One of the things that is difficult for me as a parent is knowing when to give my children independence and how much of it they need. We’re long past the phase of holding hands when we cross the street, yet I often find myself putting a hand near one of my children, sort of like I’m using the Force to guide them across safely.

As we get closer to the teenage years*, I find myself thinking more and more about the girls’ independence and assessing where they are and where they should be. If I didn’t stop to consciously ponder these things, I’d probably still be doing far too much for them instead of having them learn for themselves. Forget about being a helicopter parent; my natural inclination is to be a tank parent and I have to fight it regularly.

What is it about my generation of parents that causes us to hover so much? Is it because we grew up on a steady diet of ABC Afterschool Specials about drugs, bullies, kidnappers, and pedophiles?

But, as I said, I can’t protect my girls forever, so I am trying to teach them what they need to know and then allow them to go out on their own. I’ve been leaving the girls home alone for limited periods of time — Graceful for a few years and Elegant within the past year. We’ve established the rules and things have gone well.

The biggest thing we did this summer is allow Graceful to start working as a mother’s helper. She took the Red Cross babysitting class last year and has been desperate to start her career as a babysitter. Mother’s helpering was a good first step for her, because she watched a baby while his mother worked in another room. The friend of mine who hired Graceful this summer had her come over once or twice a week. For the first two weeks, I walked or biked with her to and from her job — it’s .8 mile straight down the road from us. Starting with the third week, I walked to the end of our street and watched her bike off alone, with Pete’s cell phone tucked in her pocket. She called me as soon as she got to her destination, then later on when she was leaving, she called to let me know she was on her way home.

That first day, as I watched my baby bike off, I had a lump in my throat. This is just one of many times she’ll go off without me, but that time was significant. I had never allowed her to bike anywhere by herself, other than on our street within sight of our house, yet there I was watching her bike down a road alone. She knows the rules of the road and she’s a cautious biker who pays attention, so I knew she’d be okay. I also knew that she needed this new step toward eventual total independence.

Since then I’ve been thinking a lot about independence and how I should be encouraging it without totally pushing my chicks out of the nest. (Time enough for that later.) For example, the school bus stop is two-tenths of a mile from our house. Graceful walks to and from on her own, but Elegant — who rides a different bus that comes and goes on a different schedule — does not. She’s younger and is also often the only student getting on the bus there, so I’m just not comfortable with her going on her own, especially since it’s a high-traffic area where drivers don’t watch out for kids who might be crossing the street. But maybe I’m being too cautious?

What about the rest of you? How old were you when you started being more independence? If you have children, what have you done so far to encourage it?

~ ~ ~

* Happy 13th birthday to this beautiful baby:

23 thoughts on “Independence

  1. Oh, Jen, I just about cried reading this! Kate is only 15 months, but I can already see her transforming into a “big girl.” I know I will have to work hard to not be a helicopter mom when the time comes to let her ride her bike to a friend’s house or walk to school or stay home alone. I know how important it is to let kids be independent, but I can’t help but feel worry in the pit of my stomach when I think about letting her out of my sight. Good thing she is still a toddler, and I have lots of time left before I need to let her go off and do things on her own ;)

  2. Oh, Jen, where to start. Small steps are the best way to go and it sounds like that’s what you’re doing. The Kid is 15 and I still have to resist the urge to and say ‘no’ when he asks to walk up to the school (2 minutes away) to hang out with his friends.

  3. My primary job as a mother is to prepare my children to get along without me. So that’s what I aim for every day, in ways large and small. Every child is different, and nobody can know as well as their own parents what is appropriate for them.

  4. When will this lump in my throat go away? We live in an area where, unfortunately, my girls will not have the luxury of an early independence. I don’t consider my self a helicopter parent, but the thought of them facing this busy town themselves is more than I can handle. I still have 3 years before a teenager invades my house, maybe my attitude will change.

    I remember being 8 years old and left home alone with my 3 little sisters. An older neighbor girl would come over at meal times to help (she always made scrambled eggs that were runny, eck).

    Jen, this post has left me feeling all emotional and off-kilter, well done.

  5. I started babysitting (not infants, though) when I was 11 for neighbors down the street. No infants until I was 13, I think, and even then, my mom was four doors away, which I’m sure was part of my appeal to my employer.

    I walked to school in 3rd grade and took my sister in kindergarten and brother in 2nd, but it was on a military base. I rode my bike two miles to school in 6th grade, along with my brother and sister. We took a shortcut through the cotton fields because we didn’t want to take the long way on the streets.

  6. Aw, this made me feel a little weepy. It IS hard to let them go, but I do love the image of being a tank mama. That said, I believe it’s easier to be allow more independence for boys, socially it’s encouraged to give them more free rein and let them take the lead. I like to think of myself as the back-up mama–I’m there to back them up when they need it, but I try to let them call me in.

  7. My younger son did things on his own at an earlier age than the older one, but that’s a personality difference, not because I was more relaxed with the younger one. I handled things a lot like you — establlished rules, trial runs and cell phones.

  8. I walked to school myself, a distance of a quarter mile, (actually was responsible for supervising my kindergartener brother) starting at age six. By age 8, if you drew a circle, with my house at the center, my range–where I was allowed to be on my own– extended about half a mile from that point in all directions. When I was 13, my cousin and I rode our bicycles to Niagara Falls (a distance of nearly 30 miles in each direction) without asking permission or telling anybody where we were going. Nobody had ever TOLD us we couldn’t ride that far by ourselves. You can imagine the scene when we got home. And yet we were fine. It was an awesome day.

    I let my oldest walk by himself to the corner deli when he was eight. I let him walk downtown alone when he was 11 or 12. When my youngest was 9, a neighbor criticized me because I did not meet him at the bus stop every day. The bus stop was located five houses down the street from our own. I was also subject to neighborhood criticism for allowing my kids to play unsupervised in the park that is directly across the street from our house.
    My youngest is 12 and his “range” is as far as he can get on his two legs or a skateboard. I was a little surprised, the day he called me from the skate park, where he had gone by himself, but then I had never specifically forbidden him to go there. (And yet I still reach for his hand if we are crossing a busy street together.)

  9. I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s as a sort of “free-range” child. We had to be home for dinner and by 9pm after dinner but other than that, after we turned 13, Mom hardly ever knew where we were when we left the house. This was the days before cell phones so we couldn’t check in. She knew who we were with, but beyond that we roamed all over town from morning to dinnertime.

    I can’t say I raised my kids the same way. The 90’s and early 2000’s was a different time and society. One thing all the kids in the neighborhood knew was that if they ever felt unsafe out in the development, they could find a safe house to knock on the door and say “hey, Mrs ___, I don’t want to walk home alone.” We all looked out for each other’s kids.

    Please wish G a happy birthday from me. Everone warned me that teenage girls are a nightmare, but I found it to be the opposite. You have laid the foundation for a good relationship with your girls and it will only get better. They will always know that you and Pete have their backs and home is a good place.

  10. I fight against instinct all the time. I whine when they want me to drive them somewhere and mention for the nine millionth time that I walked or rode my bike everywhere, knowing full well that I would never allow them to do the same thing. Emma is so responsible, but rarely goes anywhere. Evan is less responsible, but is the one who wants to go. He takes his cell phone and I wish for the best, every time.

  11. Happy birthday dear Graceful!

    And goodness., how times have changed. I remember being left at home with my brother frequently from the age of 12. But that’s because my mom was a single mother working 3 jobs. She didn’t really have a choice. At 13 I was babysitting up to 6 kids by myself overnight while my cousin, his wife, and their friends raced stock cars. (Kids aged from 6 months to 8 years old. Yes it was a bit much.) They typically left around 4pm on Friday came home about 3 am. Amount I was paid for such an endeavor? $20 – $40 depending on how many kids that week. Good grief that does not seem worth it now. (Confession 20someyears later: my on-again-off-again boyfriend lived in the town. So yeah. I kind of had ulterior motives.)

    Also – it is thoughts along this line that make me glad to live in a very rural area where most everyone knows us and our kids. I think I am much less of a helicopter (or tank) parent because of that. Although I feel bad for my kids; they’ll be in the same tough spot I was: my mom worked in the school. I couldn’t get away with ANYTHING.

  12. Sam is 4 1/2, and he loves to bike to school. Obviously there’s no chance I’m going to let him go alone yet, I’m not quite ready to let my daughter, 8, go alone, though lots of kids in her class do. I walk behind him, and he waits for me at the corner and we cross together. Lately he’s been asking me to let him cross with the crossing guard on his own, and to walk on the other side of the street from him because, “I’m practising biking to school on my own!!!” It kills me that he’s trying to get rid of me already, but I love seeing him wait patiently, and chat with the crossing guard, and the look of pride on his face. I must be doing something right!

  13. I started kindergarten in 1968, and had a 15 minute walk to school, which included crossing at a busy intersection (with a crosswalk light). (I had an older sister, who mostly just tried to leave me behind.) I was a bit stressed about this for a week or so, but what I think is interesting is just how much less stressed my parents were than today’s parents are (me included). We lived in a residential neighborhood that blended into downtown with a 15-20 minute walk. By the time I was 9, my mom expected me to walk or bike downtown for lots of things on my own: to swim at the Y, to use the library, etc. When we played, we wandered where we wanted –there weren’t any areas that were “too far”, and we just had to be home when the streetlights came on. No one expected to be able to stay in contact like we can now with cell phones, and I feel like the adults I interacted with throughout the neighborhood were willing to step in as an authority figure if they saw a problem. And many of them were outside, sitting on porches or working in gardens. They weren’t inside on computers or watching TV. I don’t know if the world is more dangerous today, but I don’t think there are as many adults engaged in their neighborhood in that same way.

    My daughter is growing up in such a different area –we live out in the country, without any close neighbors or sidewalks. The things I did just aren’t an option for her. She does have free rein on our five acres, and she can spend hours outside playing on her own, but she can’t bike or walk anywhere specific because it’s all too far away. Now that she’s 10, when she has a day off school but Rob and I still have to teach, she has to be home on her own for a bit where our schedules overlap. She does not like it, and is not the kind of kid who is seeking independence. In fact, she would welcome a helicopter parent, and I have to fight it because even though she wants me to be everywhere with her, it isn’t good for her.

  14. I was another one of those free range kids, plus the oldest of 5. I was responsible for herding siblings on the very long walk to school and walked on my own when I we didn’t go to the same school.

    My son started riding his bike all over town when he was in middle school. It made me nervous and that was before kids had cell phones, but I got used to it and appreciated that he was getting to all the places he wanted to go on his own. My youngest was the one most effected by my going back to work because she ended up walking to and from middle school. We went over the safest route with her and I just kept in mind that we live in a safe town and I was doing the same thing when I was younger.

    Now I have two daughters living and going to school in large cities and I do get nervous when I think about them out and about, especially at night – but I also know we gave them a good foundation of independence and street smarts.

  15. Well, it never really gets easy. My oldest is in college so I have vague worries since I have no idea what is really going on :). My youngest is 16 and learning to drive. When his sister was first driving on her own, she had to call me from each stop she made, and I literally prayed for her safety every time she left the house. I imagine it will be the same for my son. He’s 6 feet tall, and very fit, so I am probably less worried about him walking with friends between the mall and the movies, or walking from school to a restaurant nearby, but it’s still not easy. But so important to give them as much independance as you can stand to, as they are ready. It makes them feel trusted and confident in their abilities. Reading the comments, many are less relaxed than their parents, but our world is different.

  16. Do you know the poem “Roots and Wings” by Denis Waitley or the many variations on that theme?

    “Good parents give their children Roots and Wings” and the age of the wings depends on the activity and the child. Enjoy watching your daughter turn into the woman you have helped her become and will want to know in the future.

    And you get to do it twice what a privilege :-)

  17. Beautiful Jen. Such a thoughtful and poignant post. I love it.

    I was left on my own and had way too much on my plate as a kid. And what happened to me was about as bad as could be. Consequently, I am constantly checking myself (and in with my husband, wise friends, etc.) to make sure that I am giving Laura the room she needs to work toward independence while keeping her safe. I know enough about you from all of these years of reading and corresponding with you to know that you’re doing a fantastic job. You have fortunate and wonderful girls.

  18. When the kids turn 13 it’s a time for reflection and FEAR (or maybe that’s just me and my girl!). My daughter is very, very independent. I grew up that way. She’s been home alone for some time now and now she watches her brother. She took the babysitting course when she was 11 and watches the sibs at her dad’s house (the younger one is 7). I was babysitting at 10 and my sister every day after school and in the summer all day beginning at 11. I don’t know the right answer though. I’m definitely NOT a helicopter parent (though their father and stepmother have that tendency) but I’m all up in their lives…sometimes just from a distance. I fear these questions and answers will only get tougher as they get older!

  19. I have started letting people walk to the bus by themselves. Not that they’re by themselves, because there is a trio of children. And I can see them from my deck. But I am still paranoid EVERY DAY that I am going to get a phone call from the school inquiring about an absence for a child, who never made it ON the bus. It’s a really tough lesson for me.

  20. Wow, this depends so much on the child—one of mine had to be reined in when it came to independence and another one gently pushed—alot! Though the one who wasn’t as adventurous & street-wise was the one who practiced autonomy by keeping herself organized, picking out all her own clothes, doing laundry, negotiating homework dilemmas with her teachers, mentoring younger students, etc. Independence comes in different forms thank goodness!

  21. Oh my God – being a parent is the hardest job you’ll ever love. You second guess yourself and look back and think…I could have done better but at the time you do the best you can. You’ll make mistakes, plenty of them, and your kids will remind you of them for years to come. But in the end, you’ve got to trust your heart more than your head. Let love lead the way and you can’t go wrong.

    You’ll do fine and so will your girls :)

  22. I wish I’d had more dependence growing up. All throughout my childhood and teen years, my parents were the overprotective type. I was allowed to walk about a block up the street to my friend’s house and that was pretty much it. On the other hand, the neighborhood was not the greatest and there was really nowhere else to go besides there. Other than there, which I only did for a couple years or less anyway, I rarely got to go to friends’ houses, so there was a big social element missing for me and I hate to say, as much as I love my parents and as great a job as they did raising me, there’s still a bit of resentment there to this day. I felt unsocialized and very awkward around people till about my mid-20’s, and there are times now that I find myself struggling with it.
    They loosened up a little more when I was in my teens. Once I got my license, I was able to see friends a lot more and pretty much behave as a normal teen would. Things were still slightly awkward but a lot better. I had a good group of friends that understood me well. College was extremely awkward and to put it simply, I went around saying the wrong things to a lot of people and not developing any real friendships until it was almost over.
    I know I might be going off topic a little, but basically what I’m trying to say is that if I’d had a little more independence when I was a lot younger, I might have been able to establish more lasting friendships than I’d had.
    On the other hand, worse things could have happened if my parents hadn’t been as protective. I could have gotten in with the wrong crowd and veered off course into a bad direction. Or worse. So I can’t really beat them up about it.
    I think it’s great that you’re (carefully) giving your daughters the independence they need. It’s hard to mature and take care of yourself as a young adult without having that.

  23. I think you’ve got it figured out just by being thoughtful. This makes me smile because I just negotiated a 12:15 curfew with my almost-17 year old senior daughter; that’s a lot later than her older siblings had–then again, I’d say she’s the most responsible of a fairly responsible bunch. Okay, three out of the four were responsible. My gray hairs came from Danger Boy.

    I hope you both had a great birthday day.

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