Wednesday 22 January 2020

How to be a free-range parent

With back-to-school around the corner, is it time that parents cultivated a sense of personal responsibility in their children? Words by Katie Byrne

Parents often face a dilemma regarding the best age for children to walk themselves to school
Parents often face a dilemma regarding the best age for children to walk themselves to school

It is all-hands-on-deck this week as households around Ireland fall back into back-to-school mode. But are parents doing more than they need to do in bringing up their children?

That's the question being posed by a number of experts, who argue that parents who knot every tie and tie every shoelace are actually preventing their children from learning a key life skill - how to function independently from their parents. Because, for every parent who encourages their child to make his own school lunch, there's 10 more who cuts the crusts off the sandwiches.

'Helicopter parents', as they are known, also pack their children's school bags, lay out their uniforms and hover at the school gate while the classes line up. They do so with the best of intentions, but is it best for the child?

'Free-range parents', on the other hand, practice a looser grip. Lenore Skenazy, the author of Free-Range Kids, How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry), writes: "A child who can fend for himself is a lot safer than one forever coddled, because the coddled child will not have mom or dad around all the time, even though they act as if he will."

Parenting expert Sheila O'Malley concurs. She points out that parents who coddle their children may in fact be "denying the child the opportunity to learn from experience, or learn from the consequences of their actions, for example, a forgotten lunch".

The start of a new school year is the ideal time to re-establish boundaries and give children more opportunity to become self-sufficient. It's also a good time to pinpoint the tasks that your children could easily be doing for themselves - making back-to-school a learning experience for both parents and children alike.

Here, we ask a number of leading parenting experts to suggest the best ages at which children can take on new responsibilities.

Q At what age can children start walking to school alone?

A "There is no set age but, as a rule of thumb, junior and senior infants and probably 1st class age is too young. Second to 4th class children could be okay, but better for them to walk in a group with friends or a parent. Fifth and 6th class children are probably fine to walk alone. Ultimately, it comes down to individual parents and children, and the parent's confidence in their child's maturity, reasoning ability, ability to follow directions, the distance/complexity of the route and perceived safety of your area. Make sure to go through safety things like crossing roads, etc, and do some practice with your child before letting them go alone."

- David Coleman, clinical psychologist;

Q At what age can children start preparing their own school lunch?

A "Seven-year-olds can make their own lunch as long as the parent takes time to show them it is safe to make a mistake (and a mess, initially) and there is an absence of criticism. It's essential for you to take the time to teach your child a new task, but it will be worth it. Take the time to show your child how to make their own lunch and you'll be surprised how interested they are, especially if they're involved in menu planning or shopping.

"They love to learn, and you need to capitalise on that. Lots of encouragement enables children to learn, while criticism or 'put downs' make learning threatening and reduce the child's enthusiasm. Remember, they are children, and ask yourself, 'Are my standards too high?' As long as you focus on effort, learning will continue.

"Young children can also get their own breakfast if you set it up with a low cupboard for ease of access, with plastic bowls, cereal in an 'easy pourer' and a small plastic jug of milk in the fridge. The secret with any new challenge is to 'size it down' and set age-appropriate challenges your child can achieve. The result will be that they feel good about themselves with increased competence and confidence and higher self-esteem."

- Sheila O'Malley, professional trainer & parenting mentor;

Q At what age can children do their homework unsupervised?

A "I truly think the parent knows best and I dislike charts and rules that dictate to parents. Some children are able to do certain things very early and others need supervision until much later. But that doesn't mean that parents should allow themselves to hover needlessly over their children as they do their homework or their chores. It's the parents' role to be tuned into their children so that they are sensitive to their children's development.

"I think it's tragic that parents have to supervise their children's homework at all as it is supposed to be solidifying learning that they have experienced in school and I always think of the kids who don't have involved parents - they must get left behind in Junior and Senior Infants as it's pretty much impossible for many kids of that age to do their homework independently.

"From 1st class on, I believe that it's possible for the child to do their homework independently and from then on the parent should try to be as hands-off as possible. The parent might get the page out and then leave the room, coming back in every five minutes or so to see if anything is getting done. Homework causes huge conflict in families and I strongly recommend that parents use an egg timer and agree with the child how long they will spend on each item. Otherwise, the homework can take up the whole evening. I'm fairly ruthless about this, and if they don't get their homework done in time then they have to go into school the next day without it done. I don't believe in ruining the evening for the sake of homework."

- Stella O'Malley is a psychotherapist and the author of 'Cotton Wool Kids';

'Sometimes parents do too much… I know I have at times'

Ian Fitzpatrick is the father of two children, Pete (7) and Kate (5). He says promoting self-sufficiency in children is a daily challenge.

"I grew up in a family of five and we were all looking after ourselves at a very young age, with my older siblings showing me the ropes (washing machine, iron, microwave, bus routes, etc).

"In modern families there's so much to get through in one day that allowing the extra time for a child to do something themselves can mean the difference between catching a train and being late for work… again. The temptation is to just do it, because it's quicker, but that does not facilitate the desired development.

"You really have to create opportunities for children to try things and facilitate the space for it to go wrong so they can learn.

"It's a real balancing act - juggling protecting the most precious thing in your life with exposing them just enough to nurture crucial life skills.

"Every child is different and has a unique internal spectrum in terms of self-sufficiency so I think the approach has to be tailored without the perception of treating siblings inequitably."

* Ian is a volunteer organiser of Zeminar, an education, empowerment and well-being event for 15-to 20-year-olds, their teachers and parents, in the RDS, Dublin from October 11-13. See

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