True story: I’d gone out to dinner with a friend, her nine-year-old daughter and some of my own kids. Partway through the meal, the nine-year-old asked me where the washroom in the restaurant was. (Her mom was talking to one of my kids.) I pointed it out to her and off she went. When my friend noticed her daughter missing, she flipped out. She was furious with me for letting her daughter go to the washroom alone. Nine was too young for that, she insisted.
I wouldn’t have thought twice about it with my kids at that age. But it’s a potentially tricky area for any parent. How do you know how much independence is appropriate for a preteen? Is your child ready to go to the mall with friends, or stay at home alone, or ride a bus without you?
Calgary parent educator Judy Arnall, author of Discipline Without Distress, says “Some preteens are very proactive in pushing for more independence, and some are not interested at all. It depends on personality and temperament.”
What to look for
Because each child is different, Arnall says there are no firm guidelines by age to tell you when a child is ready for each new step. There are some things to watch for, though:
• Is your child asking to do this? “Often children are way ahead of parents in knowing when they are ready for new adventures,” Arnall says.
• Are the child’s peers doing it? If most of her friends are meeting up at the mall to hang out for an hour or two, sans parents, then the time has probably come to let her go too.
• Can your child problem-solve and deal with unexpected situations? How has he handled problems at home or at school? Arnall suggests asking him “what if” questions to see if he can come up with good strategies.
• Is your child comfortable asking for help if needed? If he accidentally got on the wrong bus, would he be too shy to talk to the driver and find out how to change to the right bus? Arnall suggests helping the child who finds it hard to talk to adults by practising with some simple tasks: ordering his own food in a fast-food restaurant or returning items to a store clerk while you are close by. “They will need to develop a comfort level in speaking to strange adults,” she explains.
Take cues from your child
What if you think your child is ready to be a bit more independent, but she doesn’t seem to be asking? “I always encourage parents to nudge, but not force,” says Arnall. “Telling children to be more independent before they are ready is ineffective. Giving them more confidence in their abilities by helping them accomplish little steps towards independence is much more successful in the long run.”
And if things go wrong, Arnall suggests treating it as a learning experience. She describes a time when her own 11-year-old son was home alone. He used the toilet and went back to his computer game — not noticing that the toilet had overflowed. “We discovered the flooded basement when we got home an hour later,” says Arnall. But rather than banning him from staying home alone, Arnall realized that she needed to teach her son some additional skills: how to deal with overflowing toilets and other minor household emergencies.
Although bids for independence sometimes result in mishaps like flooded basements, more often they are positive experiences that boost the preteen’s confidence. Arnall recalls another time when three of her children, ages eight, 10 and 11 wanted to take a bus to the mall. “I was quite uneasy,” says Arnall, “but the children really, really wanted to do it. I reminded myself that it was only one bus ride and sent them off with bus money, lunch money, and a cell phone to call me if they had a problem — and then I waited apprehensively by the phone all afternoon.” The reward came three hours later when her young adventurers returned “full of confidence and glowing with pride.”
Parent educator Judy Arnall gives preteens these rules for coping with unexpected situations:
1. Trust your “spidey-sense” about whom to ask for help if you are at a mall or other public place. Mothers with young children are often the best resource. Being independent doesn’t mean not asking for help.
2. If you are alone, assess the danger and seriousness of the situation. Trust your instincts about whether you should run away or call your parents or even call 911.
3. If it’s not an emergency, think about what steps you can take to improve or fix the situation. Your bike’s got a flat tire: can you walk it home from here? Is there a gas station nearby where you could pump it up enough to ride home? Catch a bus that will transport your bike too? Try to come up with several possible options and decide what will work best.