Independence Day: Granting Freedom to Kids
Letting go is something all parents try to prepare for—letting go when your child goes off to college, gets married, or joins the Army. About the only way you can prepare for those big "Letting Go" events is to practice on the small ones.
And those small ones, unfortunately, are often the hardest. Parenting books can offer advice, but you know your own children and you're the one who has to make the judgment call on questions like:
When is your little girl old enough to ride her bike in the street?
When is your son at the right age to stay overnight at a friend's house?
Or (and here's a toughie) when is it OK to send the kids off to a rock concert?
What do the experts say? They say, "Good question!"
By struggling to know the answers to these questions, parents begin to learn the fine art of judgment, the main subject in the school of Letting Go.
"The real job of parents is to make judgments about when to let go," says Mark Widome, M.D., a pediatrician in State College, Pa. A parenting book can give you a guideline about how old your children should be before they can cross the street by themselves. But your decision will be based on your own situation: how busy the street is, how independent your child is, and how well he or she follows safety rules.
"Some kids need plenty of time to warm up and become independent, while others would leave home if you let them," Dr. Widome says. "One thing you don't want to do is push a child if he or she is not ready for freedom."
What to do?
How can you provide children with a sense of independence while simultaneously staying close enough to ensure their safety?
The answer: In stages. "For instance, watch them cross the street while you're standing 10 feet away, then 20 feet away, and so on," Dr. Widome says. It's comforting to your children to know you are supervising them from a distance.
"Kids want independence, but they also want to be protected," he says.
As your children get older, some of the same parental wisdom you used when they were toddlers will still apply when they're teenagers. For example, when teenagers receive their driver's license, they need limits, such as driving only during the day.
"Driving a car is sort of like crossing the street—children have to gradually demonstrate that they are responsible before they receive full privileges," says Dr. Widome.
Talk to your pediatrician if you're unsure. He or she can offer guidance. But overall, trust your judgment, he says. "People tend to doubt their own common sense, but most of the time, their instincts are good."