#11 It’s a Great, Big World out There (Emphasis on Great) – Middle School Makeover: Improving the Way You and Your Child Experience the Middle School Years


It’s a Great, Big World out There (Emphasis on Great)

Evaluating How Much Independence to Give Your Middle Schooler

My son wants to ride his bike two miles to the shopping center alone. I’d feel better if he rode with a group of friends but my husband thinks that’s ridiculous. How much independence is too much at this age?

Just as you might expect, I need to start my response with the standard, “This answer will vary for every family based on your child’s maturity level, your neighborhood, and your unique circumstances.” You know your child and personal situation better than I. So, let’s consider that box checked and move on to what you really need to hear.

The adage that there is safety in numbers is generally true for lots of stages in our lives, but not necessarily in adolescence. Remember chapter 2, when I wrote about that study done by Laurence Steinberg at Temple University? The study showed that when faced with the same risk-provoking scenarios as adults, teens who were alone took no more risks than adults. But, teens who were with a friend took far more risks than they did when they were alone. The desire to be perceived as cool, competent, edgy, and brave by their peers is more important to teens than the fear of being hurt, grounded, or screamed at by a parent or police officer. The adolescent brain is programmed to seek out social acceptance by peers, not to follow social rules constructed by adults.

Before you hang your head in defeat, let me also remind you why this is. Your child must begin to find a future for herself in a world that will soon be run by her peers. If she doesn’t figure out early on ways to be impressive on her own, she sets herself up to live with you forever and ever. Hide your ice cream and TV remote. That kid’s going nowhere.

While it may be painful to recognize that taking risks is, by design, an important part of being an adolescent, it helps to remember that your end goal is to raise kids who know how and when to take the kind of good risks (going to college, getting a job) that get them off your couch.

At the root of your question about independence is probably a very normal fear of being responsible for something bad happening to your child. We live in an age when we are inundated with news stories of horrific crimes happening against children. I bet most parents have an unhealthy fear of their child being abducted. But how likely is it to happen? In America, the chance of your kid being abducted by a stranger is .00007 percent.

It seems much, much higher, doesn’t it? That’s because we hear about abductions and other child crimes all the time on the news, at a rate disproportionate to their likelihood of happening. Someone in, or close to, the family commits most child kidnappings. You let your kid hang out with family and friends, right? Without a doubt, it would be the worst thing in the world for your child to be taken by a stranger, but I guarantee that you expose your kids to more dangerous possibilities every single day of their lives. I know parents who keep their kids virtually under house arrest for fear of strangers, and I think that’s sad. To put your mind at ease, I recommend you read Lenore Skenazy’s book, Free-Range Kids.

Maybe you’re afraid of a more likely bad ending to a bike ride to the store: the possibility of your son riding into traffic and getting hit by a car. This is a reasonable thing to worry about and there are two things you can do to improve his safety record: (1) Before you allow him to bike places, make sure he has experience riding with you or another adult and shows good understanding of traffic rules. It’s one thing for him to tell you he knows the rules but it’s another for you to see him in action, especially when you see him do the right thing in a confusing situation. (2) Don’t send him with a friend he wants to impress.

Besides it just being fun, there are lots of reasons older kids need time away from their parents. A tween’s middle school years are all about developing an identity apart from his parents. This is hard to do when you have a set of watchful eyes on you all the time. It is hard to become your own person when you feel that your every decision is being evaluated and judged. Have you ever been micromanaged? It makes it difficult to be successful. Kids need time apart from their parents to figure out who they are independently of their parents, and to develop a strong sense of self.

The second reason is that independence builds competency. Kids naturally do better at things when they don’t feel parental pressure. Not surprisingly, they become better problem solvers when they actually get to practice solving problems. In his book Homesick and Happy, Michael Thompson, PhD, tells us that in asking thousands of adults to recall the “sweetest memory” from their childhood, 80 percent recalled a time when their parents were not present.1 Kids need and want to overcome challenges on their own so they can feel successful and capable of taking care of themselves. This is what we want, too, right? Just checking.

If you are struggling with letting your child become more independent, here are some things you can do:

  1. Learn the facts about child safety and realize that the world is generally a safe place for your child.
  2. Let your kid enjoy that world by giving her permission to go outside into it, sometimes alone.
  3. Teach your kid basic safety rules like how to negotiate traffic, how to respond if harassed, and how (and who) to ask for help.
  4. Begin teaching your kids to have a confident voice at an early age. “Confident” means strong, loud, and clear. This starts simply with things like ordering for themselves at restaurants or asking adults in stores where to find the restroom. Resist the urge to do it for them! This helps them to be confident and mature communicators. In the very (very) rare cases of strangers who abduct kids, they look for the easiest targets and those are kids who won’t talk back, or say no, or use a loud, confident voice.

I know that “independence” can be a scary concept but I encourage you to seek, create, embrace, and celebrate opportunities for your child to do brave things alone. These events create memories your kid can be proud of because they strengthen your child’s level of responsibility and confidence.