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.
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.
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.