Preparing Children for More Independence

A Five-Step Plan from Kidpower

Written by Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director

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The following article uses excerpts from Kidpower’s chapter in the excellent parenting book, “Courageous Parents, Confident Kids: Letting Go So You Both Can Grow.” Gavin de Becker, Bestselling Author of “The Gift of Fear” and “Protecting the Gift” gives a strong endorsement of this book: “The insight and knowledge provided within these pages can help adults navigate brilliantly to the destination we all want: Loving and effective parenting.”  Indepth explanations of how to teach the skills mentioned are in The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults.

Parents often struggle with the question, “How can I give my child more independence while keeping her or him safe?” Instead of taking an “all-or-nothing” approach to having children do different activities without adult supervision, Kidpower recommends the following five-step plan.

Step 1. Make realistic assessments about your child in each situation.

Step 2. As a family, learn and practice “People Safety” skills, which are skills to help people be emotionally and physically safe with people everywhere they go. Practice these skills together.

Step 3. Co-pilot with your child to field-test the use of these skills in the real world.

Step 4. Conduct trial runs to rehearse independence in controlled doses with adult backup.

Step 5: Keep communication open with listening, ongoing checking in, and review.

Step 1: Make Realistic Assessments

During our Kidpower workshops, parents often ask questions based on the theme:

“How will I know when my children are old enough to do something on their own?” For example:

  • “When can he play alone in the front yard?”
  • “Is she ready to walk to school by herself?”
  • “When can he stay overnight with friends?”
  • “Are they old enough to ride the city bus?”

The answer is that it depends. There is no magic age when children are ready for certain activities. It depends on the specific situation and on the skills of the particular child, which is why making realistic assessments is essential in determining the right answer for  your child for this activity at this time.

For example, suppose your daughter wants to go to a friend’s house for an overnight birthday party. Assessment questions about the situation might include: How well do I know this friend’s parents? If I don’t know them well, can I arrange to meet them and make sure that I feel comfortable letting my daughter go? What activities are planned? What level of supervision will be provided? Who else will be at home?

Assessment questions about your daughter’s skills include: Does my daughter know what our safety rules are and how to follow them? Can she speak up, even to the adults in charge, if she feels uncomfortable? Can she say no to her friends if they start to do something unsafe, even if she feels embarrassed? Does she know how to call me anytime, even in the middle of the night, if she needs help?

Suppose your son wants to walk to school by himself. Assessment questions about the situation might include: What is the route to school like? What hazards are along the way? What is the traffic like? Are there crossing guards, cross walks, and stoplights? Are there interesting, but potentially dangerous, things that might tempt my son into changing his plan, such as ponds, animals, or construction? What kinds of people, such as strangers, gangs, or bullies, might cause a safety problem for him? Are there stores, neighbors, or other places he could get help if he needs to?

Assessment questions about your son’s skills include: How aware and careful is my son? Does he get lost in daydreaming, or can he pay attention to the traffic and people around him? Does my son understand and know how to follow our safety rules? Can he remember to check with me first before he changes his plan, even if something looks very interesting or his friends start pressuring him? If someone challenges him in a rude way, can my son walk away from trouble and get help, or will he feel the need to prove himself? Can he interrupt a busy adult to get help if he needs to? Can my son run, yell, and get help if he’s scared?

By making realistic assessments, we can determine whether a specific child is ready to handle a specific situation independently and, if not, what this child would need to know and be able to do in order to become ready. We need to remember that children develop skills at different paces and have different personalities. What is safe for one child at a given age in a given situation might take longer or require extra precautions to be safe for another child.

If you are unsure or concerned that your child might not make the safest choice, or if you feel that your child isn’t ready to do something independently, take the time to review skills with him or her or make different plans that provide more supervision and support.

Step 2: As a Family, Learn and Practice ‘People Safety’ Skills Together

Just talking about problems can cause children to become more worried without making them safer. However, successful practice in taking charge of their emotional and physical safety can increase children’s competence and reduce their anxiety.

Instead of dwelling on the bad things that sometimes happen, parents can empower children by giving them opportunities to practice the following Kidpower People Safety skills in contexts that are relevant to their lives.

Specific skills for young people include:

  • Walking and acting with awareness, calm, and confidence
  • Checking first with their adults before they change their plan about what they are doing, where they are going, and who they are with (including people they know)
  • Checking first with their adults before they let a person or animal they don’t know well get close to them (or thinking first if they don’t have an adult to check with)
  • Moving out of reach if something or someone might be unsafe
  • Setting strong, respectful boundaries with people they know
  • Protecting their feelings from hurtful words
  • Staying in charge of what they say and do, in order to make their safest choices
  • Making a safety plan for everywhere they go about what to do and not do to stay safe – and how to get help if they need it.
  • Taking charge of bullying in ways that help them protect themselves and build positive relationships
  • Being persistent in getting help from busy adults
  • Understanding that the safety rules are different in emergencies where they cannot check first and need to get help, even from strangers
  • Yelling and running to safety if they are scared
  • Using self-defense skills to escape and get to safety if someone is being dangerous and they cannot leave and get help

During Kidpower workshops, we give our students opportunities to rehearse these skills. We encourage you to practice most of these skills at home as well, adapting the context for your family’s situation. When you coach a child to act out these skills, lead with the same spirit you might use to help a child learn how to swim or ride a bike.

Keep your attitude upbeat and focus on supporting the child’s success. Avoid turning your attention to the bad things that might happen if the child were to drown, be hit by a car, or have a safety problem with a person. If you feel yourself becoming anxious or upset when you are working with your child, take a break and practice again later. Children learn much better when their adults are calm.

Step 3: Co-pilot to Field-test Skills in the Real World

Once children have been successful in practicing People Safety skills through role-plays, the next challenge is for them to learn how to generalize the use of these skills to different kinds of real-life situations. Co-piloting is a technique that can be very effective in helping you see how well your child can stay safe out in the real world. This is how co-piloting works: before you let your child do an activity alone, you tag along on that activity with your child, letting your child lead the way. This gives your child the opportunity to show you what he or she can do, and it gives you the opportunity to notice any unexpected problems and to ask questions to check on your child’s understanding.

For example, when my daughter Chantal was eight, she wanted to be able to walk across the street from her summer school program to her brother’s day care without having me come and get her. Even though the school was directly across the street from the day care, there were lots of parents around, and the street had a crossing guard, I was very nervous about the idea. I followed Chantal as she walked ahead of me on the route she would take from her summer school door to the day care center, so that I could see exactly what she was doing.

As we walked, I peppered her with questions: “If someone stops their car and starts to talk with you, what will you do? If someone has a puppy, what will you do? If someone you know tries to give you a ride, what will you do?” My child’s calm awareness as she walked, the level of supervision around, and her answers reassured me that she was ready to take this step toward independence. However, while co-piloting, we noticed one glitch – the day care center door was sometimes locked. Co-piloting made it possible to see this problem ahead of time and make a plan for the day care staff to watch for Chantal and for how, if need be, she could find someone to let her inside.

Another idea on the use of co-piloting came from one of our most experienced instructors, Erika Leonard, when she was teaching a workshop on Internet safety. Since many children are ahead of their parents when it comes to use of the Internet and other technologies, parents often feel unsure about how to set boundaries for and keep track of their children’s digital activities. Erika suggests that parents and their children co-pilot these activities together, exploring new technologies side-by-side. This way, parents can discuss with their children how the safety rules apply to each particular situation.

Step 4: Conduct Trial Runs with Adult Backup to Develop Independence

Rather than giving blanket permission for activities requiring more independence, we can let children develop their skills and understanding by having trial runs with our backup. That way, they have the opportunity to do things on their own while having easy access to adult support in case they need help. A trial run means that the adult is very close by, but not directly and constantly supervising the activity.

For example, Marsha’s young teenagers wanted to camp with their friends without adult supervision. They had had lots of experience camping, but never by themselves. Marsha took a campsite in the next loop from theirs so that she could be accessible just in case they needed her. Her children found out that camping on their own was a lot of fun – and a lot of work!

Step 5: Keep the Lines of Communication Open

Children are safest when they know that the adults in their lives are paying attention to what they are doing and are helpful people to come to with problems. Even after children are used to doing an activity on their own, it is important to continue to check in and review safety plans and skills. People can change. Situations can change. Problems can develop that were not there before.

One girl told me tearfully in a workshop about her best friend, whose parents were going through a divorce. Her own parents just assumed that she was happy spending the night there, since she had done so for years. Unfortunately, now there was lots of drinking and fighting going on in this home, and this girl felt afraid for herself and her friend. We made a plan for how she could talk with her parents and get their help, perhaps arranging for her friend to stay at their house rather than trading back and forth.

Remind children that problems should not be secrets and that you want to know what’s happening in their lives. Be a helpful adult to come to by listening without judgment or lecturing.

Once in a while, ask your children, “Is there anything you’ve been wondering or worrying about that you haven’t told me?” If you listen with calm appreciation to their answers, you help your children develop the habit of telling you how things are going for them so that you can continue to support them in taking charge of their emotional and physical safety.

Kidpower Safety Comics – A Fun, Easy Way to Discuss and Practice Skills

Our cartoon-illustrated Safety Comics are designed to guide adults through the process of discussing and practicing most of the “People Safety” skills children need as they are developing more independence. The Kidpower Safety Comics for Younger Children are for adults with children ages 3-10 who are not out on their own. Our  Older Kids Safety Comics are for adults with children ages 9-13 who are becoming more independent. In addition, we have our Fullpower Safety Comics, which describe personal safety skills for teens and adults in basic language and drawings, which are especially useful for anyone who has limited English literacy skills.


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About the Author

Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director
Kidpower Founder and Executive Irene van der Zande is a master at teaching safety through stories and practices and at inspiring others to do the same. Her child protection and personal safety expertise has been featured by USA Today, CNN, Today Moms, the LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Publications include: Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe, the Kidpower Safety Comics series, the Relationship Safety Skills Handbook for Teens and Adults, and The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People.
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