Using the idea of the expanding circle of your child’s world, you can see her increasing independence and self-directed action require you gradually reduce the rules and constraints and encourage her autonomy. How do you handle this decrease of rules and constraints and the increase of independence and self- determination? First, recognize rules and constraints must be clearly established before they can be reduced. It would be simple if you could just back off from the rules and constraints and encourage independence. The problem is the rate at which you do this and the pattern of backing off vary from child to child and from time to time with each child. Some days she can accept more responsibility and independence than other days. With only certain things can she be more independent and responsible.
For example, your five-year-old may be able to handle the craft activities at the park more or less independently for a few days or a few weeks. You start by staying with her during the craft hour and gradually move to taking her to the park and coming back to get her at an appointed time. After a couple of weeks, you give her the responsibility of walking to the craft hour and returning home independently. This goes along quite nicely until you discover your child is not coming straight home afterwards. You have a serious talk with your child and things seem to straighten out for a few days. You find, though, the problem recurs. Your child seems to accept the responsibility only part of the time. How do you deal with this?
You start out by directly supervising your child and then moving to arrangements where she gradually has more independence and responsibility. You may occasionally find you have gone too far. There is no way to be sure how much your child can handle unless you gradually let her handle a little more than she is handling already. You give her a little more room, a little more freedom, a little more responsibility. If she deals with this in a reasonable and responsible way, you give her a little more room. If she has problems, though, you know you have gone too far and must back off some.
In the park example, you could allow your child to go to the craft period alone but arrange to meet her at the park as soon as the craft period is over. In such situations, some parents are inclined to punish and overreact. To forbid your child to go to the craft period at all is clearly excessive and also requires starting over the next time your child has to go and come independently. It is better to back off a little. By trial and error, you can get back within the range your child can handle. After a few days of picking your child up at the park, it is again time to say, “I am going to try again to give you the responsibility of coming straight home by yourself. I hope you are able to handle it this time and I do not have to treat you like a younger child. I am trying having you go to the park and then coming directly home by yourself. If it does not work out this time, I am going to have to do something more serious about it.” You have suggested your child may receive negative discipline if the problem recurs. Your child has experienced your following through with these types of responses to unacceptable behavior and probably responds as she has learned to respond – by behaving.
The example assumes your neighborhood is a safe place for your five-year-old to be walking alone. In some communities, this may be true if the child is only walking a block or so. In other communities, however, young children walking along the street is always a bad idea. If you aren’t sure about your neighborhood, talk with your neighbors and friends about it before you permit your child to walk anywhere alone, including to school. If you have doubt, just do not do it. Nonetheless, the idea of progressively teaching your child about accepting increasing responsibility applies to many learning situations with your child.
Good parenting maintains a balance between your child’s ability to handle situations and the responsibilities and opportunities for which she is not yet ready. You do not vacillate between giving a lot of freedom and almost none. Occasionally you may overdo it and occasionally you may underdo it. Whether the issue is boundaries and limits, helping and cooperation, or experiences and opportunities, you stay with your child at her maximum level of self-determination, moving continually between interfering too much and not enough, restricting too much and too little, encouraging too much and not encouraging enough.