Tween Independence: When Is The Right Time To Go Out and Stay Home Alone?
I still remember the rush of exhilaration when a friend and I took our first walk to 7-Eleven on our own. It was summer and I was twelve – walking the ten minutes there and back to get our slurpees was the closest I had ever felt to true independence. Though our neighborhood was safe and we were only crossing one busy street, unbeknownst to me at the time, my mom was trailing behind us in her car the entire way.
When I learned of this after our trip, I couldn’t believe it – I was in middle school after all – practically a grown-up! But now, as a mom of two kids, the thought of them walking anywhere without an actual grown-up present has me picturing every worst-case scenario out there.
So when is the right time to “cut the cord,” and how as parents, do we evaluate if our child is ready for this next phase of independence? Read on for some tips to help answer that question.
Get Some Perspective
As a child of the eighties, the world seems like a much scarier place today. With a 24-hr news cycle and social media, it’s almost impossible not to feel overwhelmed by how dangerous the world is for our kids. Gone are the days where kids would be out on their own, riding bikes around the neighborhood until the streetlights turned on. Or are they?
There are books like Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” and research articles out of Northeastern University that say we are actually living in safer times than it may seem.
Jonathan Wolf, owner and founder of YouTime Coaching, also recognizes the onslaught of information coming at parents from all angles and offers this suggestion. “Tomorrow morning, turn on the news and count the number of ‘good’ things that happen in comparison to ‘bad’ things. I can almost guarantee the ratio of good to bad events is incredibly distorted, creating a twisted view of what our world (and our children's) consists of.”
While there is no denying that bad things happen, there is evidence that shows that our world is actually getting safer.
Laws and Medical Recommendations
We’re probably all familiar with the concept of free-range parenting, but have also read stories like this one about parents getting into trouble for letting their kids walk around their neighborhood alone.
While there are laws that ensure that children can travel to school independently with parent permission, these same laws do not apply outside of school hours. Also, states have different laws regarding these after-school and weekend hours. For example, Illinois rules that the appropriate age for children to stay home alone is 14 while Massachusetts does not have an age limit.
The American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP), on the other hand, recommends between the ages of 9 to 11 years old, simply due to level of maturity of children that age and the ability to handle emergencies should they arise.
With these variations of opinion, how do parents know when it’s the right time? Licensed psychologist, Dr. Kathleen Hart uses a V-shaped rubber wall metaphor when she coaches parents on the topic of tweens exploring the world without their supervision. The V represents less independence at the bottom and more at the top.
"Imagine a V-shaped rubber wall. At the bottom of the V-shape is your child when at infancy. Infants depend on your constant vigilant care. They are fully dependent on your care and protection.
Fast forward to when your child is 10 or 11 years old. They have now traveled half way up the V-shaped rubber wall. It’s at this stage, that you provide your child with partial freedom to explore the world on their own without your involvement and protection.
During the teen years, they tend to test limits, which is a healthy developmental stage of forming their own identities by separating from their parents. (Think of them as bouncing against the rubber wall of parental limits and expectations.)
If your child breaks your rules, lies to you, or cannot keep themselves safe, then you will need to intervene and provide more supervision. Your child is traveling backwards towards the bottom of the V shape wall. Once they can show you that they are responsible for themselves and exercise good judgment, then you can loosen your parental care and involvement."
Considerations & Preparation
One of our main jobs as parents is to teach our children how to thrive independently in the world. Here are a few tips to consider before that first independent experience for your tween:
- Age AND maturity – While age is certainly important, maturity level is most important. Think if your tween is ready for this step: Are they easily distracted? Understand who to call in an emergency? Have a good moral compass?
- Environment – Naturally, where your tween is going is a factor in the decision. Is the area safe to your knowledge? Are they familiar with where they’re going? Has your child been there before with you? These are all questions to consider and are unique to each circumstance.
- Prep Them with “The Basics” – Sounds like a no-brainer, but be sure your son or daughter knows your phone number and their home address. They should have a good understanding of stranger safety and know what to do in an emergency. [Find someone, preferably with children.] In addition to this, they should also know basic safety rules like how to cross a street safely and how to be responsible for their personal belongings.
- Role-play – Setting up ground rules like a time be home or checking-in once they get there is important. Dr. Hart also recommends creating hypothetical situations to address what they may encounter while out on their own. “For example, by asking your child, ‘What if you want to come home, what will you do?’ To ‘call Mom or Dad’ as a solution to every uncomfortable situation should be rehearsed over and over again.”
- Stay Firm – Much like the earlier V-shaped rubber wall example, it’s important to set boundaries should your tween rebel. “Refrain from permissive styles of parenting by giving in to your teen’s demands,” Dr. Hart explains. “If your child breaks your rules, lies to you, or cannot keep themselves safe, then you will need to intervene and provide more supervision.”
- Take Advantage of Technology – A lot has changed from the days we were kids, and technology is a huge reason for that. While the concept of “tracking” can be debated, there are many options to know where your tween is wherever they go. This ranges from find-my-phone features to apps to wearable GPS devices. There are even articles like “5 Apps To Spy On Your Kids Without Them Knowing,” from Huffington Post. Whether you agree with the concept or not, there is clearly a market for these products, and there may be one right for you and your family.
It’s totally normal to worry. I remember that whenever I would drive home late at night as a teenager, one of my parents would always be up waiting up for me. (They tried to hide it, but the light in the living room would always turn off as I pulled into the driveway.) I always thought they were overprotective, but now I get it.
It’s important to manage your own stress and fears over this new stage of independence for your child. Jonathan Wolf recommends “fear-setting,” which is a play on “goal-setting.” He shares, “First, define the fear by writing down the worst things that could happen. Next, prevent by writing down what you can do that will prevent or reduce the likelihood that the event will happen. Lastly, repair by writing down what you can do or who you can contact if the worst thing does in fact happen.”
Clearly, there is no perfect age that deems all children are ready to venture out without a parent, or even stay home alone. There are a lot of factors to consider, and all children are different. But at some point, we have to trust that that we’ve taught our children to make good choices and let them experience the world.
Written by Phase2Parenting
PLEASE NOTE: The writers of this article are not medical professionals. The information in this column is not intended and should not be construed as providing medical or psychological advice, but rather to offer readers information and provide a perspective to better understand the lives of themselves and their children. Articles on this website may be opinion based. The articles are not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist, psychotherapist or other licensed medical professional. If you do have health or safety concerns, please get in touch with a healthcare professional.