How do I grant my child increasing freedom without being too permissive? Or, to put it another way, how do I keep her safe without being overprotective? I have a twelve-year-old who keeps telling me that she's old enough to go places by herself. For example, she wants to be able to ride her bike to the store, or to school (it's two miles away), or up the street to a friend's house. I'd like to accommodate her wishes as much as possible, but at the same time I'm keenly aware that the world is a far more dangerous place than it was when I was growing up. Any advice?
Let's begin with a broad general principle. When a child enters adolescence, he or she often begins to pull away from parents and other family members and to exhibit a growing desire for independence in a number of different areas. Psychologists call this process separation and individuation. It's part of what prepares kids to enter adulthood, and to the extent that they can do so without endangering a youngster or permitting him or her to slide into immoral behavior, parents should encourage it.
At twelve years of age your daughter is not yet a bona fide adolescent, but she is standing on the very cusp of that critical stage of personal growth and development. As a healthy and rapidly maturing pre-teen, she naturally wants to start exploring what it means to become her own person. Gaining a measure of freedom to go out into the world on her own is an important piece of that puzzle.
In light of this, we'd suggest that your desire to "accommodate her wishes as much as possible" is both healthy and wise. It indicates that you can see what's ahead and that you're ready and willing to initiate the long, complicated, and incremental procedure of "letting go" of your growing child. At the same time, you don't want to give her too much independence too soon, and this inclination towards caution is completely natural and fully justified. After all, it's true that contemporary society is marked by a number of unique and unprecedented perils.
How to strike an appropriate balance? We suggest you try the following approach.
Traffic on busy streets has always been hazardous for bicyclists. This is nothing new, and it doesn't have anything to do with the dangers inherent to an increasingly immoral society. If you have determined that your daughter's route to school or the store is physically unsafe for a twelve-year-old on a bike, then tell her so. Explain that you don't think she's ready to navigate the streets on her own. But be sure to add that you haven't made this decision because you're still "babying" her or because you don't trust her. This is crucial, because what she wants more than anything at this point in her life is to feel "grown up." Instead, make it clear that you're simply concerned about the number of cars on the road.
If, on the other hand, the streets she wants to travel on are cyclist-friendly – or if you can come up with alternate routes that don't involve so much physical risk – we'd encourage you to keep an open mind and show your daughter that you're willing to explore the options with her. If you have a bike, make a trial run with her. Get to know the route. Find out exactly how long it will take her to reach her destination. If she's visiting friends, make sure you know the family. You should also insist that she carry a mobile phone with her wherever she goes. That way, you can keep track of her whereabouts.
Once you've made these preparations and established these parameters, you may decide that you feel comfortable with the idea of allowing your daughter to travel by bike to and from certain carefully designated locations. But this doesn't necessarily mean that you have to give her carte blanche to go wherever she wants to go whenever she feels like going. That would be too much freedom for the average twelve-year-old to handle.
If you'd like to discuss this at greater length with a member of the Focus staff, contact our Counseling department for a free over-the-phone consultation.
How Do I Gradually Increase Freedom for My Child?: Joe White tells parents how to safely extend increasing freedom to their children.