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What happens when kids don't learn independence?

Photo illustration of two kids sitting in a tiny box held by the large hand of an adult
Why independence is important for growing kids. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images)

Playing with other kids unsupervised, talking to adults, preparing food, walking to school and staying home alone are key ways that kids build independence. But a new Mott Poll finds that parents of children ages 5-11 are less likely to give them these opportunities.

“There is a gap between what parents believe is good or important and what they are actually doing,” Sarah Clark, co-director of the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health at the University of Michigan and a research scientist in its department of pediatrics, tells Yahoo Life.

The poll found that 74% of parents with kids between the ages 5 and 8 said they made it a point to have their kid do things by themselves, but far fewer parents report letting their child engage in behaviors such as talking with a doctor at health care appointments (47%), deciding how to spend allowance or gift money (30%), ordering at a restaurant (27%) or making their own meal or snack (20%). A similar trend exists for parents whose kids are 9 to 11 years old; 84% agree kids should have time without adult supervision, but far fewer report letting their kid do things such as finding an item in another aisle of the grocery store (50%), staying in the car while they run a quick errand (44%), playing at the park with a friend (29%) or trick-or-treating with friends (15%).

Despite valuing independence, parents in the poll cite fear as the main reason they don’t let their children engage in those types of activities. This includes both fear for safety and fear of judgment that someone will mistake their letting their child be independent for neglect and call the police or think they are a bad parent.

Clark emphasizes that the goal of the poll’s findings is not to blame parents. She believes they have the right attitude; they’re trying to protect their children. Additionally, the 24/7 news culture makes people believe there is a disproportionate amount of “bad stuff” happening, and “the blame game” of judging other parents and calling the police makes it harder for parents to feel comfortable letting their kids practice the skills necessary to develop their independence.

“We set this unrealistic expectation that parents should be perfect, and we define being perfect as making sure nothing bad ever happens to my kid. That’s a ridiculous standard,” Clark says. “We need to be more explicit in saying, as soon as kids get out of that infant period, now your job is to — the rest of the way — help this kid grow and become independent.”

When kids don’t develop a sense of autonomy, it can be detrimental to their future mental health. “Children [today] are much less free to make their own decisions, and this is correlated with a poor sense of self, poor sense of autonomy and components of anxiety and depression,” says David Bjorklund, professor and associate chair of psychology at Florida Atlantic University and co-author of a recent study linking the rise in mental disorders for children and teens to a decline in opportunities for them to play, roam and participate in other activities without adult supervision.

Additionally, it is beneficial for kids to experience all the small struggles and conflicts that occur during play with other kids. “Kids arguing and feeling a little left out and betrayed and kids taking minor risks — all of these things that don’t happen when there is an adult there to optimize things — turns out to be extraordinarily valuable,” Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids and president of Let Grow, the nonprofit promoting childhood independence, tells Yahoo Life.

Without these opportunities, “we risk kids feeling a loss of control in their own life and [having] trouble solving their own problems without needing adult intervention,” says Katie Lockwood, spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and pediatrician at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

Lockwood suggests that parents base the level of supervision their children need during different activities on the developmental stage of their child more than their age. A child’s readiness depends more on how much they’ve practiced an activity, discussions they’ve had with their parents about safety and even, sometimes, a kid’s anxiety levels. “Some kids are ready for independence sooner than others, and for some kids it may be scary to do things on their own,” Lockwood tells Yahoo Life.

A recent AAP policy statement says that, around fifth grade or age 10, kids can start doing things like walking or biking to school without adult supervision, but Lockwood emphasizes that age depends on a child’s readiness. When assessing readiness with a family, she would ask the parents if they’ve talked to their children about pedestrian safety and encountering strangers, if their kids reliably stop and look both ways before crossing streets, if their kids have a good sense of time and know the route they are going to take and if they know what to do if they get lost.

“If they haven’t had precursor experiences, then I’d tell parents to do that in a staged manner to try to build some confidence and observe them being safe in those activities and practicing the route before [launching] them to do it independently,” she says. She encourages parents to begin teaching kids safety scenarios around age 3 by using “What would you do if” questions. For example, ask children "what would you do if we got separated?" and use the answer to ground them in factual information that will help them build the skills necessary to become more autonomous in the future.

When scaffolding independence, Lockwood tells parents that kids at about age 3 should begin around the house with simple chores like picking up toys and helping in the kitchen (the AAP also provides more specific guidelines for parents of young children here). From 5 to 9, kids begin spending more time away from parents and should have time to play unsupervised. “Some patients will say they don’t feel their neighborhood is safe, but kids can have unstructured play inside with their friends,” Lockwood notes. By 10, kids can begin staying home alone for short periods of time. “Short trips of 30 minutes can be a good way to start that, and then [parents] can build that duration slowly,” Lockwood says. By the time they are teens, kids may be dropped off in public with other kids unsupervised and even be responsible for other kids during activities like babysitting.

Bjorklund wants parents to know that letting kids participate in unsupervised play and activities isn’t an all- or-nothing thing in which you either keep a tight grip on your child or leave them free to roam the neighborhood. “You have to be reasonable about these things and make a reasonable, active assessment of dangers that are around the neighborhood," he says. "Look for opportunities to increase children’s autonomy and start in small bits that you feel comfortable with and try to find like-minded people in your neighborhood or town that you can share these things with."

Parents can also use national resources like those provided by Let Grow to advocate for childhood independence within their communities, school curriculums and state legislatures. Since 2018, eight states have passed “Reasonable Childhood Independence" laws to ensure that parents can give their kids opportunities to be independent when they think their children are ready.

“There’s a belief that only constant adult surveillance is OK and anything else puts kids in danger, but there’s another danger: the danger of constant surveillance, of constant adult assistance, of constant teachable moments," says Skenazy. "That danger is that kids are in the passenger seat of their own lives."