Parenting toward autonomy: Lessons from paddleboarding

David Olsen, Ph.D, LCSW

Our last newsletter article talked about the problems created by “snow plow parenting”. We discussed Jonathan Haidt’s idea of preparing your child for the road versus preparing the road for your child and the attempt some parents make to eliminate obstacles from their kids’ lives instead of parenting toward autonomy. While this sounds wonderful in theory, how do parents practically put this into practice, parenting in a way that safely encourages and builds both autonomy and confidence?

While on vacation in Florida, I had the honor of watching an example of parenting toward autonomy in action. One of our vacation adventures included kayaking and paddleboarding on the intercoastal over to a small island and back again. My wife and daughter paddleboarded while my son-in-law and I kayaked with each of their two kids, aged 4 and 6. We enjoyed the trek over, saw some beautiful fish in clear water, and spent some time swimming and playing on the island. While we were on the island, my 6 year old granddaughter announced she wanted to try paddleboarding. At this request, her father took her out on a paddleboard and taught her how to balance and paddle while he carefully swam near her in the small cove. She thoroughly enjoyed the experience!

After a little more time playing on the island, we headed back across the water with the kids in each of the kayaks, being watchful of approaching boats, wind, and small waves. After circling the island, my granddaughter said that she wanted to try paddleboarding across the intercoastal, despite oncoming boat traffic. Her parents, without hesitation, allowed her to try it while they kayaked close by. After giving up the security of the kayak, my granddaughter bravely paddleboarded across some difficult water with some small waves and, with great pride, beached the paddle board on the other side of the intercoastal waterway. It was beyond amazing to watch her sense of pride and mastery, not to mention boaters stopping to watch.

So, what did I learn from this about parenting towards autonomy?

5 valuable lessons, compliments of my daughter and son-in-law...

  1. Don’t impose your interests on your kids, but expose them to as many possibilities as you can. Let them try on as many things as possible without pressure so they can discover what their passions are. No one told my granddaughter to try paddle boarding, but exposing her to both paddleboarding and kayaking created an interest that she wanted to pursue.
  2. Let them try things without pressure. Initially, her father allowed her to “play” with the paddleboard, and as she expressed more interest, he began to teach her more about balance and technique. He carefully followed her interest, and as she became more interested, helped build more skill. At no time, however, was there any pressure on her or any agenda other than her own.
  3. Help them create confidence. By allowing her to paddle in a very safe cove with her father swimming next to her and coaching her, my granddaughter’s confidence in her paddleboard abilities began to build.
  4. Let them take risks. Letting a 6 year old paddle around in a secure safe cove is one thing… it’s quite another to allow her to paddle across a wide intercoastal with both small waves, and boat traffic. When she said she wanted to try, her parents got her on the paddle board and let her try without any pressure or anxiety of their own, letting her know she could get back into the kayak if she got tired or anxious. Obviously, snow plow parents and helicopter parents have a difficult time with this one.
  5. Create a safety net. Lest you think we were irresponsible in allowing this to happen, her parents were quite close to her in their kayak, while my wife was on another paddle board near by. We all created a sense of security, safety, and support for her while also providing a cheering section as she experienced a sense of accomplishment, mastery, and independence… not to mention celebrating the accomplishment for the rest of the day.

At the end of the day, we all know that we have our children for a short period of time. We want them to have successful lives, which means that this time needs to be filled with experiences that allow them to find their own passions, build their confidence, and expand their potential. Developmentally, as kids get older, they need more of these experiences, more freedom, and more opportunity to build confidence.

A significant part of parenting toward autonomy is to help create these opportunities and provide support along the way. At some point our children will not have the nearby “kayak” for support and they will have to “paddleboard” through life relying on the skills they have been taught by their parents.