What do I do about my child’s desire for more independence?

The early elementary years are a time of growing independence. Children generally have an easy time being away from home during the school day, and they often want to play with friends or participate in organized activities in the afternoons. On weekends they may balk at joining a family outing, preferring to spend time pursuing their own interests or being with friends. Kids this age also want less parental supervision. They want to ride their bikes to the playground, walk to the community pool, and stay outside longer.

Parents greet this push for independence with ambivalence. They want their children to become capable, competent people who can take care of themselves. At the same time, the path to independence isn’t smooth and the process of letting go isn’t easy.

Primarily, parents worry about their child’s safety. As she strives for independence, they constantly have to consider her welfare. Some decisions are easy: a seven-year-old is too young to ride her bike on a busy street. Other decisions are more difficult. Is she ready to walk alone to her friend’s house? Can she go to a neighborhood playground without an adult? Kids of this age are confident enough to argue heatedly, “I want to go! Everybody else is allowed to!” They feel justified in pushing their points. They know what they want, and parents have the tough job of determining how much independence to give and when to give it.

Parents also have to deal with their own feelings of frustration and sadness. The frustration comes from gradually losing control. No matter how often a preschooler says, “I want to do it myself.” her parents are still firmly in charge. The six- to nine-year-old has a stronger will, a stronger sense of herself, and a growing need to make some decisions for herself. Parents also have a sense of sadness as she begins to separate from them. Certainly there’s pride as she matures and becomes more independent, but there’s also a feeling of loss. The child who had depended totally on her parents is now growing up.

As you deal with the issue of independence, you’ll make constant adjustments. Sometimes you’ll be surprised at how mature your child seems. One mother was amazed when her formerly reluctant seven-year-old went off confidently for a weekend at friends. Until recently, the girl wouldn’t spend a night, away from home without lots of kisses, hugs, and assurances from her mother.

Sometimes you’ll he surprised at how dependent your child suddenly seems; in development there are always steps backwards. Mixed with your child’s growing independence is a strong need for your guidance and positive feedback.

If you’re finding it hard to let your child do more for herself, consider the benefits of independence. If you allow her some of the freedom she wants, she’ll feel confident about her ability to take care of herself. Let her ride her bike in the neighborhood. Let her make choices—how to arrange her room, for instance—and she’ll feel good about decision-making. And if you let her help you with some challenging tasks, you’ll encourage her sense of competence. For example, let her help you trim the bushes or plant flowers. In the kitchen, let her slice the vegetables, mash the potatoes, or prepare dessert. These are more rewarding activities than such usual jobs as setting or clearing the table.

As she pushes for independence, you may he puzzled (or irritated) to find she doesn’t take on more personal responsibility. You still have to remind her about chores and simple tasks: “Do your homework.” “Straighten your room.” “Get ready for bed.” From her point of view, these are not top priorities. What’s important to her is running around outside, doing an arts and crafts project, reading a good book, or playing a game.

As you tackle the difficult job of deciding how much independence to give, talk to other parents and ask yourself questions about your child. How mature is she? Can she safely cross the street? Would she dart into the street after a ball? Do her friends follow common-sense rules? Would they encourage her to misbehave?

Consider your child’s age and the ages of her friends. Six- and seven-year-olds need a lot of supervision while eight- or nine-year-olds are capable of spending more time on their own. In general, early elementary-aged children need to be checked on. First, there are safety concerns. Seven-year-olds allowed to go off by themselves may be harassed by older children. A six-year-old skating alone may fall and have no one to help her.

Kids also need supervision for social reasons. They may become angry with each other and fight. They may also exclude one another from play and need some reminders about getting along.

After you’ve considered your child’s maturity and age, judge her requests for independence separately. If she wants to go to the playground, will she walk or ride her bike? Will she be with a friend or, an older sibling? How long will she be gone?

You know your child and her patterns of behavior. If your instinct says she shouldn’t go on her own, don’t give in to your child’s demands. You may feel over-protective at times, but it’s better to be cautious. Try to interest her in another activity, or put your own tasks aside and take her where she wanted to go. She can play happily at the park while you sit reading nearby, comfortable knowing she’s safe.

If you and your child argue a great deal about independence, take time when you’re both feeling calm to talk about the problem. Tell her, “It seems like we yell a lot about things I won’t let you do” and give her the reasons for your decisions. When she’s angry, she may not understand why you say no and may assume you’re trying to be meant. Calmly explain your concerns, and then listen to her. Let her know you’re paying attention: “It sounds like you think I’ve been unfair.” Communicating on the subject of independence will help you understand each other and get along better.

Picture credit: Google