Fostering Independence with your Tween

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by Colleen Seeber-Combs

When I was growing up in the ‘70s, they called children who didn’t have stay-at-home moms “latchkey kids”. However, I wasn’t one of them. My mother stayed home while my father worked.

Every weekday, my siblings and I took the school bus home, and my mother was there waiting for us with an afternoon snack. If we needed to go somewhere—an activity, to the store, to a friend’s house­­­­–we loaded into the car, and off we went. We couldn’t walk; we lived at the Jersey shore and almost everything was miles from home. Even a ride to school often resulted in 45 minutes on the bus.

My husband and I chose to raise our children in the city. We started our family later than most– in our 40’s—and by then we were already established in our careers. We both work full time, and have two school-aged children. Here is how we make it work for our family.

Loosen the Reigns, Without Letting Go Completely

I have two sons, one now 14, and the other 8. There were times when they needed to be at different places at the same time. When my older son was 10 and a half, we bought him a phone. We thought this was a good time to loosen the reigns a little. Could he possibly walk himself to school? At first, I’ll admit, I followed him. I watched as he turned the corner and trailed behind him. Then I let him walk on his own. Did I check to make sure he got there? Yes, I called him if he didn’t remember to text. But soon, we both became comfortable with him walking on his own.

One day, he asked to go to a friend’s house by SEPTA bus. I thought it might be a good time for him to learn to ride public transportation. I watched him get on the bus. We reviewed the route to his friend’s house and he got off at the right stop. Before long, my son was an expert at taking the bus. There were times when all did not go well…one time the bus went on a detour and dropped him off several blocks away from his destination. But he found his way. Now a freshman at high school, he takes the bus and subway on his own before I am even awake.

Teach them about Money and Responsibility

Consider having your kids do your grocery shopping. I have, on occasion, given my son a shopping list and some money to go to the market. He has also learned to cook, so he will often make his own shopping list so he has ingredients. I used to sit on the bench outside of the ACME to make sure he didn’t need help, but now he goes on his own. My younger son will make purchases as well. I let him hand over the money and count the change. I watch from the side, to make sure he is ok.

This summer, my 14-year old got his first job as a camp counselor. Every Friday, on payday, he would take his check to the bank to deposit it. Since he has a state-issued ID, he was able to make the transaction without my help.

Focus in on their talents

My older son likes to “fix things”. With some basic instruction from his grandfather, he has basic skills in building, soldering, and assembly. He has become my personal handyman: installing doorknobs, building bedroom furniture, and hanging pictures. My younger son likes to help people. The two boys volunteer regularly at the senior center.

Roll with the Punches

Let’s face it – your kids will mess up! Once when my son was making dinner, the glass pan that he used to bake exploded in the oven. He has also gotten off at the wrong bus stop and has taken the subway in the wrong direction. He lived to tell the story.

My advice is to “let it go.” Letting your children make mistakes and solve problems helps build resiliency. As your children mature, you can give them small doses of freedom, and slowly give them more. However, despite our best efforts, we can’t always protect them from failure. Be there when they fail, and let them get up and try again. Cheer them on, and then take a step back. Let them know you believe in them!

 Colleen Seeber-Combs lives with her husband, and two sons, ages 14 and 8, in Center City Philadelphia. She is a registered nurse who works full time as a nurse editor.