One of the most important yet difficult roles that parents have is preparing their children to be independent. Parents want their children to be confident, capable and well-prepared for life, but they also always see their children as the small, helpless babies they once cuddled and cared for.
The journey to independence is especially difficult when it comes time for parents to know what activities are appropriate for what ages. They may remember what age they were when, say, they were allowed to babysit or ride their bikes with friends, but they understand that times have changed considerably from when they were children 20, 30, or even 40 years ago.
Today’s parents worry that they will not be cool enough — that they will make the wrong decision and not let their children do what all the other kids are doing. Parents, on some level, always want to be liked. Even more so, parents also worry that they will let their children have privileges they are not developmentally ready for yet. Seeing a scary movie can give a kid nightmares, but allowing a child to go to the park unattended can have much more severe and lasting consequences if something tragic should happen. This fear leaves parents not wanting to take any chances with their children’s safety.
So: how do you let your children become individuals without keeping them children in a bubble? They should be given the freedom and opportunity to learn how to be independent and self-sufficient, but knowing when they’re ready is always tricky. It’s up to parents to use their best judgment when determining which situations are and aren’t appropriate for their children.
The First Sleepover
After starting school, a child’s first sleepover with friends is often her next major step toward independence. The age at which a child can successfully handle a sleepover depends a great deal on her own temperament and personality. She should be thoroughly night-time potty-trained, that way she won’t run the risk of an embarrassing accident. She should also know the friend and the friend’s family pretty well, so she’s not camping out in an uncomfortable or confusing environment. Kids who need a special routine or bedtime procedure, or who are much happier at home and in control, might need to wait longer for a sleepover than children who are more independent, flexible and carefree. According to the Lucy Daniels Center, children are generally ready for a sleepover with friends after they turn 4, but again, it’s going to be as much a matter of observation as anything else.
Staying Home Alone
As if leaving their child in someone else’s care weren’t scary enough for parents, before long parents begin to wonder when it is OK to leave their children home alone, totally unattended. Children, eager for independence, may ask specifically to be left at home; parents, eager for a break, may want to make life easier and run errands without the children in tow. According to Prevent Child Abuse New Jersey, the time to start thinking about leaving children home alone is when they’re around age 10 or 11, though the exact age of readiness will depend on the child. It’s also important to note that some states have laws on the books that set a minimum age requirement for being left home alone.
If you want to leave your child home alone, he should have good decision-making skills and know what to do in an emergency situation. He should be responsible and trustworthy, and capable of handling himself in a crisis. (For instance, he doesn’t fall to pieces when confronted with a spilled drink.) Parents should begin the vetting process by talking to their children about how to stay safe at home by themselves, including not answering the door for strangers or using the oven or stove until they are old enough to do so. Parents should also make small test runs, such as quick trips to the corner store or to the library, leaving the kids home alone. If both the child and adult feel comfortable with the situation, you can gradually stay out longer.
Riding Bikes to School Alone
Bikes mean freedom for kids, and that means they’ll want to ride farther on their own as they age. Injuries are a known risk, but most parents focus on the bigger dangers: traffic safety and child predators. If you live near major intersections or highways, you might want to be more strict about where and how often you let your kid ride, even if it’s on the way to school, than if you lived in a quieter or more residential area. You can also check with the sex offender registry to determine if there are neighborhood elements you might not want your kids to bike through alone.
Once parents decide their children are old enough to get to school safely, there are a few precautions they can take to help ensure their kids stay safe. Children should be required to wear a helmet at all times and to ride on sidewalks instead of on busy streets. You might also consider giving your kids prepaid cell phones so they can call or text to check in once they’ve reached their destination. Children are generally ready for the privilege of riding their bikes to school alone around 9 to 11 years old.
After children are adept at caring for themselves, they may want to try caring for others by babysitting. Babysitting is a great way for teens and pre-teens to earn some extra spending cash once they are up for the challenge. The skills needed for babysitting build on the skills needed for staying home alone. Babysitting teens should have good decision-making skills, be responsible and know what to do in an emergency. They should not only know how to care for themselves, but also how to care for someone younger, including preparing food or keeping choking hazards away from small children. They should be level-headed and authoritative enough to deal with crying babies, whiny toddlers and sneaky children.
There are many steps parents can take to help prepare their teens for the responsibilities of babysitting. You can teach teens what to do in emergency situations and how to handle all sorts of routine daily tasks, such as cooking, cleaning and changing diapers. Teens and pre-teens that want to babysit can also benefit greatly from a babysitting class, such as those offered by the American Red Cross. These classes will teach teens basic safety skills such as the Heimlich maneuver and CPR. Pre-teens around the age of 11 or 12 are generally ready for simple babysitting jobs, while older teens can handle longer jobs or jobs with multiple children.
Watching R-Rated Movies
Watching questionable movies is one milestone that all young children eventually want to conquer. Parents are waiting for this, too; no mom or dad wants to be stuck watching children’s movies forever. Opinions on the right age for children to watch R-rated movies vary greatly, though, and it’s tough knowing when your child can see something for adults. Complicating matters, not all ratings are created the same. Some movies are rated PG-13 for intense violence, while others are rated R for fleeting language.
Some sources, such as the Children’s Physicians Network, recommend expressly forbidding all R-rated movies until children are at least 13, as young children are simply not ready to mentally process adult themes and graphic violence. Other sources, such as A.O. Scott at The New York Times, argue that questionable movies open up children’s minds to difficult, real-life situations that require higher-order thinking skills to process.
It is probably best not to expressly forbid movies only based on what rating they receive. Because quite a few factors go into movie ratings, it is entirely possible for two movies with the same rating to be vastly different in terms of appropriateness. If you’re wondering about a movie in particular, you can check out movie sites for parents such as ScreenIt.com and ParentPreviews.com for helpful reviews. Then you can decide which movies are appropriate for children to watch by themselves, which movies you need to watch together and which movies you don’t want your children viewing at all. Common age ranges for R-rated movies are usually in the early teens, with strong parental input.
Helping children gain independence can be a rocky road. Parents often make mistakes and let their children do things they are not ready to do, or they don’t allow their children to do the things they should be doing. No parent is perfect. What matters most is that you do your best to teach your children to be independent while always keeping your children’s safety and best interests in mind.