“I’m having trouble letting my three boys go out on their own. They are still young, but I see their friends staying home alone or walking to other friends’ houses. What kind of guidelines should I use to give them a little more freedom?”
A. While moving our children toward independence is one of the central tasks of parenting, actually letting our kids fly on their own can be a bit terrifying. It is essential to keep in mind your ultimate parenting goal—to help your children develop the godly character traits they’ll need to make good decisions, even when they are away from you. When it comes to increasing a child’s freedom, I encourage parents to take an incremental approach so that each step of independence builds on the last. Take some time to consider the character traits you feel are most important to you in this process. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:
Trust in God. Perhaps the most fundamental lesson your children need as they gain new independence is that God is their ultimate safety net, not you. There are all kinds of Bible stories that emphasize God’s protection: Daniel in the lion’s den (Daniel 6), Jonah in the belly of the fish (Jonah 2), Paul in prison and at sea (Acts 24-28). Read these stories with your children and talk about the ways God can protect your family, too. Make sure to pray together at each step on the road toward independence.
Confidence. Kids who know how to do things for themselves are more confident and therefore less likely to be pressured into bad decisions. Maria Montessori, a leader in early childhood education, advised parents to hold off on doing anything for a child that he can do for himself. This includes redoing something a child has done, such as making his bed, even if his work doesn’t meet your standards. Once your child has learned a skill, do not do that service for your child unless there’s a solid reason he can’t do it on a particular day.
Discernment. Naturally, you’re deeply concerned about your child’s safety. Teaching children to be safe is an ongoing process, but there are some tried and true strategies that can help your children develop their own sense of what’s safe and what isn’t. Security specialist Gavin deBecker’s Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (Dial) is a wonderful resource for helping children learn to recognize dangerous situations. On the practical side, here are some steps you can take to give your children a bit more freedom. You didn’t say how old your children are, so I’ll give you guidelines for a 10-year-old and you can adjust from there.
Walking alone. If your child feels ready to walk to a friend’s house alone and you feel that your area is safe enough, map out a short walk plan and walk it together. As you walk, point out any concerns, such as busy streets or blind corners. Repeat the walk another time or two with your child and a responsible friend, letting your son make all the decisions about safety issues. Once you feel that he knows the route and will be careful, send your son and his friend on the route with a walkie-talkie, keeping in touch with them as they walk. If all goes well, you can shift to asking your son to check in before he leaves and when he arrives at his friend’s house.
Staying home alone. Some 10-year-olds can be home alone for up to an hour a day. But if your child is scared, impulsive, or unable to follow your rules, he isn’t ready. Before you leave your children alone for any length of time, have them take an in-home safety course. Most park districts offer these courses to prepare kids for emergencies.
Earning freedoms. It’s essential that children learn that freedom is tied to trust and responsibility. Set up a family meeting to discuss what independent activities outside the house can be earned through independent activities inside the house. Making the bed, cleaning the bedroom, and doing laundry and dishes all demonstrate responsibility. Don’t hesitate to restrict freedoms when your child shows an unwillingness to be responsible.
As you begin this process, don’t allow more than you’re comfortable with just because other parents allow certain freedoms. But do talk to parents you respect who have kids a little older than yours. Ask them how they made these decisions and if there’s anything they would have done differently. Their wisdom, along with daily prayer, will go a long way toward helping you let go a little bit at a time.
Christianity Today, Fall 2002