Everyday childhood freedoms? Parents, not experts, have to decide

1st day at school (parents went too)

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.

18 responses to “Everyday childhood freedoms? Parents, not experts, have to decide

  1. I love your blog – just found it by searching for the ‘parenting’ tag :) I’m linking to this post on my Sharing Sunday post this weekend.

  2. Tim,
    I spent a few days with my Aunt last week, and the conversation got around to my childhood play history. All sorts of embarrassing and funny stories I’d forgotten about decades ago came out, but the main point is that only now do I appreciate what my parents did – allowing me a huge amount of freedom from a very young age. Your term `benevolent neglect’ seems appropriate.
    At six years old I was allowed to go off for hours in the fields behind the house, only appearing at meal times. Apparently `butt nekkid’ as the yanks say, was my state of undress quite often at that age! I guess I just liked the sun on my skin? Thinking of the sweet hay smells in summer meadows makes it sound idyllic but there were also times when falling from trees, nettles and brambles featured. I carry the scars on my skin of the risky and fun adventures my friends and I had to this day.
    I now use those memories as measuring criteria whenever I study or create play designs (with this design could a child have the same experiences that I did?) and that’s also why I’m so passionate about the principles behind Risk Benefit Assessments.

    You are right; when to allow a child more freedom has to be a parental judgement. I do think the quality of that parent’s own childhood will have an important bearing on any decision, along with many other factors of course. I can only assume my parents must’ve both had a brilliant childhood, and that’s why they let me have my freedom at such a young age. I’ll be forever grateful to them.

    Neil Coleman

  3. So true on the blogpost…lack of confidence in parenting hits it right on the head. But my question is and has been for awhile: When did this happen and why? Our grandmothers never suffered from a lack of confidence! It is empowering as a parent to make a decision that may go against the majority but feels right for your family. I guess I have always been one to “question authority”, that has always been my nature, and not all parents are made that way.

  4. Clare, Molly – thanks for the generous feedback. Wish I knew why we have ended up where we are. Something to do with becoming a more atomised, individualistic society, I fear.

    Neil – you’re right to remind me that we may now have some parents who may have had very limited childhoods themselves. Those working with children need to take this into account, but not compromise on their principles (easier said than done!)

  5. It’s about disempowerment, I think. From the minute we get pregnant, we are told we need an ‘expert’s’ help to even know we’re pregnant, let alone maintain the pregnancy safely. Then we need ‘experts’ to help us labour and birth, then to feed and nourish our babies – it’s all testing, testing, testing. It’s no surprise that by the time our kids are old enough to be taking their own risks, we turn back to the ‘experts’ to tell us how much to let them take. :(

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  7. This is a poignant topic with the Summer holidays just under way we are being asked daily by both our boys for just a little bit more freedom. One thing we have noticed and commented on is that, however much we want to treat them the same, it is just not possible. They are so different that, as you say, we have to bear their individual characteristics in mind when making decisions.
    Ultimately, we have to make the decisions and live with the consequences, and we won’t always be right!

  8. Tim, thanks for a sound post. It is unfortunate that one of the primary driving forces parents have these days is anxiety. This leads us to trust “experts” over trusting our own parental instincts.

    It’s become so rampant that now there are parenting experts just like there medical specialties. One expert will take care of your child’s behavior while another will handle her social skills.

    Thanks for reminding us to reclaim what’s ours. We all have the ability to raise our kids. Ourselves.

  9. Cheryl, Mendel – thanks for the comments. As ever, I appreciate the time you have taken to leave your thoughts – and it’s nice to hear you agree. Mendel – enjoyed your blog, good luck with spreading the message. There’s a song by the Kings of Convenience (Norway’s answer to Simon & Garfunkel) called ‘Failure’ – you may want to check out the lyrics.

  10. Thought provoking, thanks Tim.

    I wonder if part of the problem is the sheer volume of information available on line. In our grandparent’s day they might have asked the advice of their GP or one of a handful of friends, but basically they just got on with things because they didn’t have the option to do anything else. Now, anyone can set up a website proclaiming to be an ‘expert’, plus all of the forums where parents an ask hundreds of strangers what they should do. This ease of asking and ease of offering information makes it next to impossible to determine what the ‘right’ answer might be, thus adding to indecision and anxiety and undermining parents’ confidence in making decisions about their child.

    • AdamM – thanks for the comment. You make a good point, which is linked to Frank Furedi’s point in the piece. One test of a helpful ‘expert’ in my view: they give advice about process, and factors to consider – but they don’t make judgement calls.

  11. I remember the freedom we used to have when I was a child. We were always playing in the streets. Personally, I find it hard to let my young children play in the streets now, simply because of the number of cars on the road.

    I also think that with the development of different communication mediums we are bombarded with ‘bad news’ stories which plays on our fears and anxieties as parents. At the end of the day, we need to let our children live, grow and mature and with that comes responsibility.

    • Hi Haley, thanks for your comments and your closing thought, which I strongly agree with. I have similar memories. The contrast between my own everyday childhood freedoms and those of most children today is one of the major motivations for my work.
      You are right that the media plays a key role, especially because many people do not have very much real-life contact with the people and places around them, so they think the scare stories are a realistic depiction.
      You mention play on the streets – you may be interested in finding out more about the Playing Out project – I mention this in another post, it’s very inspirational.

  12. Thanks for the link Tim – I will have a look. It’s also worth noting that in my opinion, the more densely populated the area you live affects ‘outside play’ freedoms. We have friends who live in a town rather than a city and their children have greater green spaces to play. Therefore it’s essential that planners include recreation areas, parks etc when growing our cities…

  13. It seems much more beneficial to encourage parents to engage their children in meaningful dialogue. I love the image of parents and children discussing their fears or apprehensions behind a certain freedom, working to find agreements, and growing together.

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