Give your Kiddos Space to Explore
Written by: Dr. Stacy Frazier and Maya Boustani
Kiddos want independence. The process is gradual, begins early, and extends through young adulthood. As soon as baby learns to crawl, she is eager to explore her world. So begins a parent’s journey to strike balance between encouraging separation, while protecting their child from harm.
Below are autonomy granting guidelines broken down into the 5 stages of childhood:
•Early Childhood (Age 2-6):
Initial desire for control emerges during the “terrible twos”. Toddlers seek to exercise their independence, but success depends heavily on the extent to which they can return safely to their caregiver’s side. Gentle encouragement to explore and discover facilitates self-confidence. Parents can support their little kiddos by supervising safe exploration and offering age appropriate choices: Apple or pear? Blocks or legos? Choices introduce opportunities for child decision-making met with parent approval. As children show signs of independence – dress themselves, tie their shoes, or clear their dinner spot – encourage them to assume responsibility for these, and invite them to help with other household tasks (setting the table or raking the leaves).
•Middle Childhood (Age 6-8):
Initiate family rules and routines that increase independence. Children can be responsible for safe keeping of their toys, folding their clothes, completing homework, maintaining good habits (teeth brushing, choosing healthy snacks), and contributing to their family through chores. These expectations create important opportunities for kiddos to develop a sense of responsibility, self-confidence, and pride.
•Late Childhood (Age 9-11):
Children appreciate opportunities to contribute to family discussions and decisions (such as planning the week’s dinners or choosing an evening activity). They benefit from solving some of their own problems (help them to identify the problem, brainstorm solutions, consider pros and cons, make a decision and evaluate its outcome) and suffering the natural consequences of their mistakes (such as leaving their book at school or leaving their toy in the rain).
•Early Adolescence (Age 12-15):
Parents often reduce supervision during middle school, coinciding with increasing peer influence. Middle school presents opportunities for expanding friendships, new activities, and exposure to risky behaviors (swearing, cigarettes, fighting). Therefore, it becomes even more important to monitor closely while providing opportunities for your pre-teen to earn trust and privileges.
Maintain ongoing, open, honest, and calm communication. Allow disagreements. Model patience, offer more praise than criticism, and demonstrate respect for diverse perspectives on complex issues.
•Late Adolescence (Age 16-18):
Value mistakes as opportunities for growth and learning, and allow realistic consequences to teach responsibilities that accompany adolescence. For example, though you may be tempted to ground your adolescent for crashing the car, they will learn from natural consequences, such as paying for repairs and relying on public transportation.
Kids of all ages seek and deserve independence. Sometimes they may climb too high or stray too far. But when they fall, you’ll be there to catch them. So, as you prepare for a fun summer, give them space to explore, and they will soar!
Stacy L. Frazier, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor and mother of two (Alyssa, 13 and Sebastian, 10), and Maya M. Boustani, M.S., is a doctoral candidate and also a mother of two (Noor, 8 and Nayla, 5). Both work at the Center for Children and Families in the Department of Psychology at Florida International University.