Pamela Miller Hornik is raising four kids, 6 to 12, in California's Silicon Valley. "I pride myself on things like having them get their own breakfasts and make their own beds," she says. Still, when her 12-year-old offers to venture out for a gallon of milk or her 10-year-old asks about crossing a busy street, she balks. "Even when I do let them go, I insist they bring a cell phone," she says.
Part of the problem is the fierce conviction among parents that the world is filled with people truly intent on hurting children. "And just when I convince myself that a lot of my fears are baseless, I'll get an e-mail from the school warning me about known pedophiles on the playground," says Pamela. "I wonder how rational these fears are, and if parents use them as an excuse for stopping kids from developing their independence."
Pamela's dilemma is real, says Bromfield. "But parents have to avoid sheltering kids so much that they short-circuit experiences that teach kids how to cope with life as a grown-up."
Take-home test: Think preparation as well as protection. When Sarah Piazza's son, 10, started fourth grade this year, she and her husband decided he was old enough to ride his bike to school alone. A few other parents, angry that their kids were now requesting the same privilege, quickly let her know that they thought she was being reckless.
She stood her ground. "It was less than a half mile on well-monitored streets, and we practiced with him over and over," says Sarah, who lives in State College, Pennsylvania. "I know that there's a small risk, but it's acceptable and necessary if I'm going to raise a child who's able to make his own way in the world."