Building Self Sufficiency in Kids

Self-Sufficiency is the End Game of Parenting…

I got a call from a friend last week. She’s a mother of four children, ages 7-12. She opened with, “On a scale of 1-10, how worried should I be about this…” and then she unfolded the story of her three kids taking a little walk down the the stream in her town to watch the ice that was melting and crumbling apart. They were together. They weren’t being foolish. They were within walking distance from home, in a small New Hampshire town. A place that they know well, and have walked dozens of times with their parents. Someone called the police to report “unsupervised” children down by the river. The police came. The spoke with the kids. The police left. The kids walked home. Mom was then wondering whether she should expect the authorities on the doorstep. This is the third time this group of children has encountered this within a year and a half.

Virtually every parent that I know, in the USA, is worried about the above scenario. They’re worried that if they allow their children out of their sight, they’ll get a call from child protective services, or the police. They’ve observed the very public battle of the Metiv family a few years ago. Everyone knows someone who has a horror story. And so, they keep their kids close and the kind of free wheeling freedom that many of us enjoyed as children is a thing of the distant past. When kids are out of sight, they’re tethered to a phone and required to check in, or leave the GPS tracker on the phone so that nervous parents are always within reach.

According to college professors, we’re delivering to their doorsteps a hoard of anxiety ridden young adults who lack the basic skills for independent living and cannot navigate even the very padded world of pseudo-adulthood that is dorm living. And apparently most parents are still micro-managing class selection, a bad grade on a paper, or an extension for their child’s overdue paper. Personally, I find these stories unbelievable, and yet my friends in academia assure me that they are the norm.

What happened?

Somewhere along the line we’ve dropped the ball in developing self-sufficiency in kids. 

Self-Sufficient: needing no outside help in satisfying one’s basic needs, emotionally and intellectually independent

As a caveat, let me say at the beginning that I’m in no way suggesting that we should raise kids outside of community or society. I’m in no way downplaying the importance of building interdependence into our children or fostering a team work attitude. I’m not saying we should raise them not to need anything, or anyone, outside of themselves. That would be silly, and not such a good gift, in the end.

Much fun is made of the current trend of twenty and thirty-somethings ending up back on their parent’s couch, eating Mama’s cooking, playing video games and going out with friends instead of struggling in a roach ridden one room apartment with a bare bulb to light their nights spent burning the work candle at both ends. I don’t think it’s funny. Are there reasons to move home as an adult? Of course. Life sucks sometimes and we all need to be humble enough to start over. Those aren’t the people we laugh about though. Are they? What’s lacking in these young people? Self-sufficiency.

Somewhere along the way too many people don’t get handed the gift of knowing how to struggle, suffer, do without, and figure it out that our parents and our grandparents got; at least most of them. 

What is Self-Sufficiency?

Self-sufficiency can’t be quantified in a check list that we can work our way through as we parent. Unfortunately. That would be nice and easy.

Self-sufficiency isn’t something we can explain to our kids and repeat fifty times until they “get it.”

Self-sufficiency is the deep rooted belief that you can take care of yourself and those around you.

It is knowing that you can feed, clothe, house, emotionally care for and educate yourself, overcoming any obstacle that life throws your way. Why to you believe this? How do you know you can? Because you have in the past. Because you’ve watched others do it and you’ve learned from their examples. Because you’ve struggled before with something bigger than yourself and you’re not afraid to struggle again.

Self-sufficiency is a strong belief in yourself based on the skill set that you have developed.

What does Self-Sufficiency look like?

  • A toddler tying her own shoes
  • A five year old working to make his own lunch
  • A seven year old cleaning a bathroom
  • A nine year old walking into town to buy groceries for Mom
  • An eleven year old getting up and doing his school work & chores without being told
  • A thirteen year old who rakes the neighbour lady’s leaves along with his own without being asked
  • A fifteen year old who works a job, holds down a third of the home responsibilities and completes her school work with minimal adult reinforcement.
  • A seventeen year old who, having graduated early, learns Spanish and stomps back into the Honduran bush, alone, on a humanitarian mission. (We know this kid!)

Self-sufficiency isn’t any one thing. It’s a series of accomplishments, confidences gained and courage to fail if necessary in the effort of completing a task.

How Do We Develop Self-Sufficiency?

Perhaps you’re quite Self-Sufficient but you’re noticing that your kids are less so and that worries you.

Perhaps you realize that you’re not at all self-sufficient and you’re angry that your parents never gave you the one big gift that would free you as a person.

Perhaps you’re doing your best to raise kids that are self-sufficient but you’re worried about what that looks like to the rest of the world and you need some encouragement along the way.

Be encouraged. You can learn to be self-sufficient, and so can your kids.

I don’t know why so many people are not self-sufficient, either as children or as adults. I have some theories, centering on parents doing too much for their kids, the government legislating against young people who would otherwise be doing great things, and the general innate human laziness being exacerbated by “labour saving devices.” But I’ll save my theories on what’s wrong with the world in favour of making some suggestions and telling some stories.

How do we foster Self-Sufficiency in ourselves and our children… keep reading



There’s no other way to say it. If you’ve never struggled, it’s absolutely impossible for you to be self-sufficient in something. Sometimes we have to be reduced to tears of frustration, hit the wall of our own finite ability, scream at the sky because we simply do not have the tools we need and then return to the task, reassess what we do have, and find a solution.

Do your kids struggle?

If you’re carefully constructing a childhood for them in which everything is perfect, in which they are eternally “happy” then you’re not giving them the most important gift. Apparently there is a name for this approach: Snowplow Parenting.

Does that sound harsh?

Life is  harsh. Life is struggle. Those who succeed know that, aren’t afraid of the pain, and get it done. Happiness, my friends, is a shell on a tidal flat. Sometimes it’s there to enjoy on the surface, sometimes it’s buried deep in the mud, sometimes it’s just plain gone. You know what makes me most happy? The struggles that were overcome.

Don’t raise your kids to be “happy” raise your kids to find happiness in the struggle.

People who are self-sufficient tend to be very content, happy people.

Let them struggle.

Require Them To Struggle

I know there are parenting models that suggest that kids shouldn’t be “required” to do anything, that they should be allowed to grow according to their natural bents and that they can be trusted to learn everything they need to know as they grow. I respectfully disagree.

My friend has virtuoso violinists for children. Four in a row. These kids love their instruments and their musical ability is central to their lives. There were points at which each of them wanted to quit. Hated practicing. Wanted to play baseball instead. She required them to stick with it, to struggle, and they overcame. Her kids are so grateful for the push she wasn’t afraid to give, no matter how it looked to the neighbours. Am I saying all kids should be forced to stick with something they hate? Nope. Just that as parents we need to know our kids well enough to recognize when a struggle should be pushed on a little bit, and when it’s genuinely time to move on. And that it’s okay to push sometimes, to raise the bar and expect a little bit more than a child thinks they are capable of. These tiny stretches are the stair steps to self-sufficiency. 

One summer,  Dad built my kids a boat… 

He positioned it several hundred yards from the house and provided three logs to move it, Egyptian style, down to the lake. Then he worked with them all afternoon to launch their ship. My 4 and 6 year old seriously struggled to move a boat many times their size from the house to the dock. But by the time they got it there, it was THEIR boat and they told everyone about launching it. The important thing to note in this story is that struggle was non-optional (the boat was not going to get herself into the water) and that the struggle was not alone. They had support, encouragement, and help from a capable adult as they pushed forward.

Let them struggle. Make them struggle.

Don’t Bail Them Out

It’s so hard as a parent to watch a kid struggling, I mean really struggling with something that is in our power to fix and to resist the urge to solve it for them. Solving it would be so easy. They would be so happy. And they’d be reliant on someone else instead of self-sufficient.

One afternoon my kids rowed that boat my Dad built them about a mile from the house before torrential rain started to fall. It rained for a good half an hour, hard. My mom and I, snug in the house, poured tea and set out a bar of soap as a joke when they got back. An hour later they emerged, 7 & 9 year olds soaked to the bone to tell their story:

“Mom, we rowed WAY out in the bay and then it started raining and it rained HARD and we were wet and cold!! We cried. We screamed for you to come get us. But no one came, so we sucked it up and we rowed home.”

“I know, Grammy laid out soap for you to take next time! Would you like some dry clothes?”

“Nope. Can I ride my bike now?”

And off they flew down the driveway towards the dirt road, water flying off of the ends of my daughter’s braids.

Let them spend a whole frustrated afternoon in tears sounding the bottom of the bay with a boathook in search of the fishing pole they stupidly dropped overboard.

Let them gut their own fish with a sharp knife. Buy bandaids.

Let them make a huge mess in your kitchen cooking for guests and then insist that they clean it up, all three times it takes to get the job done right.

Let them struggle. Make them struggle. Don’t bail them out.

Work Together

My parents were great at this. Not because they were reading every parenting book and diligently applying the principles, but because there was real work to be done and every hand was needed to get it done. Gardening, house building, hunting, fishing, canning, sewing, cleaning, cooking, and traveling, we all worked and we worked together.

I watched my Dad bang his toe with the hammer instead of the nail he was setting countless times. He’d curse, sometimes throw the hammer, then try again, set the nail and move on. He sets nails between his toes because he only has the use of one hand, and it’s holding the hammer.

I watched my Mom, frustrated, on Thanksgiving Day when the oven died completely. She took that turkey in the pan two miles down to the neighbour’s and baked it in her oven instead.

I watched my brother pound nail after nail into a chalk line on the subfloor with a ball pean hammer. He was four.

One summer afternoon when I was 13 we built an entire section of wall for the back side of the second story of our house. The neighbours came to help us stand it up. We got it standing only to have my Mom step back and say, “You know… something’s not quite right…” And it wasn’t. All of the window openings were at knee height. We’d forgotten to account for the height of subfloor. The men heaved hard, pushed the whole thing over the side of the house and we started again, building a new wall, with the right measurements.


Let them struggle. Make them struggle. Don’t bail them out. Work together.

What to do about the neighbors.

I will tell you now that, if we had raised our kids entirely in the USA, we would have run afoul of the neighbours, and probably the police, and maybe child protective services. Repeatedly. It likely I would have joined Danielle Metiv on national TV in a fight to the death for the right to raise my kids in a self-sufficient, free-range manner. Why? Because self-sufficiency is a core value and a deeply held parenting commitment in our family, and I won’t be bullied out of raising children who are as capable as they can possibly be, and I won’t be legislated into ham-stringing my children for life. 

So, I’ve given a lot of thought to what to do in order to prepare our children to be stopped in the street and interrogated in the midst of their otherwise pleasant day of adventure. We’ve gotten our share of “negative feedback,” from family and strangers, when we’ve allowed our 13 year olds to fly off and participate in internships for months when they were the only kids who’d applied. Or our 15 year olds to plan, fund, and execute month long humanitarian efforts at the opposite end of the continent, totally alone. Or our 14 year olds to backpack around Central America with friends and no “adult supervision.”

On the flip side, virtually everyone who meets our young people for the first time will approach me at some point and express wonder at their self-sufficiency and ask, “how we did it.”

Dealing with the negative feedback can feel challenging. It can feel like an affront to our careful efforts in cultivating our children towards independence. When it comes from people who are close to us, it hurts. When it comes from “authorities” it’s scary. Think ahead and be ready to face it.



Get More Professional Development for Parents

We’ve got a whole series on coaching for parents towards helping our kids develop self-sufficiency and autonomy and months worth of resources to help you foster self-direction with your kids. 

It’s like professional development for parents!

Strategies for dealing with critics:


1. Develop Thoughtful Responses

In a world of snowplow and helicopter parents, you’re going to take some heat for sending your six year old to the corner store to buy milk with something other than exact change. Acknowledge this, expect it, and instead of getting offended, work to educate people.

Plan, write out if necessary, your philosophy on WHY you are “letting your kids” do these things that frighten the knickers off of other parents. Work to articulate it well. Practice the speech until you can unroll it seamlessly and with a smile when your neighbor says, “Don’t you think she’s too young to do that?” Remember that most people are motivated by two things: genuine love and concern, which should be appreciated. And fear, which is usually not rational and can be combatted with new information.


2. Equip Your Kids

Danielle Metiv printed little cards, that her kids carried in their backpacks, explaining that the children were not “unsupervised” but rather working to develop independence through gradually increasing freedom that was tied to responsibility. The card let adults who might ask know that this was a parenting decision for the long term benefit of the child, and not irresponsibility. It included the phone numbers of both parents, in case the adult wanted to check. It then asked the adult to kindly allow the child to continue on their way.

I think this is a good idea. I suggested to my friend that she take it one step further and include a copy of their family’s thoughtful response so that the concerned adult could dig a little deeper and think it through. 

Pop these things in a ziplock bag and into the zipper pocket of your kid’s backpack for when he police come to check on them down by the river.


3. Do Your Research

Spend a little time researching the actual statistics on stranger danger (spoiler alert: it’s a myth) and child safety. What you will find will hearten you greatly in trusting your kids to the world. The reality is that the USA is safer now, for women and children, than it has ever been in my lifetime. And the people who are a danger to your kids are not found in the park or on adventures, they’re the people they know. I’ve been known to, with a smile, point out to a critic that, statistically speaking, my child is far less safe at their house for the afternoon than they are flying across the country alone. 

Armed with the information and sound reasoning, make a commitment to data-based decision making and don’t be afraid to educate people who operate from a fear or anecdotally based matrix for decision making.


4. Build a File

Once you’ve done the research and have armed yourself with a few good articles on the topic, create a file that includes:

  • Your state laws around child freedoms
    Articles that support your position
  • Your personal philosophy as parents, in written form
  • A list of success stories (like the Metiv Family)

Print those things out, put them in a folder and keep a copy handy. When the police come to the door to ask about your kids at the park, because Nosy-Nelly called them in for using the slide without a parent present, you can smile and hand the file to the officers with an encouragement to do as much research and think as carefully through the issue as you have. This move will definitely set you apart as an intentional parent, not someone too lazy to walk to the park. You should probably print a set for half of your family members as well.

One last story…

Last night I was walking home through the unlit footpaths of our village in Guatemala, laughing with my friend Gayle about her son, who is now 12. He got up at 5 yesterday morning, hiked down the valley to meet our friend Edwin, to go fishing. After fishing, Edwin took him home and fed him pancakes. After pancakes Edwin texted me to let me know they were taking the boat to another village to go to the market and Jayden was going along. After the market, he texted me a picture of them all having coffee somewhere else. I encountered our boy in the street, walking home, around four in the afternoon. He speaks no Spanish. Edwin’s family speaks Ka’chiquel and Spanish, not English. And yet, Jayden was up before the sun, down the path, and all over the lake “without parental supervision.”

Gayle and I were laughing because when Jayden was six and he first visited this lake with us, he showed up, completely unannounced, at my house mid-morning.

“Where’s your mom?” I asked him.

“At the hotel.” 

“How did you get here? Did you walk? It’s kind of a long way.” (Also I was pretty sure he didn’t know the way.)

“Nope. I took a tuk-tuk. I asked Mom for 3Q and told her I was coming to visit you.”

“You took a tuk-tuk? By yourself?”

“Yep. I just told them AUNT JENN, and I pointed. And they brought me.” (To be fair, our large family was a bit of a landmark in the town.)

I laughed, texted his mom that he’d arrived, and made him some snack. 

Since that was his groove at six, it surprised and worried no one that he’d arranged a dawn fishing date with Edwin and turned it into an all day solo field trip. 


Try This…

Take a serious look at your kids and assess their self-sufficiency. Are you happy with what you see?

Step back and take a long haul view of where you are going with your kids. Who do you want them to be as young adults? What do you want them to be capable of? How will you get there?

Spend some time reading and researching. Consider the problems that are being reported with young adults lacking self-sufficiency and consider what proactive measures can be taken to help your young people avoid those pitfalls.

Create an opportunity for struggle and growth for your child today. It might be as simple as requiring them to pack their own bag for an outing and live with the consequences of their choices without bailing them out. Or it might be going back to your teen and saying, “You know, I’ve thought it over, and you CAN take that weekend trip with your friends… BUT you have to plan it, get the plans cleared with me, and then pay for it yourself.