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Middle School Kids: How Much Freedom Should Parents Give Them?

I grew up just outside of Boston. One Saturday when I was in fifth grade, my parents wanted to go into the city. They would be gone the entire day. I insisted that I did not want to go. I could take care of myself for the day, no problem.

Unexpectedly, a thunderstorm came through, and I freaked out. This was before cell phones, and I had no way to reach my parents.

I spent the afternoon crying on my neighbor’s couch, where I’d gone to seek refuge. It was as much embarrassing as it was traumatic.

Maturation Is Not Linear

It’s hard to know how much independence to give middle school kids.

Because they don’t mature in a linear way—it often feels like two steps forward, one step back—your tween may be perfectly competent at an independent task one day, and a ball of tears the next. Keep trying.

Just because your child wasn’t ready on Monday doesn’t mean they won’t be on Friday. Raising independent kids takes time.

Of course, sometimes your tween is overconfident to a fault. Your daughter promises she won’t lose that phone she’s been begging for, but she can’t even keep track of her homework. Your son thinks you’re crazy for not letting him ride his bike to the store, but you’ve seen him pull out in traffic without looking.

Sometimes, though, kids really do rise to the occasion of more independence.

Safety Concerns

But before you test those waters, they ought to be able to demonstrate proficiency in safety, planning, and emergency response. For middle school kids, I would worry less about safety from a Law & Order: SVU perspective and more from a practical perspective. Does your kid understand traffic rules? Are they willing to call for help as needed? Do they know how to ask adults for feedback?

In her book Free Range Kids, Lenore Skenazy researched how safe kids really are in the world. Surprisingly, Skenazy discovered that America is no less safe than when we were young. Yes, there are bad people in the world, but the chances of your kid encountering them are incredibly low.

Parents often lament, “I wish I could give my kids the kind of carefree childhood I had. It’s just not as safe as when we were kids.” That’s nostalgia talking, not facts.

We hear about rare and terrifying news stories so often, with such drama and repetition, it feels like a less safe world. But the fact is that the chance of your child being abducted by a stranger is 0.00007 percent. Violent crimes, including sex crimes against children, are on a steady decline.

Some of you are thinking, “That’s a low risk. However, I couldn’t live with myself with any chance that my child would be a victim.” Even at such a low rate, you think, it’s not worth the risk.

But, as Skenazy points out, kids are in greater danger when we drive them somewhere than when they walk around the mall.

I fear most for kids who are swaddled through middle school. They need to experience the thrill or the lessons that come from trying to be independent.

The Importance of Being Independent

There are lots of reasons older kids need time away from their parents. The tween years are all about developing an identity apart from parents, which is hard to do when you have a set of watchful eyes on you all the time.

Too much oversight leads to feeling that your every decision is being evaluated and judged. Have you ever been micromanaged? It makes it hard to be successful. Kids need time apart to figure out who they are when no one is watching. That’s critical to developing a strong sense of self.

Also, independence builds competency. Kids naturally do better at things when they don’t feel parental pressure. Not surprisingly, they become better problem solvers when they practice solving problems. I heard an interesting anecdote from Michael Thompson, a parenting author, who surveyed 500 parents on the proudest moments from their childhood. Everyone answered with a time when their parents weren’t there. Kids need to overcome challenges so that they can feel capable of taking care of themselves. This is what we want, right?

So while there is no magic answer to when and to what degree you should let your middle school kids do things alone, in general, it’s a good idea to begin offering many varied opportunities to try. You know your tween best. If they can make a plan, react responsibly to unexpected changes, and communicate openly with you about their experiences, you’re off to a great start.

Michelle Icard

Michelle Icard is the author of Middle School Makeover: Improving the Way You and Your Child Experience the Middle School Years. Learn more about her work with middle schoolers and their parents at MichelleintheMiddle.com.