How much freedom should a kid have?

Having experimented with what works and what does not on our firstborn, my husband and I are more relaxed when it comes to giving our younger son a longer leash

My mother used to say: "Freedom, once given, cannot be taken back."

Perhaps she was commenting on the management of domestic staff and appropriate leeway to be given to them. Or, she could have been speaking obliquely about the post-colonial struggle for national self-government. But most certainly, by holding my siblings and me close and keeping us under her watchful eye, she applied this mantra to child-rearing.

As a girl, I wasn't allowed to do sleepovers at friends' and relatives' homes. Mum ferried me to and from school in her car until I was well into my teens. Freedom, for me, was doled out in small increments. She got to know all my friends so that she could understand what we were up to. Once, memorably, she tagged along when we went to Zouk.

Looking back, it was her way of showing love and concern. But I chafed under her hawk-like scrutiny and was a rebellious teen, causing my parents no end of worry and grief.

In contrast, my husband had freedom thrust upon him early on. He and his elder sisters and brother lived on their own in Sydney, attending schools and universities there, while their parents remained in Singapore.

The Supportive Spouse is used to fending for himself and this spills over into his parenting style: While I wring my hands at the thought of letting our 11-year-old take the train on his own to visit his grandparents, my husband is happy to allow it, with the caveat that the boy hangs onto his mobile phone and stays in contact.

Of late, I have been thinking about the pros and cons of our different approaches - the cautious versus the cool. As our two sons approach teenage, I am coming around to the wisdom inherent in my husband's unsheltered upbringing. Pre-teen boys are like free-range animals, needing a lot of space to roam and grow. My elder son is at a stage when he craves the freedoms he sees his peers enjoying: going to the nearby coffee shop to meet his classmates for lunch or dinner; schlepping to the library in the next neighbourhood on his own.

Often, my knee-jerk reaction is to say no, but I have learnt that it is important to my son that he charts these little milestones on his own. By loosening the apron strings, I am giving him the chance to pick up real-world skills, such as navigating transport systems and forging his own social networks.

More valuably, I am giving him the space to transition into his own person; to actively make his own decisions and find out for himself the consequences within safe parameters.

Recently, the elder boy asked if he could hang out at his friend's place after he finished his homework on a Friday. I was loathe to let him go, as we were heading out to dinner in the evening and I wanted to spend some family time together. But the disappointment on his face told me that I couldn't just impose my will upon him - he'd sulk and I'd be the Nazi Mother in his head.

So we entered into negotiations: He could meet his friends for a couple of hours before catching the train to meet his father and me at a mall a few stops away. Before he left, he hugged me and said: "Thanks, Mummy."

Freedom can be hard to separate from independence, when it comes to child-rearing. Some children have a measure of freedom without independence: They are free to do whatever they want without parental supervision, but have all their needs attended to by their domestic helpers.

Conversely, one could be independent - having to cook for oneself at home, being responsible for one's school work without any form of tutoring - while having one's freedom curtailed (latch-key kids whose parents watch them via webcams, perhaps).

Still, it's harder to expect independence when no freedom is given or when the boundaries are not set properly and widened sensibly and reasonably as the child demonstrates that he can handle more liberties responsibly.

A pre-teen confined to an empty flat while mum and dad are at work may very well spend all his time surfing YouTube aimlessly and going without meals, compared with one who is empowered with the skills to make choices that contribute to his well-being.

The fear that a child given too much freedom will run wild is probably unfounded, if love, trust, independence and confidence are instilled in them at the same time. By the same token, a resentful watched child can and will often find ways to circumvent the rules.

At the end of the day, the amount of freedom parents give their offspring and the level of independence they prepare their kids for must vary from household to household, just as it should vary to suit the character and needs of each child.

My husband and I have had to bridge the gap in our understanding of how much freedom to allow our children, given our opposite experiences. But, having experimented with what works and what doesn't on our firstborn, we are more relaxed when it comes to giving our almost-eight-year-old a longer leash because we have seen that his brother can handle it.

My hope and goal are that my kids can start to become citizens of the world, comfortable navigating global pathways on their own. I have seen how my Hong Kong-based sister-in-law trains her sons, aged 14 and 11, to take international flights on their own, and my nephews are more responsible and assured as a result.

In a way, then, my mother's adage about not being able to rescind freedom holds. It's just that, once my sons have earned their licence to be independent young men, I cannot imagine wanting to revoke it.

• Clara Chow is the author of Dream Storeys (Ethos) and co-editor of WeAreAWebsite.com.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 16, 2017, with the headline 'How much freedom should a kid have?'. Print Edition | Subscribe