Do you do too much for your children? Georgina Blaskey discovers the secret to raising self-reliant little ones
Knowing when to give our children independence is a tricky dilemma. Is it OK to leave a child for five minutes to pop out for some milk? Can they walk to school on their own? When can you send them to post a letter for you? Like so many parenting conundrums, there are no hard and fast rules. But unlike other issues, this isn’t an area where you want to find out through trial and error.
You can start to prepare a child to become more independent by letting them do things where they can safely learn to make choices – and mistakes. “It means giving them responsibility,” says Kristen Harding, childcare expert at Tinies. “This can be as simple as pairing socks and delivering them to the right bedrooms, or helping set the table. It can be tempting for parents to step in as it’s easier, and faster, to do it themselves – but children need to learn.”
Every child is different and understanding when yours is ready to take those first steps into the world without you, or have the responsibility of staying at home alone, is an individual choice for each family. If you’re preparing them to begin going out on their own, Kristen suggests you start small. “Maybe returning an item to a neighbour, where you can watch from your house, or getting them to drop a letter into the post box a little further down the street. For other excursions, try letting them make choices while you are out – you’ll see what kind of decisions they make and where you might need to provide them with further information.”
Jo Wiltshire, an author and parenting expert, agrees. “Don’t go nought to 60 all at once – teach life skills for each step. But don’t deny them the opportunities to be independent, as if they get to secondary school age and they’ve had no experience of doing things on their own, it could be more dangerous for them.” Part of this life lesson is understanding that actions have consequences, that certain responses are necessary in specific situations, and being mature enough to have that thought process. “If they don’t call when you ask them to, follow through with the consequence you set out before they left,” Kristen advises.
How much freedom your children have could be subject to their location. Bringing up a child in the city means they’re more likely to go places without you, such as walking to school, so urban children are likely to progress sooner. Children in more suburban or rural areas are often more reliant on their parents to get them where they need to be. “Girls tend to be better at being independent sooner as they mature quicker; they also start arranging their own social life earlier,” says Jo. Mobile phones are a great way of keeping tabs on where your child is – either through texting them or using the Find My Friends app.
When it comes to leaving your child on their own, the law doesn’t have a specific age, but it is an offence to leave a child if it places them at risk. “This is dependent on so many factors,” says Kristen. “How mature they are, where you are located, if there are neighbours at home that you trust, if your child feels confident and knows what to do in case of an emergency. Problem solving is another skill you can teach. It helps them when they get into an unfamiliar situation – they learn to apply logic, think outside the box, figure things out when things don’t go to plan.”
If you feel your child is ready to be left at home, it’s important to have general rules which your children stick to, and these are personal to each family. “They may be, for example, no using knives when in the kitchen, no climbing on furniture, no opening the door,” suggests Jo. Deciding whether to leave siblings alone together is another dilemma; think about what may happen if they were to have a falling out – would they both be safe? “You must be careful how much responsibility you put on to an older child,” adds Jo.
By setting up your child for success, in their own time they should be ready for more independence. Running through ‘what if…’ scenarios can help, and knowing who to call if needed will reassure you both that they’re ready for this exciting new step.
The guidelines according to the NSPCC:
• Children under 12 are rarely mature enough to be left alone for a long period of time.
• Children under 16 shouldn’t be left alone overnight.
• Babies, toddlers and very young children should never be left alone.
• Parents can be prosecuted if they leave a child unsupervised ‘in a manner likely to cause unnecessary suffering or injury to health’.
Things to consider before you leave a child at home alone:
• Does your child seem to be responsible and mature for their age and always do what you ask?
• Would they be able to fix themselves something to eat, and would you be happy with them using the cooker or microwave?
• Can you imagine how they’d cope in an emergency such as a power cut or a flooded bathroom?
• Would they know what to do if the phone rang or someone came to the door?
• Would they know how to contact you or another family member if they needed to? Do they have these contact numbers to hand?
• How would they feel about being left alone – pleased to be given the responsibility or scared by the thought of it?
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