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Autonomy - Letting Go of Our Kids

Kaori’s eight-year-old daughter, Rin, answered the door one day and found her little Grade 3 friend asking her to go play at the park down the block. The little friend was alone. Kaori replied that they would love to go to the park, and would meet her there in 15 minutes. The friend had a puzzled look on her face when she realized that Rin’s mom was coming to the park too. Kaori wondered whether she was being too protective of her daughter or if she should let her skip off to the park alone with her friend.

How do we balance our parental need to protect and keep our kids safe from harm, but trust our children to grow independently and make decisions for themselves?

It seems that our children are always ready for the next step of independence long before parents are. They ask us to take the bus alone for the first time or walk to the mall or go to the park alone with a friend. From the moment they are born, they move away from us (literally) in small baby steps until they are 18 or so and move to attend post-secondary education on the other side of the country, for example. As parents, we ask ourselves: ‘Did we cover everything before they left home? Did we teach them all they need to know about safety, health, and good home and money management skills?’ Parenting is one continual job of letting go and letting children learn on their own. But when is the right time to let go of our kids? Do we do it all at once or in baby steps?

Society is making it harder for parents to let go of their kids at a young age. Even if parents are comfortable allowing their child independence growing up, because they know their child best, sometimes society can cast judgement on parents - even commenting negatively about someone’s parenting choices on social media. Statistically, the world today is a much safer place for our kids to live in, but society is more paranoid than ever about kids’ safety. Typically, there are not many children at the park today without a cell phone as their lifeline to their parents. And, typically, kids today aren’t given the opportunity to problem-solve their own issues (bullying, stranger danger, etc.) without parental advice.

Children need us to let go of them at an early age in order to gain autonomy and thrive in life. Nowadays, privacy laws are putting a deadline on parental authority over our kids. When children reach the age of 18, the world expects them to handle their own medical, educational, financial and logistical aspects of their life. Parents are no longer consulted or provided with all of the information about important decisions their child needs to make. Thus, children must be prepared for an adult life of personal assertiveness and advocacy, long before 18.

So when should your child’s autonomy begin?

According to the P.E.T. (Parent Effectiveness Training) model of control and influence created by Dr. Thomas Gordon, by age nine, children are halfway to adulthood; age 12 is the two-thirds-mark to adulthood. By age 12, children are beginning to grow their abstract thinking skills and that is the time when parents should start grooming their kids to think about the consequences of their actions and allow their child to make their own decision, thereby gaining independence. If the child consents, parents can offer coaching and guidance. Of course, in order to get consent from a child, parents need children to listen to their influence.

If a solid, respectful relationship has been built, kids will listen to parents during the tw/een years. A solid parent/tw/een relationship includes a lot of active listening and much practice with parent-child problem-solving. At age 12, the child is in the last one-third of parental control and it’s time to start treating them as the grown-ups they are quickly becoming.

Will kids make mistakes during those last six years? Yes. However, mistakes during these years are great fodder for learning, and 99 per cent of those mistakes do not have lifelong consequences - unlike mistakes made in the adult years. Children will still have their parents close by to help problem-solve and be the supportive pillow for children to fall into after they’ve made a mistake.

And when children leave the nest, they will have the confidence, experience and skills to figure out their own logistics of living a safe, healthy, rewarding, independent life. They will be practiced in facing problems and figuring them out on their own. Even though parents are not controlling their children’s lives anymore, they will enjoy the huge influence they’ve had on their adult children. (I love the times when my sons email, text or phone to ask for my advice. That is the power of parental influence!)

Trust is key. Kaori’s parents trusted that everything would be okay when she moved to North America from Japan at age 18. She wants to give her daughter Rin that same gift of trust. Kaori still went to the park with her daughter, but considered that between age eight and age 12, she would let her go to the park on her own. She knew her child best and would decide when that magic number would be.

Judy is a non-punitive child development expert, mom of five teens and bestselling author of Discipline Without Distress and her latest book, Parenting With Patience, which has just been translated in Chinese. Join her for free live webinars in 2016, in partnership with Calgary’s Child Magazine, the third Thursday of every month at 8pm. Sign up today at

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