and young people can have to develop their emotional resilience and their independent living skills. 

The National Citizens Service sits alongside a school experience and it is a very fun, freeing, supported, mentored experience where kids come out with an exceptional range of skills that they can identify and articulate. It is also recognised by UCAS, so if kids want to go on to further and higher education, they can put that they have a National Citizen Service certificate on their UCAS form and that will be very enhancing in terms of their ability to get into further or higher education. Do you think that fact that younger and younger children have mobile phones has been an influence on independence?

Tanya Byron: Well I think it gives children independence in some ways and social media can be very positive for that in terms of creating communities, offering opportunities for learning, globally.  It also enables young people to socialise, to create content, there are lots of very positive things about social media and technology in general. 

There are also risks as we know.  Just as there are in the offline world, there are risks on the online world but I think it also gives young people a chance to think about what they want to do with their lives. The National Citizen Service is on Facebook and rightly so, because that is where a lot of young people are. One of the other questions we wanted to find out about was whether you were worried about any of the figures that are given as to what teenagers prioritise these days?  Do you think that teenagers might be focusing too much on looks or relationships compared to education and careers?

Tanya Byron: Well I think it is pretty age appropriate for teenagers to be worrying about how they look and about relationships but what we found in our One Poll survey, where we spoke to a big sample of sixteen to eighteen year olds and their parents, is actually their priorities were also really, really positive and really challenge quite a negative media stereotype about our young generation. 

We found out that teenagers want more independence from their parents.  They see school and college as one of their top three priorities and also they say that employment after education is another of their top three priorities.  So I think we’ve got kids that want to develop their skills, who want to be independent and enjoy their life and be productive and this is again, where National Citizen Service can give them the opportunity to develop all these amazing skills. Teenagers often get a bad press and they are regarded as sometimes being too lazy or they don’t focus on their studies but as you say, so many young people are concerned with working hard at school, and about where they are going to go.  Do you think their parents underestimate their teenagers drive at times?

Tanya Byron: I don’t think it is actually parents, I think it’s more about the media stereotype of young people.  Based on our survey clearly we have some very, very driven young people who really want to get on with their lives.  It must be very difficult to be part of a generation that is constantly told that they are not good enough and their exams aren’are not of the right quality compared to the exams that other people took in the past. 

The media is incredibly negative about kids.  I don’t know if you are aware of this but our national media have been censured by the United Nations committee for children for being negative when it comes to children and young people.  So I think yes, we all underestimate teenagers and we all underestimate their wishes and their desires for living which is why the National Citizen Service is an organisation that is saying directly to young people, we know you want to be the best person you can, we know the skills you need in order to be able to be that person and we want to give that to you, in a safe, managed, mentored but really exciting way. We hear all the time that the job market is getting tougher and tougher; do you think that is where schemes like this are so important for kids to get that step ahead?

Tanya Byron: Absolutely.  The National Citizen Service is all about thinking 'what are the essential life skills'.  Kids don’t get the opportunities to develop them in their daily lives - skills such as work and leadership skills, creative skills, life skills and local community awareness. One of the things that I love about the National Citizen Service is that it looks at social action awareness.  Within the three week program young people will be encouraged to set up their own social action projects so that they translate those skills into a workable project which then puts something back into the community. If anyone has been reading this and it sounds like something for them or maybe for their teenagers, where can they go and find information?

Tanya Byron: They should visit or

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