Loosening the apron strings
By Dr. Amy Glaser
My 14-year-old son suggested I write a column in which I outline the ages at which teens should be granted certain freedoms. He had some very specific ideas.
According to him, 11 is the age when children should be allowed to travel with friends to and from school on a subway. Twelve is the age when they can do it alone. At 13, he thinks it is permissible to take subways elsewhere alone, such as to a friends house. For staying at home alone after school he suggested 11-12, and alone overnight 16-17.
Its easy to see how he, a second sibling, a fairly calm individual in a building with friends as neighbors, came up with these numbers. Despite his confidence that these were reasonable guidelines, we had some discussion about what might change these numbers.
Adolescents have a bold sense that nothing can hurt them. They see everything they do as new and unique and worth trying. Are these feelings we want to stifle? What an ideal stance for embarking on life, so open and assured. Certainly outlining the dangers of risk behavior is worth doing, but there is a danger of the chicken-little effect and simply being perceived as a downer and an obstacle to their interest in experiencing the world.
Its all one big balancing act. Research suggests that adolescents do best when closely connected to their parents but at the same time are allowed to disagree. The most important limits we set for them are those that protect their health and safety and preserve future options.
For the children, the goal is more freedom. For the parent, the situation is far more complex. Parents want their children to be more confident and independent. After all, the job of the parents is to prepare them for adulthood. On the other hand, adults have a better grasp on the dangers of the city and the real threat they pose to their childs safety. Without even addressing the conflicting emotions a parent feels on seeing their influence on a child diminish, the parent is programmed to deny greater independence if their perception is that the risks are too great.
The suggestion that one just needs to introduce a balance between a childs need to accept responsibilities and a parents need to offer protection is far too simplistic. Each situation introduces new challenges.
Much as I like to be reassuring, I hear myself offering to rise at midnight to offer a ride home to my child rather than find a less embarrassing solution to my need to offer protection. The best solution, when it can be achieved, is a reasonable negotiation between the child and his or her parents. Children often feel threatened and belittled by excessive rules, but a child who can be made to understand that the limits on their freedoms come from an interest in their well being rather than a need to exercise authority might be better prepared to reach a mutually acceptable compromise.
My son was very smug in his assessment of just how the rules should be written, but each family is different as is almost every situation. Parents have a reasonable need to identify their comfort zone in regard to freedoms. Adolescents have a reasonable need to push for more independence. These areas have not, do not, and will not consistently overlap.
It is a grey area in which none of the parties should be too smug about what is right. Parents can be over protective. Adolescents can get in over their head. This column remains painfully devoid of data, facts, and studies, because objective answers that will be applicable across the myriad variables that should be reasonably factored into each decision are not forthcoming. The slow process of giving more leash to your children is best undertaken with a clear understanding of the issues underlying the parents and the adolescents point of view.
Amy Glaser, MD, a mother of two teenagers, has a private adolescent practice at 430 West Broadway, 212-941-1520. She can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org