Age-Appropriate Independence Goals
From the time you take your child home from the hospital, you are pushing her toward independence. She can sit on her own! She's taking her first steps! Now she can write her own name! Come the adolescent years, the “firsts” are just as thrilling but more complicated. Parents need to decide carefully when to push and when to hold back as their daughters grow into independence.
Admit it. As a parent, you like to think your daughter is more advanced, more trustworthy, and more mature than the average girl. And maybe she is. But even the most mature and trusted child should not be thrust into situations that she simply is not ready for. Today's parents seem more and more to lean toward pushing independence as a sign their daughter is “advanced.” But do freedom and intelligence really coincide? Only to a point. Let's say, for instance, your daughter is trustworthy and has never (in your knowledge) gone against your will or wishes. She's twelve, and she now wants to be able to walk to the downtown ice cream stand that you've always driven her to. You've seen some of the older girls walking there and hanging around, and in your heart, you'd like your daughter to be accepted by these “cool” and older girls. Should you let her go? The answer should lie in her personal safety and in what other kids her age should be doing, not in her being “exceptional” and in you wanting the older girls to like her.
Even the smartest girls can make poor decisions. Just because your daughter has always done the right thing does not mean you should open up risky situations to her. As one parent puts it, “She's a good girl, but why hand her a loaded gun?”
You'll want to err on the side of safety. A younger girl might not be ready to face certain issues that pop up when she hangs out with older girls, and might not be totally secure in walking to a place she's always been driven to. But that doesn't mean you'd need to walk her into the ice cream store holding her hand. Take small steps. Offer to drive her there with a friend and drop her off. Tell her she must stay there until you pick her up at a specific time (after a short while). Baby steps like this can help ease her into independent situations.
When you do hold your daughter back from a freedom, explain to her why, and let her know that there will be a time in the future you do allow her that freedom. Even if she complains, she'll know you are thinking it through.
Some girls seem to grow up fast; they walk early, they excel in school, or they start reading more advanced books and magazines and talk about boys and social situations at a young age. Is this a signal you should allow your daughter to move toward more independent situations? Absolutely not. As mature and “in touch” as your daughter may seem, it's up to you to keep that in check; to only move her toward what any girl her age would be ready for, even if she pushes you to do otherwise. It is important for parents to remember that some of the “mature” traits your daughter may be showing could be just that — show. She may be trying to convince you, and more importantly her social world, that she's all grown-up, when in fact, she's still a child who needs structure, guidance, and rules to live by. It's a challenge for parents to hold these girls back, because they'll fight that they want to be free. But it is, in almost every case, what is best for your girl.
So what are appropriate ages for independence goals? Girls seem to want the same things first: a trip to the movies in a large group of girls and without Mom and Dad along is a good first. Many parents allow this to begin in middle school, with some supervision. Girls can be dropped off at the door of the theater and picked up there immediately after the movie lets out. (Don't fall for the “drop us off at the mall door” trick. Today's malls are rife with trouble. Any parent who walks through one on a Friday night can see what complications could meet a girl wandering the mall alone or with a few friends at that age.) Another step at the younger range of middle school is letting her ride a bike to a nearby friend's house. Sure, you did it as a kid, but today's world is more complex. Setting up a plan — she'll leave your house and take the route you've shown her by car and call you immediately when she arrives — can feel like true freedom to a younger girl.
Cell phones have allowed parents to feel more secure letting their girls roam free, but remember, she can tell you she's somewhere she really is not. Don't rely completely on a cell call. Back it up by talking to a parent who is in charge on the other end.
For an older girl, you'll need to decide when it's time to let her be alone with boys and go on dates, as well as drive in cars with other teens. Dating is covered in detail in Chapter 11, but as it pertains to independence, it's safe to say a girl is not ready to be on an alone date with a boy until she enters high school. Do you see more and more middle school girls on dates? Of course. But just assume their parents are those “Cool Moms or Dads” you should not be. However, you may want to consider letting your daughter take part in coed group activities, like movies or bowling or a beach trip in your seaside town, when she is in seventh and eighth grade. Try to stress that she needs to learn to be friends with boys, and always make sure she is in a supervised situation. If a friend is having boys and girls over her house, talk to the parents and make sure they will keep an eye on them the entire time. Dark basements are not a good place for your young girl when she first hangs out with boys.