The early elementary
years are a time of growing independence. Children generally have an
easy time being away from home during the school day, and they often
want to play with friends or participate in organized activities in
the afternoons. On weekends they may balk at joining a family
outing, preferring to spend time pursuing their own interests or
being with friends. Kids this age also want less parental
supervision. They want to ride their bikes to the playground, walk
to the community pool, and stay outside longer.
Parents greet this push for independence with ambivalence. They want
their children to become capable, competent people who can take care
of themselves. At the same time, the path to independence isn’t
smooth and the process of letting go isn’t easy.
Primarily, parents worry about their child’s safety. As she strives
for independence, they constantly have to consider her welfare. Some
decisions are easy: a seven-year-old is too young to ride her bike
on a busy street. Other decisions are more difficult. Is she ready
to walk alone to her friend’s house? Can she go to a neighborhood
playground without an adult? Kids of this age are confident enough
to argue heatedly, “I want to go! Everybody else is allowed to!”
They feel justified in pushing their points. They know what they
want, and parents have the tough job of determining how much
independence to give and when to give it.
Parents also have to deal with their own feelings of frustration and
sadness. The frustration comes from gradually losing control. No
matter how often a preschooler says, “I want to do it myself her
parents are still firmly in charge. The six- to nine-year-old has a
stronger will, a stronger sense of herself, and a growing need to
make some decisions for herself Parents also have a sense of sadness
as she begins to separate from them. Certainly there’s pride as she
matures and becomes more independent, but there’s also a feeling of
loss. The child who had depended totally on her parents is now
As you deal with the issue of independence, you’ll make constant
adjustments. Sometimes you’ll be surprised at how mature your child
seems. One mother was amazed when her formerly reluctant seven-
year-old went off confidently for a weekend at a friend’s. Until
recently, the girl wouldn’t spend a night away from home without
lots of kisses, hugs, and assurances from her mother.
Sometimes you’ll be surprised at how dependent your child suddenly
seems; in development there are always steps backwards. Mixed with
your child’s growing independence is a strong need for your guidance
and positive feedback.
If you’re finding it hard to let your child do more for herself,
consider the benefits of independence. If you allow her some of the
freedom she wants, she’ll feel confident about her ability to take
care of herself. Let her ride her bike in the neighborhood. Let her
make choices—how to arrange her room, for instance—and she’ll feel
good about decision-making. And if you let her help you with some
challenging tasks, you’ll encourage her sense of competence. For
example, let her help you trim the bushes or plant flowers. In the
kitchen, let her slice the vegetables, mash the potatoes, or prepare
dessert. These are more rewarding activities than such usual jobs as
setting or clearing the table.
As she pushes for independence, you may be puzzled (or irritated) to
find she doesn’t take on more personal responsibility. You still
have to remind her about chores and simple tasks: “Do your
homework.” “Straighten your room.” “Get ready for bed.” From her
point of view, these are not top priorities. What’s important to her
is running around outside, doing an arts and crafts project, reading
a good book, or playing a game.
As you tackle the difficult job of deciding how much independence to
give, talk to other parents and ask yourself questions about your
child. How mature is she? Can she safely cross the street? Would she
dart into the street after a ball? Do her friends follow
common-sense rules? Would they encourage her to misbehave?
Consider your child’s age and the ages of her friends. Six- and
seven-year-olds need a lot of supervision while eight- or
nine-year-olds are capable of spending more time on their own. In
general, early elementary-aged children need to be checked on.
First, there are safety concerns. Seven-year-olds allowed to go off
by themselves may be harassed by older children. A six-year-old
skating alone may fall and have no one to help her.
Kids also need supervision for social reasons. They may become angry
with each other and fight. They may also exclude one another from
play and need some reminders about getting along.
After you’ve considered your child’s maturity and age, judge her
requests for independence separately. If she wants to go to the play
ground, will she walk or ride her bike? Will she be with a friend or
an older sibling? How long will she be gone?
You know your child and her patterns of behavior. If your instinct
says she shouldn’t go on her own, don’t give in to your child’s
demands. You may feel over-protective at times, but it’s better to
be cautious. Try to interest her in another activity, or put your
own tasks aside and take her where she wanted to go. She can play
happily at the park while you sit reading nearby, comfortable
knowing she’s safe.
If you and your child argue a great deal about independence, take
time when you’re both feeling calm to talk about the problem. Tell
her, “It seems like we yell a lot about things I won’t let you do”
and give her the reasons for your decisions. When she’s angry; she
may not understand why you say no and may assume you’re trying to be
mean. Calmly explain your concerns, and then listen to her. Let her
know you’re paying attention: “It sounds like you think I been
unfair.” Communicating on the subject of independence will help you
understand each other and get along better.