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How much independence should an elementary school child have?

Jen Klein is a New England-based technical writer and mother of three. When she isn't asking her kids to stop bickering, "caramelizing" the dinner or actively ignoring the dust bunnies under the couch, she enjoys knitting, gardening, pho...

Baby steps to independence

The path to adulthood and independence starts the moment your child is born. Yes, it does. While you wouldn’t dream of give “independence” to an infant, how you are going to raise and shape this child is something you do think about. And even while you are thinking about ways to care for and keep that child close in the early years, the ultimate goal of your parenting is to raise that child to be able to go out into the world independently and responsibly. It’s an awesome task.

boy-walking-alone

The first steps to learning independence start in young childhood. In the toddler years, you're teaching simple tasks like using the toilet or dressing by oneself. By elementary school years, your child can begin to use some of his or her emerging independence in the outside world. It may be scary for you as a parent, but allowing these baby steps to your child is an important developmental step -- for both of you. It's not just building independence, it's building self-confidence.

Yes, he can

Yes, your elementary child can walk six houses down in your safe neighborhood to a friend's house without an adult escort. Yes, your elementary aged child can be out of your sight for a few moments at the playground. Yes, your child can walk over to the snack bar the Saturday afternoon soccer games for an ice cream. Yes, he can.

Practice

Like many life skills, it may take some practice, however. The first time your child wants to walk to a friend's house, walk halfway, and watch him walk the rest of the way. Ditto with playing at a new playground or walking to the snack bar. If we wants to ride his bike somewhere, ride with him the first time. You're already having regular talks with your kids about general safety (right?), and this practice time is a good time to reiterate those safety guidelines.

Promote the buddy system

Remember the adage, "There's safety in numbers." Especially in crowd situations, promote (or insist) on the buddy system. Your child and a friend (or friends) walking to the snack bar may feel more comfortable for both of you.

Spy now and then

If it helps you to feel more comfortable with allowing independent activity, every now and again spy on your child as they engage in these new adventures. The spying can be with your own eyes, or the eyes of other moms on the soccer field or in your neighborhood. It's a bit of reassurance for you -- and reminds you that you live in a community where folks watch out for each other.

Rewards over time

As you child demonstrates responsibility with increased opportunities for independence, you can reward that behavior -- with more independence. If your child at nine years old proves she can handle neighborhood travels safely and responsibly, perhaps at 10 years old, you can begin to allow some just our of neighborhood excursions.

Independence is a scary thing -- but it's a good thing, too. When you have confidence in your child's level of independence in the world, it boosts your confidence as a parent -- and can help you relax just a bit. It doesn't mean you completely let down your guard, but you can feel more secure in your parenting and in your child's abilities. It's bittersweet at times, yes, to see your child becoming independent, but it is also something about which your pride is well-deserved.

More on kids and independence

Nurturing independence at any age
Real Moms Guide: Kids and independence
How much independence should I give my child?


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