Lifestyle: When do you let your children ‘grow up’?

Children preparing a meal, PA Photo/thinkstockphotos
Children preparing a meal, PA Photo/thinkstockphotos

It’s hard for parents to ‘let go’ of their children, but is there a ‘right’ age when kids should be allowed to do things independently? Lisa Salmon reports.

Judging when children are old enough to do things on their own is often a tough call for parents.

They worry about what could happen to their youngsters if they let them do something independently, be that walking to school, making a cup of tea or simply staying home alone.

All too often, modern parents err on the side of caution and supervise kids who, in reality, are more than capable of acting responsibly on their own.

Now, a new survey suggests that more than half (54%) of British parents consider their child to be ‘independent’ at the age of 12.

The study of 1,355 parents, by the discount website MyVoucherCodes, asked what the main things were that parents would let their kids do on their own after the age of 12 that they wouldn’t let them do before.

The top five answers were:

:: Stay at home alone - 58%

:: Look after younger siblings - 53%

:: Cook - 45%

:: Walk/get to school - 36%

:: Go to the shop - 29%

The findings echo those of a Netmums survey earlier this year, which found 71% of parents felt their child was no longer childlike by the age of 12.

Cathy Ranson, Netmums editor-in-chief, stresses there’s no appropriate age for children to do things independently, as every child is different.

“Parents are in the best place to decide what’s right for them and their child and when they feel ready for a little more independence.

“Children enjoy the independence and the trust you show in them as they start to do things for the first time, such as walk to school, make a slice of toast or a meal or run an errand - and you can build up to each milestone in small steps.”

She suggests it’s a good idea to try to get a friend to accompany a child the first time they run an errand or walk to school without an adult, pointing out: “It’s lovely for your child to share the experience, and it’ll set your mind at rest that they’re not alone.”

However, Ranson says looking after siblings alone aged just 12 is putting too much pressure on youngsters.

“You’re effectively asking a child to look after other children,” she says.

“Although there’s no law against it, most parents prefer to wait until their child is 16 and more mature before giving them such a big responsibility.”

Agony aunt and parenting expert Suzie Hayman agrees.

“I don’t think a 12-year-old should be babysitting a younger child.

“It depends what relationship siblings have, but as well as that it’s important for children to know that they are children and they’re not expected to be your substitute.

“Maybe 14 or 15 is a better age for them to babysit - an age when you can discuss what the dangers are and they know what to do if there’s a problem.”

Hayman, a trustee of the family charity Family Lives, says leaving a child on their own after school for a few hours, for example, but not looking after a sibling, is probably fine at a younger age - perhaps 11 or 12.

“Generally, I think 12 is actually a bit late to let them do some things independently, but it really depends on what you mean by independent, and what sort of things you’re letting them do.

“For instance, depending on the environment of course, I think walking to school alone is something you should let them do in primary school.

“It’s really about children being able to recognise what they should do if something awful happens.”

She suggests parents should repeatedly ask children what they would do if particular things happen, as this coaches them to think independently, take charge and come up with solutions.

The key to letting children have more independence is, she says, the maturity of the child and their willingness to seek help if necessary, not trying to cope themselves or cover things up.

Ultimately, Hayman says parents need to be braver.

“We need to make proper risk assessments, but we need to take risks too.

“Obviously you need to make sure children are safe in traffic, will follow instructions etc. “But how else are they going to learn if you don’t let them do things on their own?”

Hayman points out that while there are stories in the media about children being injured or killed while out and about alone, such stories only get publicity because they’re so rare.

“There are far more instances of children being harmed in the home, and I can cite infinitely more cases of children growing up obese, with social problems and so on, because they’ve been kept in.

“We’re bringing up a whole generation of children who are physically and emotionally stunted because they’re not allowed to go out on their own and learn things.”

She adds: “It’s quite hard for parents to accept that gradually they have to hand over the reins for children to look after themselves, and that’s an important part of being a parent.

“If you try and protect them forever, you’re doing them a gross disservice.

“Parents underestimate their children’s competence - they need to build it up, don’t stifle them.

“The more we let go of the reins and let them stand on their own two feet, the better people they will be.”