“One of the things that is a challenge for teens is the desire for independence, yet they’re taking steps that they do not know a lot about,” explains Dr. Sandy White, a psychologist in Baltimore. Unfortunately, there’s no “magic number” when it comes to those growing-up milestones. “It has more to do with maturity of the child than the chronological age,” says White. Still, some experts provide their recommendations on how to tell whether your child is ready to rise to the occasion.
Babysitting may be your child’s first job. And this is one milestone when the state steps in: “In the state of Maryland, if you are watching a child who is under eight years old and are alone in the dwelling, you must be at least 13,” says Jane Aksoy, babysitting instructor for the Red Cross of Baltimore.
“We encourage kids to get prepared by understanding how to be safe on the job and have a safe environment for the kids,” she continues. Teens who wish to start babysitting need certain skills: “Following the parents’ instructions is important in knowing how to handle common problems like discipline for when the child does not listen or does not want to go to bed,” points out Aksoy. Kids with younger siblings or other experience with young ones may take to babysitting more naturally or earlier than those teens who don’t.
Your child’s first time logging onto Facebook, MySpace or another social networking page might come earlier than you think. “Around 13 or 14 is the time [kids] start sharing information about their interests in music, culture and movies with others online,” says Tim Lordan, executive director of Internet Education Foundation of Annapolis. Younger children may need greater parental control. “If you have a six to nine year-old, you may want to have a controlled environment like Club Penguin or Webkins that are policed,” suggests Lordan. And be sure to be aware of and talk about cyberbullying before it can happen.
Understand the purpose of networking for your teen. “Statistics show that most teens use sites to reinforce the relationships they have in the real world and stay in touch,” says Lordan. Keep communication open without being opposing. “Some safety advocates tell parents to get an online profile and request to be a friend of their child,” she continues. However, don’t push it: “if the child is violently opposed to it, they may set up a dummy page and go underground so you have no idea what they are doing,” Lordan warns.
“I would say the youngest getting cell phones are 13-year-olds,” notes Owen Slater of Sprint in Bowie. Children have set a trend. “Young people are looking for phones with full keyboards because they are getting into text messaging,” Slater adds. Be sure that you discuss the importance of having a balance in life, including talking on the cell phone in moderation. “The cell phone has become a status symbol for my fourteen year-old. He is more proud of carrying it and all of its features that he doesn’t really care to ever talk on it,” shares Todd Linger, parent volunteer at Stanton Community Center in Annapolis.
Make sure your child understands the danger of talking or texting while driving. Since 2005, Maryland law has prohibited the use of cell phones while a vehicle is in motion except in the case of an emergency for children with learner’s permits. In order to keep track of your child, you may want to inquire the phone company about whether his cell phone has global positioning system, or GPS, capability. This will inform you as to where the phone is at any given time.
Heading out alone
Hanging out at the mall sans parents is a mainstay in teen films—but is it a good idea? Experts agree that it is never the best choice to go to the mall alone, but to be cautious if you must. “The most important thing is being aware of your surroundings,” says Joe Vandeuren, owner of Balanced Life Skills of Annapolis. Invite a friend to join. “You should always have a buddy with you so you can look out for each other. If you need to use the restroom, try to do it when there are other people around,” advises Vandeuren.
Know what to do in the case of suspicious behavior. “If you feel uncomfortable about a situation or like someone is watching or following you, you need to alert mall security or talk to an employee at one of the stores,” says Vandeuren. Knowing how to defend himself may boost your child’s self-esteem. “One of the first things I teach is how to use your voice and not to be afraid to speak out and yell or call out for help,” shares Vandeuren.
“[Your child] needs to know that dating is something he wants to do and have a good sense of what he would feel comfortable doing or not doing on a date,” says Janet Mack, policy and program director for Healthy Teen Network in Baltimore. Consider that every child has a different vision of the first date. “For some it means eating lunch together in the lunchroom whereas others are much more elaborate and engage in adult behavior,” distinguishes Mack.
It’s important not to dismiss your child’s relationship as “puppy love.” “Dating does not necessarily have to be super serious, but parents should recognize it is significant to their child and give weight to the feelings they may be having,” advises Mack. Teach your child to recognize unhealthy behaviors. “Having a boyfriend or girlfriend that texts you ten times a day asking what’s up is one thing. Someone who texts you one hundred and fifty times a day asking where you are, who you are with and what you are wearing is not showing interest; that is stalking,” warns Mack.
Your child’s first job is a great time to learn about the importance of savings. “He should know why it’s important to have a budget or savings and investment for the future and why he should pay himself first,” says Dr. Allen Cox, managing director of Maryland Coalition for Financial Literacy at Towson University. Following a few simple tips can help. “When he gets a paycheck, he should put some money away for the future. It is important to pay debts on time and never exceed credit limit, check credit history once a year to make sure he has not been a victim of identify theft or has taxation issues,” advises Cox.
When your child begins to make money, he will face choices. “He needs to decide what he is going to spend, what is he going save and what he might want to give way in terms of charitable contributions or helping others who may need it more than he does,” breaks down Cox. When your child can understand how to manage his or her own money, the time is right to work.
Try to be the first to educate your child on credit cards. “Before kids finish high school, kids often get credit card offers, take advantage of them and end up with financial difficulties,” says Cox. There are laws that determine the right age to possess a credit card. “You must be eighteen to have a credit card in your own name, but you can have one linked to a parent or guardian at a much younger age. For example, you can get a debit card at the bank in your child’s name and the parent or guardian’s name,” explains Cox.
Help your child understand what to look for when choosing a credit card. “He needs to understand annual percentage rate or what kind of interest rate they are charging if he carries a balance from one month to the next. He needs to understand penalties if he misses a payment or makes it late. He also needs to understand how the convenience checks that are sent to him in the mail carry a higher percentage rate than the credit card itself,” feels Cox.
It’s important that your teen understand how credit cards work before she goes to college—many credit card companies hit college campuses and offer bonuses to college students who sign up. If your child doesn’t fully understand that plastic isn’t exactly “free money,” then those late-night “emergency” pizzas could stalk her well after graduation.
It’s natural for your daughter to want to dress up as a princess or diva with the latest makeup, but take the time to show your daughter how to use it. “It is amazing how many mothers do not teach their daughters how to apply makeup. You do not want your child to look like a clown wearing thick, black eyeliner,” laughs Sandy Rove, esthetician of Sephora in Bethesda. Make sure it’s age-appropriate. “Lip gloss is a good place to start,” suggests Rove.
If your child wants to wear perfume, be aware of any allergies she may have. You would hate for a day of glamour to end with skin irritation and sneezing. If your child is prone to allergies, it is a good idea to test one product at a time. This way, in the case of allergic reaction, you will be able to determine which product is responsible. By reading the labels, you will be able to avoid other products with similar ingredients that do not agree with your child. Teach your child not to share makeup with her friends. Last, do not forget to practice good hygiene like washing your face in the morning and evening. You should also be cleaning or changing applicators and brushes regularly.
In the end, it’s your call as to whether your child is ready for any or all of these later milestones. Trust your gut, but don’t allow wanting your teen to stay your baby just a little longer hinder their growth. The balance between protecting and smothering is a tightrope every parent walks. Talk to your friends and the parents of your child’s friends; while their rules may not be the same as yours, they may have some input in helping you make the choice to let go.