Parents often wrestle with how to balance child safety and independence. On playgrounds, at schools, and in the office, they often ask me questions that start with, “At what age can I let my child go alone to…” or “My child wants to (fill in the blank) with his friends; is it ok?”
On most matters, there are no hard-and- fast rules; decisions are left largely to parent discretion. Families need to make good choices based on the activity, the child (his abilities, maturity, impulse control), his friends, and his surroundings. But there is one clear rule: Safety trumps independence on matters that put a child at risk for permanent disability or death, and motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of child and adolescent death. So, for traffic safety decisions, it is a parent’s sole responsibility. End of discussion. When it comes to auto safety, there is no such thing as parents being overprotective.
When children are young, you can get their opinion about comfort and colors of child safety seats and helmets and discuss why you are transitioning them from a forward-facing seat to a booster or from a booster to an adult seat belt. When they get older, you can hear their decision-making about where they want to go, with whom they will be going, and when they will be back. If the decision is safe and sound, you can go with it. Teen permit holders can help choose routes to take and skills to develop for practice sessions, but it’s important to remain firm about not driving their friends around when newly licensed. The aim of this discussion should be for them to understand why this decision is non-negotiable (for their safety) and not to debate why the rule is in place.
Although brains continue to evolve over a lifetime, the most intense development of our children’s brains occurs during childhood and early adulthood. Of most importance regarding safety, the prefrontal cortex, also known as the “CEO” or “command center” of the brain, is the last portion to develop and does not fully mature until the mid-20’s. That’s why some say you need to “share your brain” to keep them safe. Sure you should give them more autonomy as they grow, taking into account their preferences. But key risky decisions are ultimately yours. It’s not about control; it’s about safety.