We’re parents, not friends

It may be Independence Day, but our children may not be quite ready for the independence they crave-or, perhaps, that we give them. How much is too much?

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The short answer is that it depends on your child’s age, maturity, the situation and the duration, but bear in mind that in Illinois, 14 is the age after which a child can legally stay home alone. This will surprise many parents, particularly those who’ve grown to depend on their youngsters to “rise to the occasion” and care for themselves-and, often, younger siblings.

Fourteen is, generally speaking, the approximate age by which many typical children have at least an “intellectual” grasp on the consequences of their behaviors, but this may not be enough. After all, the frontal lobe of the brain, responsible for reasoning, judgment and managing our impulses, is the last part of the brain to fully develop (by the early 20s, though it’s later in males). This indisputable fact of life makes those theoretically benign hours between the time school gets out and parents arrive home from work, anything but.

Given this, it appears that many parents unwittingly but effectively double-bind their children-expecting them to make adult choices when, in fact, they may not have the equipment needed to do so.

Studies repeatedly show that this period after the bell rings and before parents return home-or whenever children are home alone-is typically when otherwise intelligent kids are prone to the most mischief (everything from making prank phone calls to experimentation with substances and sex), and when, unfortunately, predators-who know you’re not home-are at their most active-online and on the sidewalk.

No matter how much preparation and coaching we give our children to manage whatever comes up, whether they’re at the mall with friends, at the skate park or simply home alone when a stranger comes to the door, the bottom line is this: The false sense of security we get from arming our children with cell phones is no substitute for on-site parenting.

When things don’t go according to plan-if the worst happens-we won’t get a do-over.

So we parent-or find another responsible adult who can.

That’s not to say your kid has to like it. In fact, it’s his job not to, at least so far as his friends are concerned. I’ll never forget one afternoon last summer, when my son Noah was 10. He and his pals took a break from playing basketball in our driveway when he asked, “Hey Mom, can we walk down to the gas station and get a soda?” His grin told me he knew what my answer would be.

“Nope sorry, Bud,” I played along, and promptly produced a pitcher of lemonade as he sighed and balked at the poor substitute. I had a hunch the boys thirsted more for the freedom a journey to the gas station would afford than the sodas themselves, and appreciated that it was Noah’s job to save face with his friends by at least asking and expressing displeasure about my answer.

Children need structure and in some ways even crave it, even though they test our limits and sometimes rail against them.

“My friends’ moms aren’t overprotective like you,” my kids often lament. I heard the same thing when they realized that few, if any, of their friends are required by their parents to wear bicycle helmets, but I’m picking my poison. “I like your brain. Let’s make sure it stays in your head,” I say, and then I remind them (sans sarcasm) that I’ll happily pay for therapy should they some day discover they need to process their experience of childhood with “overprotective” parents. Pay now or pay later, I figure.

That said, it is equally vital for us to encourage our children to spread their wings when the time is right, when they actually are ready to manage the responsibilities that come with greater independence. We can’t let our fear paralyze us so completely that we totally squelch their natural and healthy drive to confidently gain their autonomy, but we can take baby steps-by sitting a few rows back at the movie theater and staying 10 paces behind them at the mall, for example. If they make a misstep or we’ve misjudged their readiness, we can always reel them back in for a time.

This is our prerogative-our responsibility-as parents. Our children may balk and even level an “I hate you” at us for doing this, but remember: They already have friends. What they need from us is parenting.

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