How much independence should a middle school child have?
Your middle school daughter -- not a baby, but not a teen or adult -- wants to go to the movies with a friend, but without a parent. Is it okay? Your seventh grade son wants to spend the afternoon at the town beach with his buddies -- no moms in sight. Should you let him? The answer to these questions is a definitive…maybe. The transitional middle school years may scare you so much you want to lock your kid in a tower until he or she is 18, but the reality is that you need to -- and you have the opportunity to -- help your child develop an appropriate amount of independence. It may not always feel comfortable, but it is a necessary and rewarding part of growing up. For both of you.
However, increasing independence is a privilege of this age -- not a right. Middle school children are still very much in between child and adult. In some ways they need more supervision than the nine-year-old heading to the snack bar with a buddy -- even as they insist they need less. They need more and deeper talks about safety and risk -- even as they are more able to be out of your sight. It's not just building independence, it's building trust.
Your middle school child can -- and likely is -- spending more time out of direct sight of adults. Your child is getting him or herself places, such as between school and after school athletics. You child may be able to go to the mall with some friends for a couple hours in the afternoon, or see a movie with friends, or hang our at the athletic fields at school. Generally speaking, middle school is a time for such bits of independence to increase. Slowly, within guidelines established by you according to your child's personality and your family values, you can -- and must -- help this happen in a controlled manner.
Right along side this increasing ability is the increasing influence of social groups and hormones. And that's where granting independence can get scary. You probably remember your own parent saying, "It's not you I don't trust, it's the other kids," -- and you probably understand that line more than ever. Even the nicest, smartest kids can be influenced to make not so good choices. No child is perfect.
Talking with your child not only about the safety issues you discussed during the elementary school years but also about the ways in which behaviors can be influenced by others is critical. At the same time, you must also let your child know that if he or she encounters influence -- or pressure -- to use independence inappropriately, he or she can always call you. You'll be there to back them up.
Ebb and flow
As your child enters the often tumultuous adolescent years, there can (and probably should) be an ebb and flow to this increasing independence. Given development, hormones and social influences, just because some level of independence was okay the first time doesn't mean it's going to be fine the second or fifth time. It might be, or it might not be. Regular vigilance over how your child is doing with this level of responsibility and independence is essential.
Taking away privileges of independence is well within your right as a parent: Use it if you need to. Your child might call you the meanest mom on the planet (actually, that would be me!), but stick to your guns. You are conveying the message that there is a right way and a wrong way to use the privilege of independence -- and that you are still the parent. Your child might not appreciate this effort now or even in the near future, but you will all benefit from this careful evolution of independence in the long run.
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