When do kids have the right to a little independence?
Jessica Hartshorn's kids
Credit: Courtesy of Jessica Hartshorn

Kids are ready to be at a park by themselves at about age 13. And they're at the right age for a first date at about age 16. Those are mean results complied from 3,000 American families in a survey called the American Family Survey, sponsored by the Deseret News and Brigham Young University.

I have a 10-year-old and a 13-year-old and this study hit home, because indeed, I won't let my 10-year-old play at the park by himself. My daughter, on the other hand, at 13, takes the subway to and from school and meets friends at Starbucks and can certainly hang out at parks if she wants to. That's them in this picture, and looking at it, I feel like there is a big difference in those three years. And I feel like there will be another huge difference between my daughter at 13 and at 16, when she'll likely be thinking about dating.

But wait, am I really with these families in basically giving my children three years, from age 13 to 16, in which to go from a (finally) trusted child to a mini adult? To go from being able to walk to school on their own to going out? And how did we get this way?

I do think we are living in a super-judgey time, when once-standard parenting decisions are met with negativity. Families literally call the police on other families who let kids play outside on their own.

One line of an excellent New York Post write-up of this survey feels joltingly familiar: "We postpone giving [kids] any sort of independence until it would be embarrassing not to." That pretty much sums it up. If we feel like other parents would think we're doing something dangerous, we play it safe and keep our kids coddled. Only when our kids are practically our own height do we loosen the reins and let them do something as simple as get themselves to school.

Ugh. Can we all agree to let our kids have a little more independence, a little earlier? Support the neighbors who want to leave their 11-year-old at home while they run to the store, by promising that the child can come knock on our door if needed? Not raise our eyebrows at kids at the park by themselves, or running an errand for their parents? I mean, back in the day such independence was rewarded, not scorned.

It's a matter of turning off our own alarm bells too, the feeling that something terrible is going to happen if our kids are out of sight of a trusted adult. This survey is maybe one indication that we should try.

Jessica Hartshorn is the Entertainment Editor of Parents magazine and might still help her kids pick out their clothes each day. She's going to try and stop herself now.