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This was the question posed to parents when the psychologist, Lenore Skenazy, visited Australia several years ago.  Skenazy, the host of an American parenting show, sparked a controversy when she admitted to allowing her nine-year-old son to ride the New York subway on his own (1).  Perhaps that’s taking independence to the extreme, and I must confess that I would not be comfortable with allowing my children to catch a train alone at that age (or even before they are teens), but there is an important principle here that’s worth exploring.

Allowing children to develop real independence is one of the biggest challenges we face as parents. When do we allow a child to walk to a friend’s house on their own, babysit younger siblings, catch a train to the City, or go to the cinema without adult supervision? These are the sorts of questions that we sweat over.  If you are like me, it has been hard at times to “let go”.

Many parents admit to having had more freedom to roam when they were kids than they allow their own children.  Constant media attention highlighting street violence, sexual abuse, and a host of other dangers inform our views about the freedom we are prepared to allow our children.

Sadly, the research of the last two decades indicates that children are more likely to be harmed by someone they know than from a stranger in the street, on a train or in a park. The world today certainly seems to be more “dangerous” than it was when we were growing up, and whilst there may be more danger for today’s kids, we are also far more aware of it as well.

There’s a lot to be said for giving kids a little bit of rope. Giving children a little independence is an effective way of developing confidence. It builds a broader experience base than parents can normally provide; however, it will always involve an element of risk.  Whilst our basic job is to keep our children safe and secure, that doesn’t mean we should eliminate risk altogether by overprotecting them.  Rather, we can significantly reduce the risks associated with giving our children greater freedom by “skilling up” our children to navigate the world around them safely.

“Scaffolding” is when our children are granted “small degrees of independence”. It is a strategy we can use to reduce the risks when we want to grant our children a little more freedom.  Dropping young children off a few hundred metres from the school gate and allowing them to walk the rest of the way on their own is a small example of scaffolding to develop independence.

The Junior School years are an ideal time to build the skills of independence, so when children move into adolescence they are able to be more self-sufficient. Adolescents usually want greater freedom than parents are prepared to give, and this is often when the challenging times come. Whilst parenting an adolescent is always a challenge, it need not be a case of the “unstoppable force (the child) meeting the immovable object (the parent).

There are many ways that conflict can be avoided and valuable independence lessons learnt. Expecting young people to maintain contact with you whilst they are out, setting agreed and reasonable time limits for when to be home, and rewarding responsible behaviour with other opportunities for freedom are practical ways for parents to encourage independence and reduce the risks associated with adolescence.

It is important for to remember that “risk-taking” is a normal part of adolescent thinking and behaviour.  Neuroscientists tell us that it is a natural part of adolescent development and has a physiological basis.  Changes occur in the executive decision making area of the brain, where the number of neuronal connections to the rest of the brain decreases until around 19 – 20 years of age.

It’s interesting that many parents find it easier to grant freedom to their younger children than they did with their elder children. Perhaps we are a little more relaxed as experience has taught us that most kids learn how to navigate their expanding world quite well.  Regardless of where children come in the family, granting them more freedom is a leap of faith for many parents.  But it’s a leap we need to take if our children are to become confident and resilient young people.

Geoff Fouracre

(1)Reference: Parenting Ideas (Michael Grose)