Preteens – How to help them become independent

Like many people, I remember the first time my dad took the training wheels off my bike. With a mix of fear, excitement, and adrenalin, I started out slowly and wobbly down the street, my dad jogging along beside me. I kept looking over to make sure he was there in case I lost control. He was, and I felt reassured.

As I straightened the wheels out a bit and picked up the pace, however, I suddenly looked over and realized he was not there and promptly fell off my bike. I sat there on the hard sidewalk inspecting my scratches as he ran up to me. He asked me what happened. Why did you stop?

I wailed back, you were not there. Where did you go? He explained to me that I was doing fine, and I did not need him. And then, he did the most important thing. He made me get back up on my bike and try again.

I am not sure how many falls I had that day, but like most kids, I was riding with confidence by the next day. My training wheels were off, the worst thing had happened (falling off the bike), and I now had a new independence.

I could ride my bike way beyond my own driveway, and explore my neighborhood and the next neighborhood over. I had guidelines about which streets I had to walk my bike down, including our own very busy street, and I had a watch and a curfew.

I was not always 100 percent safe, but my parents let me go anyway. I developed confidence, resiliency, and independence. I had several other “taking the training wheels off” experiences that helped build these traits: the first time I walked to school alone; the first time I went to the store for my mom; the first time my parents left me alone at home, etc. Each time I had one of these experiences, my fear turned to confidence, and I knew my parents believed I could handle what came along.

As an elementary school administrator, I often worry that the preteens in my care are not given enough opportunities to develop their confidence, resiliency, and independence. Their parents are less willing to take off the training wheels. While I recognize the world is a different place today than it was when I was growing up, I do believe our preteens can handle many more challenges and responsibilities than some are given. They need to know that their parents believe in their abilities and that even if they go sprawling to the cement, they will survive and maybe even be stronger for it.

I urge parents and educators to push their preteens to become more independent. Give them more responsibilities. Have them make their own lunch, pack their own backpack, walk with friends to school, solve their own problems with peers, carry their own belongings home, advocate for themselves in the classroom, and deal with the natural consequences of making mistakes, forgetting something at home, or missing lunch.

They are strong enough to deal with disappointment and failure and need to know that it is okay to not be perfect, and that taking risks (albeit safe ones) is what growing up and becoming more independent is all about. Your dad will not always be running alongside your bike, but you can make it anyway. And, you will feel much better about your success if it really is your own.