Researchers are beginning to look at the ways young children spend their time and how it relates to the development of executive functioning skills such as time management and problem solving. Some early findings suggest that children who spend more time in less structured activities display better self-directed control. Summertime seems to be a great opportunity to let kids figure out how to occupy themselves without too much adult interference, but parents often have trouble figuring out how much freedom their child is ready for.
Figure out where they are
Reflect on what your child is reliably able to do. Does your 5 year old generally follow your instructions? Can your 8 year old tell time and figure out how long it will take her to ride her bike home?
Now think about patterns in what they have trouble doing. Does your 5 year old seem to try to follow your instructions, but his level of activity and impulsivity gets in the way, causing him to chase balls into the street?
Having a realistic assessment of what your child can do, as well as where they still need to develop, will help you figure out how to help your child safely expand upon their independence and capabilities. This also helps you avoid the trap of becoming too worried about tragic news stories and accidentally limiting your child’s growth.
Look to others
Develop an informal team of experienced advisers. Check in with your child’s teacher to gain their perspective about what your child can do and what they may need to keep working on. Ask about what typical kids at that developmental level are capable of doing. Check in with trusted neighbors and friends to figure out what they allow their children to do. Are there community rules about when children can go to the pool without an adult? Think about yourself when you were your child’s age. What freedoms and responsibilities did you have?
Once you have some of this feedback and information, decide what makes sense for your child based on your assessment above. Just because a friend’s 8 year old is allowed to pack a lunch and go on a picnic adventure doesn’t mean yours should be.
Identify small steps
When you know the end goal (i.e., being allowed to bike to the park alone), you can think about what skills are needed in order to reach the goal (i.e., level of safety awareness, ability to get help if needed, trusted to follow rules, etc). Once you break it down, you can begin to arm your child with the skills and knowledge they need. You might review guidelines for safety (i.e., ride on the sidewalk, cross at the light) and share expectations (i.e., don’t go anywhere other than the park, take this route to the park, be home by 3:00, etc), as well as, plan for problems and emergencies.
Let them practice
Now that you’ve identified some small steps towards developing competence in an overall goal, practice those small steps. Role play or talk through what to do and how to do it. Do parts with your child at first (i.e., ride together to the park, taking the approved route). Allow your child to try one small part at a time (i.e., ride to the park and come right home). Give your child some freedom, and check in on them (i.e., let your child ride to the park and after a short time, drive by the park to be sure all is well).
It won’t be possible for you to prepare for every potential problem, and even if you were able to, it wouldn’t be possible for your child to pull off these new privileges without making mistakes. That’s OK. Both you and your child will learn from each experience. Both you and your child will discover how their skills, your rules, or the contingency plans, need to be tweaked in order to help your child function independently and capably.