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During the holidays, two kids from two families that we are friends with snuck out at night to look at the stars. The mother of one twelve year old boy reacted with an outburst of anger and severely berated her son, while the parents of the eleven year old were mostly amused but tried to explain possible dangers and asked their son to not go out on his own again.

The different reactions made me wonder how I would have wanted to react in their stead and what would be the most appropriate answer to such an excursion.

The boys didn't do anything "wrong", that is, they didn't steal, destroy, or take drugs. They just wanted to see the night sky (and some falling stars), and did that alone when their parents weren't too enthusiastic about a night without sleep (they have younger children who don't yet sleep through and value a good night's sleep highly). But of course getting out at night might be dangerous for kids of that age (although I cannot quite imagine them getting mugged or abducted).

So what is the right way to react to that?

Is it appropriate for children that age to be that independent? Or should the understand that they at least have to tell their parents first? And what is the best way to tell them? On the one hand I feel that the anger of the one mother would certainly instill a feeling of not doing something like that again in her son, while the bemused and relaxed explanation of the other parents might show their son that he can basically do whatever he wants and his parents will be okay with it.

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    I'd be inclined to give my kid a good book on star watching and show them how to use a telescope if they don't already. – Scribblemacher Jul 4 '18 at 11:53
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    Praise them for their curiosity, buy them a telescope and a book about astronomy, take them on a night hike, tell them to tell an adult when they intend to do it again in the future, otherwise you’ll take their telescope away. – A E Jul 4 '18 at 17:06
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First off: What a beautiful thing to do, and what a wonderful memory to have later on: To go watch the night sky with your friend.

Is it appropriate for children that age to be that independent?

I don't think this is a question about independence. We're not dealing with repeated excursions into the night life of the town / city. This sounds like a single incident. So it's not a question of independence for me; it's more a question about how dangerous this single excursion actually was.

That depends very much on where you live. I happen to live in a place where danger to the kids would be minimal. If the kids lived in a ghetto setting where people regularly get mugged or worse in the dark, then obviously I would never ever let my kids go out alone after dark. But for the rest of my answer, I'm assuming that the actual danger the boys were in was negligible. So while having children out unsupervised after dark without parental consent is certainly not appropriate in general, in this isolated case it doesn't strike me as a big problem.

Or should the understand that they at least have to tell their parents first?

Usually they should, yes. As a parent I'd be terribly worried if I found my son's bed empty at night. Also, I'm legally responsible for my children, so this isn't just a question of whether I think it's okay or not - society says it's not. But I can't shake the feeling that there is something important happening here for these kids, and I think the kids do understand the rules. But the whole point seems to have been to go see the sky together. Without parents. A boyhood adventure in the footsteps of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. I bet they fully expected that if they'd asked, the parents would have wanted to accompany them. So they didn't ask (I'm not sure if your question implies that they have asked and the parents said no -- but I think it doesn't matter all that much, except that if they actually went against the explicit orders of the parents, I'd probably deal out a small punishment -- like learning about star constellations so the boys can teach them to the rest of the family on the next nightly outing....)

...while the bemused and relaxed explanation of the other parents might show their son that he can basically do whatever he wants and his parents will be okay with it.

I don't think so. I think the relaxed parents realized that this is a boyhood experience that is worth having. We are only eleven or twelve years old once. These moments will never come back. So as a parent I'd be lenient. I'd tell them they can't just disappear without telling anybody, and I'd be very straight-faced when telling them in no uncertain terms, but inwards I'd be smiling and happy for my child.

I do think children are smart enough to see the difference between something harmless such as sneaking out to go watch the stars, and sneaking out to go drink whisky, smoke pot and perform some petty vandalism on the neighbors car. So when you don't punish behavior that is basically harmless, that doesn't automatically mean to the child that you'll be okay with behavior that is actually dangerous, irresponsible or illegal.

So, to summarize: If there isn't actually much danger involved, I'd react exactly like the relaxed parents; from what you describe, they handled the situation just fine.

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    Very well stated. – pojo-guy Jul 2 '18 at 14:44
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@Pascal's answer covers it very well. This is just background information.

There's no one right answer; it depends on the child as much as anything else.

There are many thousands upon thousands of studies on adolescents and independence, some dating back many decades, and there is so much contradiction in the results that it's difficult to come to a firm conclusion about what's normal and helpful to future relationships in the acquisition of "independence". A lot of the confusion stems from how one defines independence, which is difficult to define. So I'll try to answer, but know I'll be leaving out almost everything.

Is it appropriate for children that age to be that independent?

Reinterpreted, it is perfectly normal for young adolescents to start keeping secrets from their parents and doing things without telling them at this age.

On the one hand I feel that the anger of the one mother would certainly instill a feeling of not doing something like that again in her son...

Not an either/or situation. Yes, it might make the child think twice. Or, if this is the usual response to autonomy, it might demonstrate a need for increased stealth and might hurt future communications, i.e. might damage the parent-child relationship, and future interpersonal relationships. But relationships and behavior are not based on isolated incidents.

Or should the understand that they at least have to tell their parents first?

They did understand they were doing something "wrong", i.e. they snuck out. Again, this is normal to want to do.

And what is the best way to tell them?

I'm not sure what you mean by this. "Best" is a request to do something before it happens, but the kids either realized the answer would be "No" and proceeded anyway, or they decided on the spur of the moment (no time to ask.)

...the bemused and relaxed explanation of the other parents might show their son that he can basically do whatever he wants and his parents will be okay with it.

This is one place where "independence" gets very sticky. It's not either/or. There is autonomy (deciding for oneself what actions to take) and there is volition (the degree to which children make decisions about acting based on the morals their parents/society have tried to instill.)

As you said, the kids did nothing "bad" when they acted autonomously. They snuck out to look at the stars. Their "volition" was pretty acceptable.

How should a parent act in these circumstances?

There should be a consequence, but generally, when a high degree of volition is demonstrated, "good" parents should take this into consideration. Higher degrees of volition in adolescent decisions usually strengthen the relationship between parent and child.

...he can basically do whatever he wants...

No. Kids this age (and throughout adolescence) still need a lot of parental involvement and monitoring. Because kids this age make alarmingly bad decisions sometimes.

Without analyzing, parents usually support decisions that demonstrate a high degree of volition, and don't support those that show a low degree.

How I handled it

With grown kids, I can tell you how I handled it when they were going through adolescence. I made it a point not to get angry after the fact, because I wanted to let my kids know that they could tell me anything, and I mean anything. What happened is that I would have a discussion with the child about the action they took. In this case, I would have discussed how important it would have been to me to ask in advance because I would have worried terribly had I accidentally discovered an empty bed. And depending on where they went, I would want them to understand the importance of the risks involved. Since what they did was beyond harmless, it would have ended there, with a "Please ask next time" caveat.

When we were eleven, my best friend and I played hooky one day and took a train into NYC. We wanted to see "hippies". Our plan was to walk to Greenwich Village and find some hippies; that was the extent of it. (Eleven year olds sometimes aren't very deep thinkers.) We didn't even know where The Village was, so all we did was to wander around the city on foot, stopping here and there to shop with babysitting money we'd earned. Both on arriving and departing the city, we went through Grand Central Station, perhaps the busiest transportation hub in the country at the time. When we got back, we wrote each other school absence notes and went home.

I thought I'd gotten away with it until years later I confessed to my mom and she told me she knew all about it from a sticker on a gift I had bought her.

What we did was incredibly thoughtless. But no harm whatsoever came to us. While in retrospect I think my mom could have done better, I think she did pretty well for that time.

Autonomy in Adolescent Development
Towards Conceptual Clarity
Edited by Bart Soenens, Maarten Vansteenkiste, Stijn Van Petegem
© 2018 – Psychology Press

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I did that starting at about age 8 or so during the summer. (I remember that I could turn end for end inside my sleeping bag, so I could not have been very old.) Sometimes on my own, sometimes a friend would come over. Wasn't far -- our back yard. We lived on the edge of town -- it was a wheat field at our property line.

The question isn't one of spending the night under the stars, it's one of permissions and circumstances. Sleeping under the stars in New York Central Park is probably not a great idea even for adults. And not being in your room, when your parents expect you to be there isn't a great way to build your parents trust.

My folks were casual about it. I'd let them know I was going to be in the back yard, not my bed. If a friend was coming over, I'd ask permission after supper. Usually there was a phone call between my mom and his mom. I don't remember one being refused, unless my friend had something going on the next day.

Boy scouts used to have patrol campouts without adults as a matter of routine. The patrol leader was typically 13-15, the youngest kids 11. They would get to their campsite by some combination of foot and car and bike. Parents would know the schedule, route etc. Wasn't regarded as a big deal.

  • Does this answer the OP's question(s)? It sounds mostly like an anecdote (which is fine, but not as the entire answer.) – anongoodnurse Jul 24 '18 at 1:26
  • Yes. It says, she shouldn't be concerned, barring other considerations. Anecdotes give credence to the notion that this is acceptable practice. – Sherwood Botsford Jul 25 '18 at 1:20

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