Child Caring

Preteen seeking more independence

Barbara and readers,

I'm hoping for some wisdom/insight into middle-schoolers. My sixth-grade son is very responsible and has a good set of friends (what do I mean by good? Solid students, hard-working families, caring attitudes.) My son is beginning to push the limits and wanting more independence. We are not sure how to respond. When is it appropriate for him to go to the movies without an adult? To the mall? To be at someone's house without an adult? Recently, he went from one friend's house where we dropped him off, to another friend's house without telling us. We were very angry.

Thanks to everyone!
From: FMB, Rochester

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Dear FMB,

Not only is there no "one-size-fits-all" for this but chronological age is not the best measuring stick. But. Generally, when a child starts pushing for more independence, he's ready for it, at least in his head, and that can be a good indicator that mom and dad may be overly-protective. Please note my italics. They are intentional!

I'm thinking of when my son asked for permission to ride his bike beyond the boundaries we had set. I said no, there were some pretty tricky cross streets. His answer: "I know, I've been practicing." What?

He was a cautious kid, so I was (a) privately surprised that he would defy our rules; (b) privately impressed that he showed that spark of independence; but (c) angry that he had gone behind my back. C was the emotion I expressed to him. Then I had him demonstrate to me how he crossed the streets. Then we agreed that we could expand his boundaries with some caveats: He would always tell me when he was heading beyond this particular street, and what his destination was -- mostly to meet his father's commuter train. That was sweet but also a busy time for traffic. Lastly, we would try this for a few days and then re-evaluate.

That "let's try it and see" is where I'm heading for you. When kids get to this point developmentally and they are ready for the next step, if we are overly-protective, arbitrary and/or unapproachable, there can be two unintended results. The first is that they go ahead and do what they want without telling us, potentially putting themselves in danger. The second is that they retreat and become fearful: "Mom/dad doesn't think I'm ready for this. They're my parents, they must be right." Over time, that can morph into a mind set that is hard to break out of.

I'd like to give credit to the parenting expert who first recommended the "let's try it and see" approach. Sorry, I don't remember who it was! But I used it myself and have been recommending it ever since. Here's why I think it works so well:

* It shows respect to your preteen or teen. That's a huge piece of what's important to them. They are feeling more grown up and looking to us to acknowledge that yes, you're not the little kid you used to be. It's a vote of confidence: I trust you. That's huge for the more timid kid.

* It scores you points. By showing you can be flexible within reason, it makes you approachable. The unspoken communication here is an "I" statement: I, the parent, need to feel more comfortable about this. This isn't about you, it's about me. Help me. Kids typically react well to this message.

* It puts responsibility on them. You are setting standards that they have to meet. You're saying, "Prove to me that you can do this." That practically guarantees that he or she will be extra responsible. It also gives them an out. When you have the re-evaluation (which you should set up in advance), you can say, "This did/didn't work for me because x, y, z. What about for you?" There were times when my son would say, although not in so many words, I'm not ready. (Usually it was more like, "yeah, this was no big deal. Let's forget it." ) The other good outcome: there's always another chance: "We can try again in x weeks/months."

In the example you've given, when your son went from one place to another, you would be able to say, "Our deal was that you would let us know if you changed locations. You didn't, so the deal is off for now."

How you negotiate the deal itself and the consequences are individual, but make sure they are clearly understood ahead of time by everyone. BTW, the solution re: mall and movies, may be weekend use of a cell phone.