When is it time to let go?

Max, age 12, can make chocolate muffins from scratch, all on his own. He also does regular chores for his mom, like peeling the potatoes for supper, taking out the trash and hanging up the washing.

His friend, James, can find his way around the kitchen well enough, but isn’t asked to do regular chores.

Neither child has been left alone at home for any length of time. Neither rides a bicycle, or goes to the shop on his own to fetch the bread or milk.

I wonder, looking at these two boys on the brink of adolescence, what kind of children we’re raising.

When I was your age…

By age 12, I was walking to the shop for my parents and spending school holidays occupying myself while my parents worked. By age 13, I was catching a train to and from school unaccompanied. I was also doing the dishes regularly for my mom and helping with the cleaning over weekends.

In this day and age, parents are reluctant to allow their children the freedom we enjoyed in our youth. Although South African crime statistics released in 2011 showed a downward trend, parents are still understandably cautious. Children are driven to school, left at school after-care facilities until they can be taken home, and ferried to play dates over weekends.

Time to nudge them to the edge of the nest

Somehow, though, this caution has translated to an unwillingness to allow our children to do anything for themselves. We seem to have lost confidence in our children and their ability to fend for themselves. We don’t want them to leave our sight, so we organize their days accordingly. They’re provided with non-stop entertainment, told who they can play with and how to play and many are never asked to help around the house.

I worry that by not allowing them any independence, we’re prolonging their childhood. And the logical outcome of this seems to me a dangerous one. At what point do they learn basic skills, like learning to operate a hot plate, crossing a road, reading traffic signs, or how to conduct themselves in the big, wide world?

It took watching Max confidently create his signature chocolate muffins for me to realize that of course my son could do something similar. That in fact, by not teaching him these basic skills, I was stunting his development. Psychologist Madeline Levine argues that by helping our children so much, we end up holding them back. Our response, says Sally Koslow, author of Slouching Toward Adulthood: Observations from the Not-So-Empty-Nest, should be “to learn to un-mother and un-father.”

Freedom from fear leads to independence

Lenore Skenazy, author of the blog FreeRange Kids, argues that, while the world can be a dangerous place, we should read the statistics touted by the media critically and that “it’s crazy to limit our lives based on fear of a wildly remote danger.”  Skenazy’s blog chronicles the stories of people who allow their children to “ride their bike to the library, walk to school, and make dinner.” She says that “Free-Rangers believe in helmets, car seats, seat belts — safety! We just do NOT believe that every time school age kids go outside, they need a security detail.”

It’s a difficult balance to strike. Your approach might be to hover, helicopter-like, while your 12 year old learns to fry an egg. Or perhaps you’re beginning to allow your child some “free-range” autonomy. Whichever tactic you adopt, it’s up to us as parents to instil in our children the confidence to eventually manage on their own and not to expect it to come about magically when they reach adulthood.  

Do you allow your child the same freedom you had at his age?

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