Giving your school-aged children some freedom

How much freedom should you give a school aged child? When should they walk home alone, catch buses or go to the shops unaccompanied?

Despite the advent of podcasts, blogs and other forms of digital media, radio is still a great place for holding live discussions and debate. Just yesterday I was involved in a very interesting discussion on Radio 5 Live about how much freedom you should give your school-aged children. The result was rather like what’s happening in Parliament with Brexit: There was very little consensus whatsoever between the three of us who were chatting about the issue.

giving children freedom, freedom, growing up, development, child development, schooling, education, dadbloguk, dadbloguk.com, uk dad blog, parenting, parents
Is there a correct age to allow a school-aged child to walk home from school alone, catch a bus or go shopping? What’s your opinion? Pic credit: Kristina V on Unsplash.

This all took place on Nihal Arthanayake’s afternoon show. There was myself, a dad of a six year old and 10 year old, Nihal with kids aged around 11, and Becky Johnson who writes the blog A Family Like Us and has three boys, the eldest being 13. Following what happened on air, I’d like to do something a little unorthodox. I want to ask for your opinion on the following scenarios and leave your comments below.

At what age do you think a child should be able to:  

  • Walk unaccompanied to the corner shops
  • Be left on their own at home for a couple of hours
  • Walk to school on their own
  • Catch a bus on their own
  • Boil a kettle.

I am very conscious that my eldest daughter, Helen, will be going to secondary school in less than 18 months. This may involve catching a bus to and from school and I can’t help feeling she needs to experience a limited amount of freedom now, in preparation for what will be a massive change in her life in the near future.

None of the above activities have a legal age limit and I can see why. It really does depend on the individual child as to whether they are mature enough to undertake these activities. Casting my mind back to my own youth, the 11-year-old John could have been trusted to look after himself for a few hours. The 13-year-old John, however, would have hit the drink’s cabinet in his parents’ absence.

When I suggested a child of 10 might be old enough to go to the corner shop unaccompanied, Nihal looked deeply uncomfortable. Becky and I weren’t too dissimilar in our thinking. We both felt children need to be given some freedom as they get older. Keep those apron strings too tight and you’re storing up trouble for the day they eventually have to navigate the world without you.

Of course, age and maturity of the child is one thing. Geographical location is another. I had a very rural upbringing and the countryside was my playground. Cliché it may be, but the back door was opened and I came back when I was hungry.

Although we recently moved from the fringes of London to a quieter location, I appreciate my kids simply can’t have the freedom I did when I was their age. I don’t mind admitting that’s a genuine source of pain for me. Only now do I truly appreciate how much my upbringing benefited me. Unfortunately, among some other parents I notice a real fear of letting their children play outside of the family home and I find that desperately sad.

I recently posted something on my Instagram feed about the negative influence technology can have on family life. Here’s what one person wrote in response (I have left it unedited):

“We need to spend less time concerning ourselves with online safety and think about actual physical safety. The amount of parents that strictly refer to their child online as T because why?! But won’t think twice about shouting TED 17 times in the park.”

That comment said a lot to me. What is it about the outside world and physical safety that causes such concern?

This bring me on nicely to the issue of smart phones. In discussions I have with parents, there seems to be a belief that if you equip a child with a phone, you can let them go off and play, go to the shops and walk home from school and they will be safe. I find this argument very unconvincing.

giving children freedom, freedom, growing up, development, child development, schooling, education, dadbloguk, dadbloguk.com, uk dad blog, parenting, parents

A phone might be useful in summoning help in some circumstances. It can, if certain apps are used properly, keep you informed as to your child’s whereabouts. This, of course, assumes the phone is switched on, the battery isn’t flat and that the phone hasn’t been left in one location, while your child is in a different one.

I’m afraid the child protection app, you know, the one that creates an impenetrable forcefield that protects your child, repels all bullies and abusers, makes certain every road crossing is completed safely and ensures they won’t have boyfriends or girlfriends before the age of 26? Yeah, you know that app? Well, it doesn’t exist.

I have no issue with kids having phones when they reach an appropriate age. Phones are convenient and helpful, but they aren’t safety devices.

I honestly don’t know what the correct answer is when it comes to letting your kids off the leash a little. What I do know is that by the age of 11 I had flown to Spain unaccompanied on more than one occasion and travelled on buses on my own for journeys of 20 miles or more. I often walked along country footpaths to the local town to visit the library or go shopping and sometimes prepared my own food and used kettles and other kitchen devices.

With hindsight, and this is no criticism whatsoever, I think my own family got it right sometimes and other times they didn’t. Flying to Spain and catching buses were character building adventures. Walking to the local town gave me the opportunity to meet up with naughty kids and sneak off to misbehave, which is exactly what I did.

This, I think, is what came out of yesterday’s discussion. When it comes to giving kids some freedom, us mums and dads are on as much of a learning curve as our children. It is a case of trial and error and we aren’t always going to get it right. Added to this, the threats and risks change with every generation so it can be difficult to compare with our own upbringing.

Where do you stand on this? Do you think a phone is a safety device? Would you let your child fly unaccompanied to a different country? What age did you let them walk to the corner shop or school? Please leave a comment. I think this could be an interesting debate.

6 thoughts on “Giving your school-aged children some freedom”

  1. We have a 10yo starting high school in Sept so this is very relevant, and we are still finding our way. He will be catching a bus to school, a direct one, as we live in a village, so shouldnt need a phone, my older daughter was 16 when she had a phone and that was only because she started a part time job in the evenings. Yet already many of his friends have phones and I dont want him to be ‘odd one out’ either! No, I dont think they keep them any safer only educating them can help with that?

    1. I salute you for holding out until 16 before giving your eldest a mobile phone. That makes a lot of sense, but I’m not sure we will be able to go that long! Anyway, this is a huge issue all us mums and dads face and it is largely a question of maturity and trust, not age. Very difficult to know how to balance the child’s needs and wants with their safety.

  2. Walk unaccompanied to the corner shops – not feasible where we are. Maybe 13y on bike with a friend
    Be left on their own at home for a couple of hours – the OH will leave N in the farm house for a bit already while he’s down the yard. I don’t agree, but secondary age I think would be ok.
    Walk to school on their own – not safe where we are – no pavements, windy roads and fast drivers. But otherwise, Y6 for cycling. If his cousin cycled and would pick him up on the way, I’d say Y5.
    Catch a bus on their own – not really feasible near us, but I’d let him go to town on his own age 13
    Boil a kettle – when he can lift the kettle. He’s been making toast since age 5.

    We’re obviously in a very rural location, no pavements, outside a village. Nearest shop is 2 miles away but down a terrifyingly steep hill. Relations are less than a mile away.

    My plan had been that once he hit 8y, N could ride his bike down the road to his cousin’s house. He’s done the ride with me plenty of times, there’s only 1 right turn at the junction which is visible all directions. I’m not sure the OH would agree, but I think by the summer he’ll be responsible enough to do that safely.

    For N there’s probably more danger being in the farmyard than being out and about around us on his own. I think my restrictions would probably be similar to what we had as children but because we were in a village we could do more things and be with friends. He has to get to friends first. I think the next couple of years I’d let him go up to the village to play with friends on the green. and go up and visit his friend on his bike. It’s just knowing that he’s going to concentrate being on the road without me there to remind him

    1. Yes, yes and yes. Farm yards without a doubt present more dangers than any high street. To give you an example, a couple of kids I went to school with drowned in a grain silo.

      You’ve highlighted exactly the point I briefly made: rural and town/city upbringings are completely different. In some respects, they may as well be on different planets.

      Very best of luck Emma. I think we’re on very similar journeys.

  3. Just discussing this the other day with some parents. Talked about leaving 11-year-olds home alone in the holidays, decided we weren’t concerned about safety but we were concerned that they’d just sit on their phones all day!
    Also talked about how when we were young and living in more rural locations we went out for the day and came home for tea (or when we were told to be home). However, another dad said he’d grown up in London and they did the same so the location thing was a bit of a red herring..
    Daughter walks to school on her own when she got an early morning club or home from school when got an after school club and has been for a year or two now, but always with the same warning ringing in her ears: “Don’t get kidnapped and don’t get run over!”

    1. Yeah, really tricky to know when to give freedom. The biggest issue for me is traffic. Every third property seems to have CCTV on it so getting kidnapped would be tricky to pull off but run over, that’s a different thing. Interesting comment about London v Country. I know I had much, much more freedom living rurally than the urban / suburban kids my daughters play with.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top