By Dr. Deborah Gilboa
Summer. It means swimming, bike riding, walking for ice cream, and wandering the neighborhood to look for other kids playing outside. It’s meant all those things since my boys were tiny. This year, however, my 12-year-old threw us a curveball. He wants to do all those things on his own! He wants to sleep in, get up and go out …”wherever.” And, he’s been hatching these plans for months.
We give our kids a lot of independence in our well-lit, friendly, urban neighborhood. We let our 12-year-old and our nine-year-old boys go to friends’ houses, play with friends at the community center, walk the mile and a half home from school, or go to Grandma’s house by themselves. And my younger two can go along with the older two. But the push for increased freedom never ends.
What to do? It’s great to give kids opportunities to go play, without parental hovering. But, it’s not great for me to spend the whole time with a knot in my stomach, wondering if any one of the horrible scenarios in my head is happening.
Well, we have a couple of go-to strategies when one of our children wants a privilege that we’re not sure he’s ready to tackle. The first is, “What if?” Here’s how it works:
We (the grown-ups) think of all of the possible ways his idea could go wrong. He could get lost, kidnapped, robbed, or he could just lose track of time. What else?
I take the really crazy and unlikely ones off the list. Alien abduction, sudden amnesia, taking a dare to jump off a bridge.
We ask him what he’d do, if the possible obstacles occurred.
What if you got lost?
What if you were hurt?
What if …you get the idea.
If he responds with reasonable, logical, and calm answers to all of our scenarios, we move on to the next step, “The 11 o’clock News Test.” If I saw a story on the news about a child my son’s age who was hurt doing what he’s asking to do, what would I think? Would I think, “Those terrible parents, how could they let him do that?” Or would I think, “That’s terrible. I completely understand why that seemed like a reasonable thing to let a child do.”
If the former, it’s a no-go, but if it’s the latter, we move onto the final step: ground rules. They cover things, like:
How long he can be out.
With whom he can hang out and where they can go.
How much of his money he can spend.
How often he needs to check in.
Somewhere in all of this pondering, our common sense usually asserts itself. Everything my son is asking to do, I was allowed to do at his age. Furthermore, he has the street smarts he needs to take the next step. Lastly, I need to have confidence in him so that he can develop his own confidence.
So…off he goes. And we will likely bump into him at many of his hangouts. We’ll see him at the pool, run into him at the local ice cream store, or catch sight of him playing with his buddies when we go for a walk in the neighborhood. With luck, he’ll still be happy to walk home with us when the streetlights come on.
Dr. Deborah Gilboa is a pediatrician and author of Get the Behavior You Want . . . Without Being the Parent Your Hate. For more advice from Dr. G or to ask a question, visit her website at askdoctorg.com or tweet her @AskDocG.