Too young for fun?
How do you decide when a child is ready for the next step, wonders Tracy Engelbrecht.
When I was little, I’d always ask my parents at what age I could stay up late/wear make-up /breed piranhas, but they could never give me a straight answer. My friends’ parents had all set down specific ages for the things they wanted to do, but mine steadfastly refused to give me the magic number. They always said ‘We’ll see’. Drove me crazy then, but I get it now.

With my own children, I also can’t stick an arb number on their development or privileges. I can set out the kind of behavior I’d need to see before something is allowed, but who knows when that will happen? What if I tell Conor he can stay out ‘til midnight at 16, and when he gets there he’s not actually ready for it? Can’t really back out now, can I? 

You can’t go back on a promise, especially if they’ve been counting down the days for years. Same problem if you find that they’re ready for something earlier than you’d anticipated. If you give in and change your mind, everything becomes negotiable and you look like a wuss. 

I have to focus on the behavior and maturity required. If I make it about the digits they grow up with the dangerous idea that age automatically means wisdom. It SO doesn’t, as the daily news proves constantly.

So I find myself being exasperatingly vague, just like my parents were. I say ‘We’ll see’. She says ‘But when?’ I say ‘When we get there, I guess’. She says ‘But when will that be?’ I say ‘I don’t know. Not yet. When it’s time.’

I know it’s irritating but I don’t know how else to do it. They’ll be ready for stuff when they’re ready for it, and no random number will speed that up or slow it down. The differences between individual children are just too great to set the same rules for everybody.  Even my own children are entirely different. Layla at 7 is not the same at all as Conor at 7, and so I can’t apply the same plan I had first time around.

Admittedly, when they’re close in age, the We’ll See strategy is risky. I can see why a flat, constant age limit might seem easier. Each child is watching the development of the next and will quickly pounce on any perceived injustice. Much ‘But how come she’s allowed?’ ensues. Very messy. Mine are luckily 7 years apart – makes different strokes for different folks much easier to get away with.  

Clever parents know that if you don’t cast anything in stone you’ve got loopholes when you need them. You can watch, and you’ll see when it’s time for the ace up your sleeve. And nothing beats the lit up face when you unexpectedly allow something new for the first time. I think that knowing they’re allowed because they’ve earned it makes it a bigger deal.

How does this work in your family? Strict age limits, or the ‘we’ll see’ approach?

Read more by Tracy Engelbrech

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