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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."