Jody at Raising Weg has answered some really interesting questions from Amber at American Family about changing parenting norms, and how we trade off safety and freedom – it’s clearly changed, but how and why? This is something I think a lot about, so I’m going to answer them here. Chatterboy and Hungry Boy are 7 and 5.
1) At what age is a child old enough to be left alone in a car while you are out of sight for between 5-10 minutes ? ( for example to run into a store or pick up another child)
I used to leave Chatterboy in the car as a baby when I went to pay for petrol – not out of sight, and only for two or three minutes (in a locked car under the shade). I’d still do that now, but I doubt if I’d do it out of sight. I’m paranoid about the heat, and the possibility of the 5-10 minutes becoming longer, rather than anything else – although my kids are old enough now that they would probably be able to get out of a locked car, they are also obedient enough that they might not realise they should until it was too late.
2) At what age would you feel comfortable leaving a child home alone for up to 30 minutes?
I think I could leave Chatterboy (aged 7) now, but I haven’t – partly because I would not trust both of them (Hungry Boy is 5) together, and there are rarely situations where leaving one makes sense. I’ve left both of them together to go across the road to get coffee (which takes five minutes), and did that when they were 6 and 4. Half an hour is a bit longer than I feel comfortable yet, though.
3) At what age would you let your child go play alone (no adults) outside in your yard?
Our yard is only big enough for one car and an outside table – it feels like an extension of our house. So the answer to this was about two. But they tend not to play out there without us. They are more likely to be out of sight upstairs in the playroom, which has exactly the same level of risk – the most likely risk is that a fight starts and they actually damage each other.
4) What age would you let them walk 1-2 blocks to play alone in a park?
This is an interesting one for us. We live two doors away from a small childrens’ playground. One of the local kids, call him Zac, started going there by himself about six. For him it was crossing a quiet road, and then walking about 20 metres. The whole neighbourhood disapproved, but partly I think, because the parents had made themselves unpopular in a number of other ways. I’d be happy to let our boys walk to the playground by themselves, but I’m not sure about letting them play by themselves. They asked me the other day, and I was reluctant – partly, I think, because of the previous neighbourhood disapproval, but also because of the remote chance of physical injury. I think we’re close to letting them play together – now that we’re at the age, I think Zac was actually totally fine at the age of six.
Occasionally in the evenings now, we send Chatterboy out to run around the block (which is about 200m long, and 20m wide), when he has excess energy. He quite likes that. But so far, he hasn’t been allowed to cross any road by himself, so we wouldn’t let him do anything that involved crossing a road.
We’ll send both Chatterboy and Hungry Boy up the street to a neighbour’s house with a prior phone call, and us watching them cross the road. They love the grownupness of that. Their friends up the road (who are 10 and 7) will often come down by themselves, even without the phone call. To me the biggest question here is the crossing the road question. The Roads and Traffic Authority has a pamphlet they hand out which says that children don’t have enough depth perception and understanding to cross a road by themselves until 10. That seems too old to me, but I can’t help but take it into account.
5) At what age would you let your child have a sleepover with a friend from school if you had only met that child’s parent a few times in passing?
The boys have had quite a few sleepovers now, but always with friends who we have had a reasonable amount to do with. I think in all cases we’ve been to the friends place ourselves first – not in a particularly checking out way, but just because the relationship hasn’t progressed to sleepover stage without a fair bit of interaction first. So this one feels like whatever age it is that they will have their own school relationships without us getting much involved – for our kids that looks like being a few years off yet.
And what are the factors that affect our decisions?
- At the age of 9, I was commuting to school by walking a mile by myself, catching a train (with my classmates) and then walking a short distance at the other end. I think I was sensible enough to do that, and I’m confident my children will be too. Mr Penguin walked a mile or so to school (in rural Scotland) from a fairly young age, and rode his bike pretty young also.
- Our boys are generally pretty obedient out in the world. So if we tell them to do something, out of our sight, we can mostly trust them to do it. When leaving them behind for five minutes while getting coffee, they are much less likely to fight in that five minutes than if we are actually there (which is easy to tell by the aftermath).
- BUT, since I was at school, there are far fewer children walking the streets. So motorists are less used to watching out for children, and if there are any nasty people out there, your chances of being the child attacked in some way are higher.
- I’m possibly overly concerned by what the people in our neighbourhood think. Our boys run on ahead of us a lot when we’re walking around our suburb, and it is interesting to watch people look at them twice when they think that they are out by themselves.
- I do think we all worry far too much about stranger danger – out of all proportion to the risk. Samantha Knight was a 9 year old girl who disappeared in Sydney in 1986 while walking home from school. The number of children walking home alone from school in Sydney dropped almost immediately. But in the end, it turned out she was abducted by an acquaintance, who had babysat her in the past. It wasn’t the walking home from school alone that did it (although it probably helped the opportunity) – it was the access to an acquaintance who turned out to be a murdering paedophile.