Balancing freedom and boundaries without going out of your mind

While most parents in their right mind probably aren’t comfortable letting their 10 year old go out on a date, having their 13 year old take the car out for a spin or allowing their 15 year old to have their own apartment, those same parents might go out of their mind if by age twenty-two that same child was unable to do most of these things. This week’s article talks about how parents can help balance the road from dependence to independence with their teen.

Sometime between the ages of 10 and 25 most teens will transition from being highly dependent on their parents’ guidance and protection to becoming independent, reliable young adults who are able to responsibly handle making their own decisions. But how do we as parents know when to initiate or allow these changes in responsibilities, rules, boundaries and freedoms?  When it comes to dating, Facebook usage or other new freedoms is there a “right” age or does it all depend on the individual child?

As parents we might ask ourselves, has my child demonstrated his maturity in the past? Do I trust that she will act responsibly in this situation? What are small freedoms that can provide opportunities for practice?

More often than not, our answers to these important questions may not match what our child thinks.

So what do the teens themselves say about their choices and expectations regarding changing freedoms and rules?  After all, they have a unique perspective on these issues and there may be some things we can learn from them. To find out, we  surveyed approximately seventy 7th and 8th grade students from a rural Wisconsin school district on a variety of topics. Here’s what they had to say.

When should children be allowed to make decisions on their own?

As you can see in the chart below, the first question centered on issues of decision making – when did these teens think young people were mature enough to make certain decisions for themselves.  Specifically, we asked them “What do you think is the right age to ________?” and then filled in the blank with the topics listed in the left hand column (e.g., “choose when to go to bed” or “go on a date”). Students were free to write down whatever age they felt was appropriate. We tallied the number of responses for each issue and the results can be seen in the right hand column of the table below.

Many parents may find the expectations of the young teens we polled to be a little unrealistic, while teens may think they have suggested reasonable guidelines.  For instance, is 13 a realistic age to allow kids to decide if they want to go on a date or 14 old enough for a teen to set their own curfew?  The push and pull between parents and teens around freedom and responsibility is normal, though sometimes stressful. Research has shown that young people overestimate their readiness to take on new privileges and responsibilities while parents underestimate it.  Not surprisingly, the push of growing teens and the pull of concerned parents can result in disagreement and tension.  This is a natural part of early adolescence, as the task of teens is to strive for greater independence while the task of parents’ is to guide and protect them.

Our survey findings make it much clearer why the transition to adolescence is so pivotal and sometimes so stressful.

  • Emerging teens increasingly see themselves as having a right to make their own decisions about issues that affect their lives.
  • Parents – pushed by their child’s desire for more latitude in decision making – are often compelled to re-examine their parenting styles and adjust their comfort levels on a regular basis. Increasingly, parents of young teens need to decide which issues they should maintain authority over and which they can begin to handover to their child.
  • All of this readjustment often heightens the frequency and intensity of conflict between parent and child.

Some Questions to Ponder…

  • Do you think that your teen would answer in a similar fashion to the teens in our survey? (Try asking them and see what they would they say.)

  • What are some areas where you think your teen desires more freedom to make decisions?  If you don’t think they’re ready, what are some ways you might help prepare them?

  • What suggestions do you have for other parents about the appropriate ages to do things like date, when to go to bed, curfew and so on? 


Article by Anne


Anne is a Digital Education Specialist with Cooperative Extension Family Living Programs at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.  She has a PhD in Human Development and Family Studies from the University of Wisconsin – Madison and lives with her husband in Rochester, MN. Anne is the oldest of three children.