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7 Ways to Give Kids Independence

My friend Lynne and I stood with our kids just before the morning bell rang. She was trying to smooth her first-grade daughter's hair when the girl's friends arrived, and without another word, Maddie turned away from us and walked with them to her classroom. "Look at that," Lynne sighed. "No kiss. Not even a 'Bye, Mom.'"

"It's like we're not even here," I agreed, though my own third-grade son would grudgingly allow me to kiss him goodbye in public -- but not on the face.

From a developmental standpoint, our kids' disinterest in us is entirely appropriate. They're hardwired for independence, pushing away from us the moment they learn to walk. And as parents, our tendency is to hold them back for their own safety and for our own peace of mind. But by the time they leave home for college, what do you want for your kids? "You want them to be adults who can make the right choices when you aren't there," says Annie Fox, a middle-school educational consultant and mom in San Anselmo, CA. And you do that by slowly letting them go while keeping the safety net of family rules and limits firmly in place. "If you don't take off the training wheels, how will they ever learn how to ride the bike?" she says.

So while it's essential to let our children make their way toward independence, it takes wisdom and guts to know how and when to let it happen. Here are the most common ways your kids will try to let go, and when you should go along for the ride:

Your 5-Year-Old Doesn't Want to Hold Your Hand in Public.

There's nothing sweeter than having your child place his hand in yours, so his first rebuff can sting quite hard. "But remember that when kids are just starting kindergarten, they're walking into situations they've never had to deal with before," says Daniel Brennan, M.D., a pediatrician and dad in Santa Barbara, CA. "If their classmates aren't holding hands with their parents, they may not want to, either."

In your mind he's still little, though, and you're not going to let him cross the street without holding hands, right? You may want to reconsider: Acknowledge his need to feel like "a big kid" while also teaching safety rules that will help him down the road. "I'll be conscious of my son's need to belong, but he still has to walk right next to me when he crosses the street," says Dr. Brennan.

Rebecca Horvath, a mom of two from Bluff City, TN, gives her 6-year-old daughter options: "I'll tell her, 'I'll hold your hand or your hair as we cross the street. You decide.' She always goes for the hand," she laughs. "But it makes her feel more grown-up to get a choice."

Your 6-Year-Old has Been Invited for her First Sleepover. Sleepovers sound like fantastic fun until darkness falls and the child realizes she's away from her family and own comfy bed. That's when you may get the teary phone call begging to come home.

You have the right to give this opportunity a pass until she gets a little older. Instead, suggest a "sorta-sleepover": Agree with the other parents that the kids can "sleep over" until 10 or 11 p.m., then take yours home for bed. "The fun part of a sleepover is staying up later than usual, watching a movie, and munching on popcorn," says Kelli Johnson, a mom in Long Beach, CA. "They don't need to actually sleep there. You can even arrange to have them meet in the morning for breakfast." However, some kids this age can handle a night away. If you feel secure that she's ready, give it a try. When it comes to independence, it's not a bad idea for a parent and a child to step out of their comfort zone now and then.

Your 8-Year-Old Wants to Walk to School by Himself.

How you react to this depends on a variety of factors, including where you live and how responsible your kid is. But it's also tied up in our own fears.

I walked to first grade by myself but wouldn't let my daughter walk three blocks down a street filled with moms and neighbors we know by name until she was 9. And even then, I stood on the porch and watched.

Why such paranoia? The nightly news would have us believe there are predators in every alley and a potential CSI case in every siren we hear. "Parents need to confront their fears and ask themselves if they're being realistic," says Fox. "A lot of the time, we're not -- especially if we've set the ground rules in advance."

Mara Collins, a mom of four boys from Portland, OR, had let her two oldest (ages 12 and 9) walk to school together for some time. But this summer they wanted to go to the library by themselves. "This was different," she says. "There was another major street to cross and fewer kids around." In the end, she agreed. The whole excursion took 25 minutes from start to finish, but she was on the phone to her sister the whole time. "She had to talk me through it and distract me," she laughs.

It's your call, of course, but there are ways you can make sure your child is ready to take this step. By this age, he should know not to talk to strangers and how to safely cross a major street, but you should elaborate. For example, tell him that no adult needs his help for directions or to find a lost puppy, and that you'd never send someone to pick him up whom he does not know very well. Establish a secret password for him to use if he's not sure.

"These situations are practice for when they need to take bigger risks down the line," says Collins. "I know my brain does crazy stuff, but I have to quiet it and ask, 'What's in my kids' best interest?'"

Your 9-Year-Old Wants to Spend $100 on a Trading Card.

This is particularly hard when you think it's a waste of money -- but you know it's his money to spend. My son Jack, who's 8, got two 20-pound notes from his English grandparents, and realized that with the money he already had, his savings were around $100. For the next several days he perused the Lego catalog carefully and came to me with his pick. "You want to spend all of your money on this Star Wars destroyer?" I asked. Yup, he did. And he loved it.

"With kids, it's always smart to have established a precedent," says Nancy Prisby, a parenting coach and mother of three who lives near Detroit. "One idea is that when kids start getting an allowance, tell them that they have three choices: They can save it, spend it, or give some away, or they can do all three at once." Financial savvy is just as much a taught skill as grooming and time management.

Of course, if your son is accustomed to taking his money and spending it, you can't just suddenly start saying, "No, you can't." That's not fair. But when he then finds that super-cool Bakugon set, you have to shrug and tell him, "Sorry, but you spent your money."

Your 10-Year-Old Wants to See a PG-13 Comedy with Friends.

Many parents face this situation: You think the movie sounds raunchy and inappropriate, but he insists he can handle it, and his friends' parents are backing him up.

In this day and age, it's especially important to stick to your rules and expectations regardless of what the other kids' families are doing. "Parents have good instincts," says Prisby. "You know what your kid can handle or not. And you have to operate according to your own limits and values." Which means you have to say no sometimes. And chances are this won't sit well with your child, who wants to do what his friends are doing with their parents' blessing.

But there's a great divide between being dictatorial and being empathetic. "Because I said no, that's why" isn't helpful. Explain to your child why you're uncomfortable with him going to see that kind of movie -- for instance, that it's got sexual situations that are too adult for him now or that it's too violent. "After I try explaining why he can't go, I always end up reminding him that every family is different, and in our family the kids can't see those kinds of movies until they're older," says Joey Singman, a mom in Long Beach, CA. "That's the rule, and he knows I'm not making an exception." Empathy can help: Tell him you understand why he's disappointed, and offer to take him and his friends to a more suitable movie or another cool activity, such as laser tag.

Your 11-Year-Old Wants You to Drop Her Off at the Mall with Her Friends for a Few Hours.

Parents of tweens often notice a sharp uptick in the number of activities their kids want to do by themselves, and it makes us tremble. It forces us to look more closely at our own motivations for keeping our kids under our thumbs.

One approach: Take a first step, like letting your child go with friends to the public library, a relatively safe environment, with supervising adults and an expectation of civil behavior. Remind her of the rules: No talking to strangers (except the librarian!), no leaving the library without you. And then give her the chance to prove she's responsible. When you're ready -- it might not be for a year or two! -- you can move on to more challenging steps, such as going to the mall (if you're not ready to drop her off, let her go off with her friends on their own for a little while and sit and have a cup of coffee!) or seeing a movie with friends (wait while they buy the tickets to make sure it's not sold out). If she doesn't have a cell phone, lend her yours for added security.

Your 12-Year-Old Wants to Hang Out with His New Skateboarder Friends After School.

Trust is built over the years. "You need to have a clear sense of your kid's track record," says Fox. "Does he follow the crowd? Does he think for himself? Has he made good choices in the past? Does he pick good friends?" If so, let go a little. Then get to know this new group in a subtle way, such as inviting them back to the house for ice cream. Give them their space, but pop back in now and then to ask whether they want more snacks. If you like what you see, stand back and let him hang -- with your standard rules about how to behave and when to come home.

What if these friends aren't the kind of kids you want your child to associate with? Intervene. When Lori Mackey of Agoura Hills, CA, saw her 12-year-old son's grades slip dramatically, she realized that the group of friends he'd been hanging around with since kindergarten had become a bad influence on him. "He wasn't getting to play or ride his bike because his peers were more into hanging out and talking to girls, but he wasn't happy, and he couldn't get away from them." Her solution was drastic: She put him in a different school district across town. "It was the hardest thing I've ever done," she says. "I was terrified he'd hate me." Her son fought her decision at first but eventually came to realize it was the best solution. Another mom stepped in when it became clear that her daughter's new friend had a really strange home life; she made sure that they only got together at her own house.

It's a good example of why it's so important to know your child's friends, especially as they enter adolescence. "This is when they'll start changing if they're not getting the right peer support," says Mackey. "Give them their space, but don't give them the space to make bad decisions."

As parents, we watch our kids grow up and out with a blend of pride, trepidation, and nostalgia. Fixed in our minds are the 3-year-olds who sat on our laps and needed us for everything. And yet it's helpful to remind ourselves: "You are responsible for guiding this very small person to be a responsible, able adult," says Fox. "She may never sit in your lap again, but she'll come back and hang out with you as a young adult. That's what you want."

Julie Tilsner has four books, two kids, and one blog (badhomecooking.com).

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