My 11-year-old son is pushing to be independent, should I let him go?

We have an 11-year-old son who is very sporty and independent. I am not sure if I am being overprotective (he is our eldest) but we like to supervise him closely and take him to and from his activities. Recently, he has been asking to walk by himself to his sports training (which is a short walk from our home). We have said no and insisted that either I or his Dad walk with him.

It seems like a big deal for him and he is getting increasingly angry about it and sometimes a bit aggressive. Last week his dad tried to reach a compromise, saying he would let him walk ahead and he would follow – but this was “embarrassing” and “just as bad”.

I’m not sure if we should just let him go on his own. He has to cross a dangerous road and then a field by himself to get to the training. What do you advise?

At 11 years of age, when children enter adolescence, it is normal for them to push for independence and to want to do things by themselves. This is a good thing and a sign that they are growing up and open to learning new responsibilities. However, it can be hard as a parent to cut the apron strings for their children (especially the eldest) and to trust them with independence.

In addition, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to deciding when children (and indeed parents) are ready for independence. Children mature at different rates and some are more able to take on responsibilities and some need a bit more support and supervision. You want to strike a balance between giving him the freedom that is appropriate to his age and level of maturity and also protecting him and ensuring he is not put at risk.

Assess the risk
Before responding, it is important to take time to reflect on the situation and the level of risk. While on average you would be expecting a child his age to be able to make short journeys by himself, you need to reflect on whether your son is really ready to do this?

  • If not now, when do you think he will be ready?
  • What are your particular fears about him travelling alone? ( for example abduction, road traffic etc)
  • How could you prepare him to be safer? (teach road safety or discuss stranger danger).
  • Do you feel you are being over-protective? What have other parents you respect done with similar-aged children?
  • Are there any other issues for you in what is happening? (Is it hard to let him go and be independent or do you or his dad enjoy travelling to the training with him, as a way of staying connected with him?)

It is also important to take time to think about things from his perspective.

  • What do you think is the main issue for him?
  • Why does it mean so much to him to travel independently?
  • Is he influenced by peers?
  • How do other children in the team travel to the training?

Negotiating with your son
When giving children increased freedom I always recommend that parents adopt a gradual step by step approach that is responsive to the needs of each child. The key is to prepare your son for each new step and to hold him accountable for how he handles the responsibility. Think what a first step might be for him to travelling independently.

You could agree to a trial run of travelling to the training or might prefer to start with a smaller step of travelling shorter and safer distances (to the shops, for example).

Once he shows he is able to handle that step over a period of time, then you agree to the next step. Whatever step you agree to, you insist he prepares first (eg shows he understands the issues of stranger danger or demonstrates to you how he can use the safe cross code etc) and you agree what he needs to do to show he is responsible (going straight to the training, coming home on time etc).

While you might agree to increased freedom, you continue to insist on good supervision which will be increased if he is unable to demonstrate responsibility.

Insist on respect
As you negotiate with your son, a key rule is that you insist on respect. If he gets angry, demanding or aggressive, then you won’t negotiate or agree to new responsibility. “If you shout at me I won’t agree to anything” or “only when you are calm, will I agree to you going” or “you won’t be able to go to training at all unless you are respectful”.

While adolescents can become more demanding at times, the rule of respect is really crucial to keeping the peace – you should never give in to your son trying to get his own way by bullying or badgering you.

Staying connected
Finally, while your son is pushing for independence it is important to stay connected with him. As children start adolescence, it can become a little harder to keep your relationship positive. Often you have to work harder at finding “chatting time” or shared activities. However, do keep persisting and be open about wanting this with them.

For example, if you enjoy attending his training or going to his matches as a way of connecting with him, explain this to him and agree you will continue to do this (while still perhaps allowing him to travel independently). Alternatively, look for other ways you can spend time together and stay connected.

John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, April 2017. John writes in the Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday. Dublin half-day ‘Positive Parenting’ courses with John, Saturday, October 21st (3-9 yr olds) and Sunday, October 22nd (10-16yr olds). Details are here.

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