Some time ago a father emailed me asking for advice about the freedoms he should grant to his son. I don’t know him, or his son, and don’t know anything about where he lives. Which, by the way, is Melbourne, Australia. Why he might think I would be better placed than him to decide, I have absolutely no idea – and my reply said as much.
Deciding when and how to allow children more freedom and responsibility are amongst the trickiest calls parents have to make. All sorts of factors have to be taken into account – about the child, the circumstances, the neighbourhood, the time of day, and that’s just for starters. So what are we to make of charities, or parenting gurus, or politicians, or schools, who make rules like ‘no child under 16 should look after other children’ or ‘no child under eight should cycle to school’?
In the UK, there are no laws stating minimum ages for leaving children unsupervised. This is just as it should be. Some 11-year-olds are mature enough to set up in business, while some 18-year-olds are barely ready to buy a bus ticket. My daughter has occasionally been left at home for short periods since she was eight. My partner and I take the view that the risks are minimal, and always talk things through with her. She says it makes her feel quite grown up.
The charities and experts might respond by saying that some parents are confused and want help. But one-size-fits-all guidance is not just unhelpful, it actually undermines the position of parents. I agree with Frank Furedi, author of Paranoid Parenting, that one of the biggest problems facing parents is a collapse in confidence. They simply have too many people telling them how to do their job. While some common sense and reassurance might not go amiss, in the end the ‘experts’ should be honest enough to tell parents ‘you might not want to hear this, but the final decision has to be yours.’
As I argue in my book No Fear, childhood is a journey. And at the heart of this journey is the gradual transfer of responsibility from parent to child. This cannot be ducked, and it cannot – except in extreme circumstances – be handed over. Anyone who thinks otherwise might as well start dishing out advice to parents on the other side of the world.
A version of this article was published in Nursery World in July 2008. Reproduced with permission.