Letting Go: How to Give Your Child More Independence

Sept. 22, 2011

With Halloween approaching, is it a safe idea to allow kids to go out on their own?

Jessica Mason, a Cary, N.C., mother of four, knows she's going to have to start letting go soon. Her oldest daughter, Savannah, is nine and wants to do more things on her own, like walk to the bus stop, send emails, stay home by herself, play games online and get her own cell phone. Mason -- who describes herself as "a little overprotective" -- is hesitant to give her too much freedom too quickly. "There are just so many terrible things that go through your mind," she says.

And who can blame her? With stories of abduction, cyber-stalking and cyber-bullying in the news, it sometimes feels safer -- and even more responsible -- to keep your children sheltered from the world. But holding them too tight might harm them as well, says Dr. John Duffy, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist and life coach with a private practice in Chicago and author of The Available Parent: Radical Optimism for Raising Teens and Tweens. "Independence is the one of the primary goals of childhood," says Duffy. "A sense of independence creates a sense of competence and resilience. Otherwise our children will be reliant on others in some ways for the rest of their lives."

How do you know when your child is ready for new privileges?
"I'm a big believer in following your child's lead," says Robi Ludwig, Psy.D., Parenting Expert at Care.com. "A child can get resentful and rebellious if you don't respect that he has some need for space," she says. If your child shows responsibility in other areas -- doing homework and chores when he's supposed to, for example -- he may be ready for more, says Duffy. "If you're not hearing from the school that there are behavioral issues, if there are no red flags to tell you otherwise, then I think it's OK," he says.

If you find it hard to say yes when your child wants to do something new, ask yourself whom you're serving by saying no or hovering over their every move. Is texting really too much for your child to handle, or are you just quieting your own anxiety for his safety? "It's a tough question for parents to ask themselves, and if you can answer it honestly and accurately, then you can make really good decisions," says Duffy.

Strategies for Letting Go
Granting independence doesn't have to mean that anything goes -- think of it as expanding your child's boundaries safely. Here are some tips:

Do your research. If your child is asking for more privileges, find out if these requests are on target with her age-range by reading parenting books, researching on the internet, talking to school officials and comparing notes with other parents. "If you find out that that kids around your child's age group do tend to be a little more independent, it can help," says Ludwig. "It's important for a child to be somewhat in sync with what his age group is doing."

Educate yourself. As you give your kids more freedom, you still need to be able to monitor what they're doing, especially with technology. If they want to play online games or start a Facebook page, you need to become an expert in those things yourself so you can guide them through how you'd like them to use it. "The more you know and the more you're involved in it, the less likely you are to be anxious about it, and you'll be willing to let the line out a bit," says Duffy.
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Ease into it. Doling out privileges in small doses will help allow you to test how well you child can deal with his newfound independence. If your daughter wants to bike by herself, start by giving her a one-block radius. "You can broaden your circle as time goes on," says Duffy. Your son wants to text? Give him a daily limit and see if he can stick to it. Then reward him with more for following the rules.

Rehearse. This is especially important for kids who are reluctant to take on new challenges. If they're going to walk to school alone, walk with them a few times to make sure they know the route and can cross the street safely, says Duffy. Talk through what they should do if they get lost or a stranger approaches them. Help build their confidence by arranging for them to walk with friends and letting them know that you believe they're capable of doing it.

Enforce limits. It's important have ways to check in on your child's new activities, whether it's having access to his Facebook account or asking him to text you at certain points in the day. If he violates a rule, make sure there is a consequence, says Duffy. "Part of how your show your kids that you value them and their safety -- and teach them to value their own safety -- is by imposing limits," he says. "If kids have no structure underneath them, there's this anxiety that often results in behavioral problems."
>> Read important safety tips for families

Look for warning signs. If you do notice a dramatic change in behavior -- she's sullen, quiet, less communicative or hanging out with different kids -- it could be a sign that you need to rein things in. But don't let these mood changes go un-discussed.
>> Get tips for talking to your child

Be available. Duffy advises parents to explicitly tell their kids that they will always be available for them to consult with. "This gives parents a lot of comfort," he says. "Kids often take parents up on that."

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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