About the time your preschooler becomes a grade schooler, she begins to develop peer relationships and relationships with adults outside your family. Over the grade school years, these outside relationships take on increasing significance; by the time your grade schooler is an adolescent, these outside relationships compete with family relationships. As your adolescent grows toward adulthood, these outside relationships can become more significant than family relationships. Good parenting recognizes and encourages this gradual expansion of social involvement in ways which maximize social development and minimize growing up too fast or too slowly. Most problems and potentials of later relationships present themselves for parenting when your children are young.
Your children learn to be socially assertive without becoming self-centered or inappropriately aggressive, and reasonably cooperative without becoming unduly compliant. Helping your children strike this social balance is difficult.
Your toddler learns sometimes you want to play, sometimes you want him to climb on your lap, sometimes adults and other children are interested in playing with his blocks, but at other times he must entertain himself, not interfere, and respect the rights of other people. In social terms, he learns about mutual rights and responsibilities and respect for the feelings and interests of others. For example, when you are talking on the telephone, you do not want him to make a commotion. What if he does? Occasionally, you say to the caller, “Just a minute until I settle a little problem.” You lay down the receiver and perhaps make him sit on a chair, send him to his room, or otherwise let him know his attempts at social interaction are inappropriate. At other times, you do your best to tolerate the behavior until you finishe your conversation. Once you are off the phone, though, your toddler learns in much the same way he should have respected your right to talk on the telephone without interference.
With your adolescent, the situation is somewhat reversed. You may want to have rules about when your adolescent can talk on the telephone and for how long. It may be necessary to enforce these rules. At the same time, you must recognize your adolescent’s right to talk on the phone without interference. It is inappropriate for you to say, “How long are you going to be on the phone?” assuming you do not plan to use the phone – or “Who are you talking with?” or “What are you talking about?” He may not want to tell you. Respect your adolescent’s right not to communicate. If your adolescent has a cell phone, it is appropriate to set rules about when and where he may use his phone, for example, making or receiving calls after family bed time, phone use during meals, using his phone in the room where others are talking or watching TV, phone use (including texting( while driving, and the like. Just be sure you and other adults respect the same rules.
Frequently you set standards for social behavior but do not model this good behavior. You ask your grade schooler, “How much did you pay for the toy?” Your grade schooler asksyou, “How much did you pay for the new computer?” There is a problem if you respond “It is none of your business,” unless you are willing to accept the same response from your grade schooler about the new toy.
You express concern about your children interrupting your conversations, hanging around when adults are talking, and generally trying to butt into your activities. Your children should learn not to do this. They should be told when they are not invited. If your children do not respond to this verbal limit, enforce the limit.
At the same time, your children have a right to their own social activities. It is inappropriate to eavesdrop on their conversations, or walk in on a conversation and act as if they should continue in spite of your being there. It is inappropriate to assume they want you to become involved in their activities. For example, if three grade schoolers are playing football in the backyard, do not simply assume it is alright to become involved in their game. Ask, “May I play?” Do not assume you are invited to your child’s sleep over, as a participant. If you have given your adolescent permission to sit with her boyfriend on the front porch, do not eavesdrop or be too obvious about supervising.
You have a clear right and responsibility to supervise the activities of your children, to chaperone parties, to check once in a while to see what your children are doing. But do this in a socially responsible way showing respect for your child’s rights. For example, you have no right to involve yourself in your child’s sleep over without your child’s permission; but you do have the right to set rules about the party, to check once in a while to make sure things are going smoothly, and to supervise the activities. You have the right to tell your children how long they can talk on the phone or how long to sit on the front porch with a friend. At the same time, though, you do not have the right to sit on the porch for an hour and a half and talk with your adolescent’s friend unless you and your child agree this is acceptable. Model good social behavior, respect the social rights and responsibilities of your children, and treat your children with as much social respect and consideration as you expect from them.
The younger your child is, the more parental supervision, limits, and rules there have to be. It is quite appropriate for you to directly interact and sometimes interfere with the social activities of a toddler. You show slightly more recognition of your preschooler’s autonomy and rights to social respect and freedom. Your grade schooler has a right to increased privacy and social independence as the intensity and significance of his relationship with you begins to diminish. Your toddler or preschooler may be taken to parties or social activities without a great deal of prior discussion about whether or not he is going to go. For a grade schooler, though, such decisions should be his, with you only exercising a veto over activities of which you disapprove. For example, two toddlers get into a hassle. You may make both children sit for five minutes until they settle down. But if two grade schoolers get into a hassle, they are likely old enough to work things out for themselves; you do not interfere unless someone is going to get hurt.
Your inclination to disregard your adolescent’s growing social autonomy may be very real, but remember he is fairly independent, capable of making most of his social decisions, and ready to deal mostly independently with his social world. It may help the tendency toward overinvolvement and excessive control if you realize your efforts work only if your adolescent gives permission. You can say, “I forbid you to date that girl.” Unless you propose to directly supervise him twenty- four hours a day, he will see her if he wants to. There is also very little you can do if your adolescent chooses to openly defy you.
Grounding is a good example. You tell your adolescent she may not leave the house in the evening. But suppose one evening she simply does not come home from school, or walks out the door about eight o’clock. Short of a physical confrontation which is quite unacceptable, there is virtually nothing you can do in the moment, unless you are willing to call the police. Grounding works with your adolescent primarily as a product of your ongoing relationship, not because you can actually make her do much of anything on any given occasion.
Most children develop a high level of social independence by the time they are fourteen or fifteen. The fact they continue to accept the restrictions imposed by you has very little to do with parental authority. Rather, it is a continuation of your earlier relationship through which you worked out mutually understood ways of dealing with each other. If you have not dealt with the growing autonomy of your children, the problems will grow when your children become adolescents. If you have overdone the restrictions and have failed to recognize your child’s growing social independence, she may rebel when she discovers there isn’t all that much you can really do. If your children have experienced an overrestrictive relationship with you, they may capitulate and give in emotionally, become passive and socially nonassertive. If you have restricted too little, your adolescent may not respond at all to your limits. At the extreme, she may “run wild.”