Sarah Myles

"Sarah Myles is a freelance writer. Originally from London, Sarah now lives in North Yorkshire with her husband, two children and two cats."

DadAndKidHandsSmall Building Independence“When can I have a mobile phone?” asked the 9 year old. And so it begins.

He has never before shown an interest in having a mobile phone, because he has never really shown an interest in being socially independent. But this is proving to be something of a watershed age. As our first-born enters his ‘tween’ years, difficult, uncharted territory lies ahead, with not a hint of a path in sight.


There are many factors at play here. He is a summer-born child, which means he is one of the youngest children in his school year. Some of his friends are almost a whole year older than him. As we know, children mature emotionally at vastly different rates, and parenting styles vary widely. Some families allow independence quickly, while some are overly cautious – as a parent, it can be difficult to decide on the right approach when your precious little bundle suddenly wants to spread their wings a little further.

It is quite the minefield – choosing how much independence to allow and when, all the while trying to stem your own rising panic in the face of the inevitable ‘but his Mum lets him go to the park!’ Have I done a good enough job so far of teaching him how to keep himself safe? Can I trust him to make his own good decisions? While my own instinctive response is to never let the children leave the house without me – at least until they’re 35 – this is just not realistic. Rationalisation is required on my part, to allow my child to develop at his own pace.

Firstly, is my approach being defined by my child’s need to develop, or my own need to cosset? Am I saying no because he is not ready, or because I am not ready? By making this honest assessment, the entire discussion is framed objectively, instead of being based in instinctive emotional response.

Secondly, am I being swayed by the choices of other parents of children his age? This kind of comparison is often unconscious, but always unhelpful. What works well for one family is not necessarily the right approach for another. One child may be suitably mature enough for greater independence, while another of the same age may not. Taking this consideration out of the equation leaves you to deal solely with your own child and their specific stage of development. Though there will be inevitable protests as the children naturally compare their situations, it is the responsibility of the parent to rise above that and focus on the bigger picture.

Having worked through all of those rationalisations, my approach is to work alongside my child to support him in developing in the way that he needs to in order to be allowed greater social independence. We discuss the subject openly, listening carefully to what the other wants and needs, and then come to a set of boundaries that makes everybody comfortable. For example, if his request is for the freedom to go across the road to the park with his friends, then he must be able to tell the time properly and accurately in order to be given that responsibility (so he can return on time). He must demonstrate that he can cross the road safely, and not cause problems while he’s there.

When he is given that initial, limited independence, he is made to understand that this is a privilege that can be revoked at any time, if we feel he is not being sensible or can’t be trusted. This encourages him to respect the boundaries we stipulate – for example, not leaving the park unless it is to come home, not going into any other house, and being where he is supposed to be, at the right time. He is made to understand that, while he has this independence, we are always very close by – popping by to check on him periodically. It is also clear to him that this limited independence can be built upon and developed further, as and when we all agree he is ready to do so.

In fostering this first flush of independence, we also gain additional leverage for discipline. Privilege can be easily removed. This is particularly useful with a child that is reluctant to complete homework, or help around the house, for example. For a younger sibling, the older child’s independence  also serves as an example of privilege that can be earned when older, by respecting boundaries and behaving responsibly.

So far, we are all adapting well to this new phase in the life of our child, and because we responded at the right time, it did not become a point of resentment for either of us. We are developing as parents as he is developing as a person, and provided we continue to communicate effectively and work together towards the same goal, there should be no problem that cannot be dealt with.

Ultimately, the independence of your child is founded on trust – your trust in them to be responsible, their trust in you to enforce boundaries as required and, crucially, your trust in yourself as a parent.

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