Katherine* had one request for her 12th birthday: more freedom. “My daughter said, ‘Mom, I just want to walk around with my friends or hang out at Starbucks,'” says Judith Sykes* of Toronto, adding the request gave her pause, despite recalling thriving during her own unsupervised after-school time.
Responding to your tween’s desire for more freedom (and sometimes more downtime) can be an exercise in parental anxiety. Here are some ways to allay your fears while encouraging independence.
There Are Real Benefits to Down Time
Typically shuttled from supervised activity to activity, today’s kids are arguably less likely than ever to enjoy unscripted downtime. Even getting to school is a family endeavour: According to a 2013 report from Active Healthy Kids Canada, while 58 per cent of us walked to school, just 28 per cent of our kids do.
“With this generation in particular, parents are micromanaging their kids’ lives, protecting them from every potential harm, real or perceived,” says Julie Freedman Smith, a parenting coach and co-owner of Calgary-based parenting consultancy Parenting Power. “I advise parents to ask, ‘What am I doing that my kids could be doing for themselves?'”
There’s much to be gained from loosening the reins a little. “Some of the main benefits of self-directed free time are learning how to initiate activities and increased opportunity to explore a variety of interests,” says Alice Jungclaus, a Canadian teacher and parenting coach currently based in Zurich, Switzerland. “Self-directed free time also fosters a preteen’s sense of independence and privacy. This is an essential part of childhood development.”
Age-appropriate freedom can take different forms, from playing pickup basketball at the park with friends and choosing activities at summer camp to decorating bedrooms and daydreaming or bug-watching in the backyard undisturbed—not everything has to be a teachable moment.
When kids don’t get age-appropriate self-determination, it can fuel frustration. “Over-directing and over-structuring the activities of nine- to 12-year-olds can result in increased resistance and conflict between parent and child,” says Jungclaus.
Offer Your Kids Bite-Sized Pieces of Freedom
So how can you tell if your child wants to be more independent? Ask him, keeping in mind that different kids need different amounts of freedom, free time and general independence. “You may have a bold nine-year-old or an anxious 12-year-old who’s just not ready,” says Freedman Smith, who adds that observation is key to finding out what degree of self-determination is right for your child. Likewise, your child may be a rule follower, or a rule forgetter, and that also needs to be taken into account.
Be sure to increase independence in increments. If your 10-year-old wants to walk to school sans mom or dad, encourage him to go with a buddy and watch from a block behind, noting if they follow road safety and other rules, recommends Freedman Smith. Or drive them halfway and let them walk from there, expanding the distance each week until they are walking to and from school independently.
But more freedom doesn’t mean you can’t offer parameters for that new-found liberty. While your tween may happily spend three hours on technology, that may not work for you. “Feel free to limit tech time to 30 minutes, and tell them they need to find something else to do with the rest—go outside for an hour or read, for example,” says Freedman Smith.
Aside from setting overarching boundaries, avoid trying to steer your child’s free-time activities. “A parent’s opinion on the value of play is subjective,” says Jungclaus, adding that imaginative play fosters creativity.
How to Develop Trust With Your Kids
In the end, Sykes let her daughter window shop and café hop with friends, provided she checked in and was home on time.
Four years later, both mom and daughter are equally happy. “Katherine likes her sense of freedom and responsibility, which we’ve expanded as she’s gotten older, but I’m still watching her—and so are her friends’ parents,” says Sykes, noting that she’s gotten to know those parents better since their girls started hanging out unsupervised. “I actually feel a much stronger sense of community and safety as a parent.”
*Names have been changed.
CF contributing editor Yuki Hayashi prioritizes her free time, making sure to leave plenty for daydreaming.