Summer naturally grants parents opportunities to let their kids try new things. This year, Candace Derickx of Ottawa is sending her six-year-old daughter, Ava, to sleep-away camp for a full week. “Some of my friends think that I’m nuts, and they tell me how brave I am to do that, but I see this as a safe way to let Ava gain some independence,” she says.
Going away to camp was actually Ava’s idea. Her eight-year-old sister, Morgan, went last year, and the experience was life changing. “When we went to pick her up, she burst into tears because she’d missed us so much, but 10 minutes later she was asking to go back later in the summer,” says Derickx. “Morgan said she’d had the best time ever.”
Mom of four Kelli Catana, who also lives in Ottawa, is letting her seven-year-old, Marco, venture to the local playground with his friends this summer without adult supervision. It’s a short walk and they live in a safe neighbourhood where all the parents know all the kids. She knows that other parents think this is crazy, but argues that we need to take the kid gloves off. “These days parents are psychotic about supervising their kids. We worry so much about lazy kids, yet we won’t let them out to play.”
Manageable amounts of risks that are age appropriate are essential for our children’s psychosocial development, says Dr. Michael Ungar, professor of social work at Halifax’s Dalhousie University and author of Too Safe for Their Own Good: How Risk and Responsibility Help Teens Thrive (McClelland & Stewart). “The question that we seem to get caught up in is, ‘How do I keep my children safe?’ and the question we don’t spend enough time asking is, ‘How do I give my child the risk-takers advantage to develop the skills that they’ll need to be competent when they are older?’” he says. “There’s a balance between keeping our children safe and giving them what they need to grow up.”
Understandably, not every parent is going to let their kid walk to the park without an adult at age six. Halifax mom Amber Raja would never consider letting her nine-year-old daughter, Sehr, play at the park without supervision. “It takes just one incident to redefine how safe a neighbourhood is,” she says.
Ungar says that the freedoms you grant your six- to eight-year- old don’t have to include letting them roam the neighbourhood solo, but they do need to be things that still push your child just beyond their current limits. Good examples for this age group are being able to use an appliance at home with supervision, taking care of a pet, walking to school, having an allowance that is big enough to cover buying birthday presents for friends (e.g., to teach budgeting) or being allowed to have a sleepover at a friend’s house. “All these things help your child feel a little more powerful and capable, which are things they will need to be in order to manage risk, assess danger and keep safe as they get older,” he says.
How do you know that your kid is ready for new challenges? “If they’re asking to do things they have never done before, then they are ready to be pushed. They may not be ready for that specific challenge, and it can be soul-crushing when you say no, but you can direct them to more appropriate ones instead,” says Ungar. For example, if a child wants to decide her own bedtime, let her to choose a book and be responsible for turning out her own light when she is ready to sleep instead. “After a few listless mornings following poor decision making, she will get the idea that it is better to turn off the light a little earlier,” says Ungar.
Part of granting your kids new freedoms is making them take on the responsibility that comes with them. If you are letting your child have a play date without you at a neighbour’s place two doors down, Ungar says to tell them to come back in an hour and give them a watch so they know when their time is up. “If they’re not back in an hour, that says they aren’t responsible enough for that freedom,” he says.
The skills you help your kids grow now will help them turn into responsible teenagers. “It really does start this early. Parents complain when their teenagers don’t call, but if they were never given opportunities before they got to be teenagers to act responsibly for themselves, why would they? They have to be coached into that,” says Ungar.
Lola Augustine Brown’s four-year-old daughter is always looking for more challenges, such as asking to use power tools to build a fort.