As restrictions ease, the experts offer some ground rules so that parents can safely allow their children more freedom and independence
A combination of the better weather and the gradual easing of lockdown restrictions means that, as parents, we are watching our kids finally explore their new-found freedom, something we’ve spent many dark winter months dreaming about.
But as the old saying goes, be careful what you wish for. Having spent lockdown wishing that my seven-year-old son could spend more time playing outside, now that time has come and it’s very much a mixed blessing.
Is he old enough to play on the green in front of our house unsupervised, as he wants to do? What if he runs off? What about cars on the street? What if a stranger approaches him? Should I go out with him, or keep an eye on him from the window?
He’s a sensible kid and I want him to develop a sense of independence, but having spent so much time at home lately, I’m finding it difficult to weigh up the risks in an even-handed fashion.
I’m not the only parent asking myself these hard questions as lockdown eases. One friend is considering whether she should let her nine-year-old daughter walk alone to the nearby park to play with a friend.
“I’m not worried about traffic, as there’s no road to cross,” she says. “But I am worried about stranger danger. There’s been a number of muggings in the area recently so I just don’t know if it’s safe.”
Another mum has a teenage daughter who spent much of the last year at home in her room, while her parents worried about the effects of prolonged isolation on her mental health. Now the teenager has a boyfriend, and wants to spend the brighter evenings with him and other pals in the park.
“Having had her at home for so long,” says my friend, “I can’t get my head round the idea of not knowing where she is in the evening. But I don’t know if it’s just because lockdown has made me more nervous as a parent, and now I’m being too controlling.”
It’s an interesting question. Has lockdown really made us more controlling? Certainly, the past year has fuelled an already growing parental anxiety around the amount of freedom our children do or don’t get. My generation of parents, raised as latchkey kids, already had a tendency to go full helicopter when it came to our own offspring.
Even pre-lockdown, we liked nothing better than monitoring their activities from the moment they got up to the moment they went to bed at night. When they weren’t with us, they were at childcare or at school, or at organised activities. They were rarely alone.
New research bears this out. This month, a UK study on outdoor play shows that the average age children are allowed out alone has gone up by two years, from age nine to 11, in just one generation.
It’s not hard to understand why this might be so — roads are much busier than they were 30 years ago, and our fear of stranger danger is more acute. But the researchers who lead the study issued a warning about the effects on the next generation.
“First, we are seeing children getting towards the end of their primary school years without having had enough opportunities to develop their ability to assess and manage risk independently,” professor of child psychology Helen Dodd told The Guardian. “Second, if children are getting less time to play outdoors in an adventurous way, this may have an impact on their mental health and overall well-being.”
It’s certainly true that some of the most resilient, well-adjusted adults I know are people who had vast amounts of freedom growing up. “It’s really important for children to get unsupervised time in their lives from a young enough age,” says Dr Malie Coyne, clinical psychologist and author of Love In, Love Out. “It’s important for their self-regulation.”
So as the world begins to open up, how do we make good decisions around our children’s independence and freedom? I asked the experts for some ground rules:
Walking to school alone
“When your child starts asking to walk to school or home from school with friends, take that as a sign of their readiness for more independence,” says Joanna Fortune, psychotherapist and author of the 15-Minute Parenting series of books. ”But it doesn’t mean you have to agree to it. Perhaps a way to start is to say that you will walk a comfortable distance behind them and their friends while they walk and chat together.
“Once you know this is safe and they are ready, you can step back more and then let them do it themselves. Distance, and how many and what type of roads must be crossed are also part of this decision, not just our child’s maturity.”
The experts are united in their view that it is not about chronological age, but about context and the maturity and awareness — what Dr Coyne calls ‘savviness’ of the individual child.
And it’s not a step that should be rushed, argues psychotherapist and author of Cotton Wool Kids, Stella O’Malley. “This should be built up to with the parents walking the child to school on a regular basis”, she advises. “Then the parent should drop back a bit — perhaps walk as far as the last corner and tell the child to run ahead. Then further and further.
“This is really well worth teaching the child as it sets them up for the day, it’s good for their exercise, the obesity crisis, their sense of well-being, confidence and resilience.”
Playing outside alone
“Playing outside with their friends is really important for children to resolve issues, difficulties and conflict,” says Dr Coyne. “Hillary Clinton spoke about all the practice she got at this out on the road and on the street when she was young.”
Dr Coyne let her own children out to play at the ages of five and seven.
“Which sounds quite young, but we live on an estate. It all depends — if you live on a country road, with fast moving traffic, of course you wouldn’t do that.”
“Playing outside very much depends on the context,” agrees Stella O’Malley. “Some outside areas are very safe and the five-year-old can play in the garden unaccompanied while some outside areas are dangerous and the child needs to be taught the relevant dangers.”
It’s hugely important to give your children age-related freedoms, adds Dr Coyne, but important to educate them that “not every predator is going to be in a white van. It could be someone really friendly, who says, ‘oh, your parents said to collect you from here’, or could even be someone you know.”
Helping around the house
There’s a bank of research that shows that children who do chores at the ages of three and four are more likely to succeed in later life, both at work and in relationships. In other words, it’s never too soon to start. “We can start assigning chores for our children from toddlerhood,” Joanna Fortune says. “A two-year-old can carry their nappy to the bin, put pyjamas under their pillow... an older child can load and empty a dishwasher, set and clear the table and bring their laundry to the wash or back upstairs and put it away.
“Chores are a great way to allow our children to practice and show responsibility.”
Going on a sleepover
“This seems to differ wildly between households,” says Stella O’Malley. “Some families have sleepovers among cousins from a very young age — almost arbitrarily deciding they can trust their cousins’ house more than they can trust everyone else.
“The most important thing is that the parent views the household as safe and that the child wishes to go on the sleepover.”
“This is very much a parental choice and decision,” agrees Joanna Fortune. “But I would suggest starting with a sleepover with a trusted relative so that if your child feels lonely and wants to come home, that they are with someone who can settle them and/or call you to come and get them without them worrying what their friends might think if they do want to go home.”
Going out with friends in the evening
“This is a normal demand from a pre-teen/teenager and it’s a call you have to make based on your child’s emotional maturity,” says Joanna Fortune. “ For the first time, you may want to compromise and suggest you bring them and friends to a shopping centre where they can go browsing or get food together while you do some tasks and that you agree to all meet in an agreed spot at a certain time.
“The boundary being they cannot leave the centre and must be at the agreed spot at the agreed time, no exceptions. The more you see your child can model responsibility and is ready for such independence, the more you can gradually grow and extend this with and for them.”