17 February 2012

When is a Child Old Enough to Make His Own Choices?

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about choices, and the consequences associated with them.  More specifically, how much should parents control the choices their children make?  How do we know when they’re ready to choose for themselves?

I have a friend who has a strict rule in her house: Any TV show, movie or book where the main character is significantly older than her child is strictly off limits.  The music of current teen pop stars is similarly banned.  She has a valid reason for this rule.  “My children aren’t ready to deal with the issues older kids are facing, and they shouldn’t be trying to emulate those characters.  And so many of the actors and pop stars grow up to make such bad decisions. I don’t want my children to think that’s okay.”

Another friend recently confided in me about some troubles she’s having with her son.  “He’s always been such a good child.  He never fought or questioned me when I told him to do something.”  Unfortunately, this young man was so well-practiced in the art of following without question that he began to let some questionable friends make his decisions for him.  Now, he’s facing some serious heartache as a consequence of his actions. 

So the question of parental protection from choice was already on my mind when I received a message from my Aunt.  My thirteen-year-old son had sent her a friend request on facebook, and she wanted to make sure I was okay with it before accepting.  She wrote: “I don't say anything I'm ashamed of, however I don't always speak Disney. That's why I wanted it to be your call.”

I agonized over the decision for about a week, going back and forth on the issue time and again.  She’s correct in her assessment of her posts: she often touches on issues that a child in the middle of the Disney age range shouldn’t have to deal with. However, her daily thoughts and insights on the beauty of life and love are truly inspirational.   Should I explain to my son that, while his Aunt loves him dearly, it would be better to wait for a while before officially “friending” her online?  When is a child grown up enough to start thinking about love and relationships and sex and alcohol and the pros and cons of going out clubbing vs. staying home, curled up by the fire with a good book?  At thirteen years old, my son is definitely not ready to be doing any of those things.

I thought about my friend with the rule about limiting the media her children are exposed to, as I contemplated my Aunt’s message: “By the way, it's your comfort level I'm concerned with, not mine. Kids today watch TV, see cable, have access to the Internet. It was much easier to protect and raise sheltered children when mine were babies than it is now.” 

She’s right.  It’s tough to raise sheltered children these days.  Questionable influences abound in every aspect of our lives.  Mom and Dad aren’t the venerated sources of wisdom that they used to be. 

So the question is: Do we tighten our grip and invest in high-tech content filters to control the things they see and hear as much as possible?  Do we choose their friends and closely supervise every social interaction?  At what age do we allow our children to start taking some responsibility for themselves?

Finally, my husband pointed out that I was making the issue much more complicated than it had to be.  It all boiled down to two simple questions:

Is my son old enough to experience the same things my Aunt talks about in her status updates?  Absolutely not. 

Is he old enough to be thinking about such things?  Of course!

My son is only 13 years old.  He’s not ready to go out into the world (virtual or otherwise) completely on his own.  But he’s not on his own.  I’m here, ready to act as a decision consultant whenever he has questions.  If I don’t allow him to begin thinking about the issues he’ll face as he grows up now, when I’m here to guide and direct and discuss the choices and consequences with him, how will he be ready to make the right decisions when he’s old enough to encounter more grown-up issues?  How will he learn to choose if I don’t give him the (supervised) freedom to do so?

The hardest part about being a mother is watching your child stumble and fall, knowing that you have the power to protect him from most of the pain and trouble he faces.  But just as a toddler can’t learn to walk until his mother stops carrying him in her arms, a teenager can’t learn to be an adult if he never learns to make grown-up decisions.

What do you think?  Is there a set age when children should be allowed to think about “grown-up” issues?  How (and how much) should parents protect and control the choices their children make?


  1. Because I'm at work, I can't respond to all the insightful questions... however, my son doesn't have his FB page current right now, but hopefully it will be soon, and i wanted to make sure you wouldn't mind him requesting Mr. B as a friend?! :)

  2. Your husband is a pretty smart guy :D