Ah, the tween years, that unique time between the cute antics of toddlerhood and the cringe-worthy rebelliousness of the teenage years. Although the tween years can seem like a time to coast, the tween years actually set the stage for rules and expectations later on. Getting it right while your child is between 8 to 12 years old may create a smoother ride later on.
Encourage independence but enforce boundaries
Tweens are no longer babies who require constant supervision. They crave the freedom to try new things, like sleeping over at a friend’s house or hanging out at the mall. Parents who don’t offer that kind of freedom may be setting themselves up for a child who sneaks around to try and gain the independence they seek. That doesn’t mean, however, that your child should get anything and everything they desire. All kids need boundaries that are clearly defined and consistently enforced. So swallow that “no” when your child asks for more freedom, and find a way to compromise so you both win. Let them go to the sleepover, but tell them to call if they need you. Go to the mall but hang back. Give your child an opportunity to try, and sometimes even fail, on his or her own. Be there to cheer them on or help pick up the pieces, but trust them enough to let them try for themselves as long as they stay within limits that are acceptable to you as a parent.
Privacy vs. secrecy
Any parent who’s ever been walked in on in the bathroom (and who hasn’t?) knows that privacy is a good thing. Tweens are discovering the benefits of privacy and use it to their advantage. Friends become an ever more important part of a tween’s life, and they use these friendships to share private thoughts and ideas that adults may find silly or unimportant. Secrecy, on the other hand, often connotes shame, embarrassment, or something to hide, and that’s never OK. Foster privacy by giving your tween the space he or she needs, but let your child know that he or she can talk to you openly about anything. More importantly, follow through on that promise by listening whenever he or she talks. Listening to the little things lets your child know that you’ll be there when it’s time to talk about the big things. It’s also a good idea to take some of the pressure off your child by suggesting alternate adults, like an aunt, uncle, or close family friend, who would be happy to listen to your child if there’s ever a topic they don’t feel comfortable talking to you about.
Friends are a big part of a kid’s life and increase in value as the child moves from the tween years to full-blown teenagerhood. Because friends exert such a huge influence over one another, it’s important to monitor your child’s friendships. Know who their friends are, their interests, and their parents. And what happens if your child chooses a friend you’re less than impressed with? The absolute worst thing to do is forbid him or her from hanging out with the child. That makes the friendship a kind of forbidden fruit that makes it all the more tempting. A better way to handle the situation is to talk, talk, and talk some more about appropriate choices and behavior and only allow your child to spend time with the friend when you’re around. Your child will either figure out that it’s not a worthwhile situation or your influence might wear off on the friend.
Gone are the days where a parent can assume that whatever is on the television or radio is appropriate for children of all ages, and the same goes for movies and the internet. You can’t lock them in a room and take away all media, particularly in an age where fluency in technology is a basic job requirement. You can, however, monitor what they’re doing. Facebook’s policy states that users should be 13 years old or older; in reality, many parents allow their children to have a Facebook account when they’re 8 or 9. Give them the privacy they need, but don’t be afraid to check in on what they’re doing, saying, and watching. Know their passwords and check their accounts regularly. Be honest with them and tell them that you’re monitoring their texts, tweets, posts, and browser history. Stay on top of it and take action when needed, either with a blocker program or by taking away privileges. You control the media; don’t let it control you.
Don’t assume they’re too young
Eight years old seems awfully young for body image problems, and anorexia and bulimia seem like teenage or young adult problems. The sobering truth is that these issues often develop during the tween years. Ditto with drug and alcohol experimentation. Some older tweens even experiment with sex. Don’t deceive yourself by thinking your child is too young. Be open, be honest, and be clear about expectations. But also take heart in the fact that you as a parent have an enormous amount of control. Research shows again and again that children with high self-esteems are less vulnerable to body image problems and peer pressure. Use that knowledge to your advantage and foster their self-esteem with earned praise and respect. Simple things like eating meals together as a family may seem mundane but become an effective way to combat low self-esteem and eating disorders.
Honesty about sex
The birds and the bees isn’t a one and done kind of discussion. Granted it’s an awkward conversation to have, but the truth is that your child will learn about it one way or another. Would you rather they hear it from you or by eavesdropping on a middle schooler? Or from TV? Maybe from a celebrity interview? Keep an open and ongoing dialogue and let them know that nothing they ask is silly or embarrassing. They may balk or blush, but they’ll also get the message that you understand and that you want them to make responsible choices.
There are three kinds of parents: those who have no clue about tween culture, those who dive so deeply into tween culture that it’s hard to separate child from adult, and those who know enough to be able to carry on a conversation without humiliating their child. Strive to be the third parent. Know who’s relevant in your child’s life whether it’s a singer, celebrity, or sports star. Build a working knowledge so you can interact, but don’t go overboard. Just because it’s their fascination doesn’t mean you need to make it yours.
Enjoy the time you have
The tween years are fleeting but fun. A diaper bag is no longer necessary, but your existence hasn’t become cause for embarrassment yet. There are harmless infatuations and crushes, but it’s generally more innocent than dating. Your child is old enough to help out around the house but not too old to sneak in an extra cuddle. Take advantage of the curiosity and independence that come with the tween years. It will make the transition to the teenage years smoother.