I was having coffee with a good friend the other day and we got talking about our kids and their growing independence. It seems they are suddenly itching to take on some risks and responsibilities. My friend’s son, at the age of nine, is desperate to be able to walk to and from the local footy oval on his own. Another friend’s daughter wants to ride her bike to the bakery to meet her friends. So how do we know when it’s time to let our children ‘go it alone’?
The answer depends on your child, and there are many things to think about. Often by age 10 our children are asking for more freedom and responsibility. I was surprised the other day when my almost 10 year old asked if she and her friend could walk around the shopping mall on their own. They feel they are ready to spread their wings, yet I feel reluctant to let them. Somewhere in between, it becomes necessary to find the balance for both of us. Where does it say in the rule book how old they should be to rove responsibly? There is no law on when kids should be free to explore, however as parents we are responsible for our child’s safety.
Here are six ways that we can help our children make safer decisions and explore the neighbourhood with peace of mind.
1. Set rules and expectations. Before a child is allowed to explore the neighbourhood there must be a set of rules and expectations, decided on by both the child and the parents, that both must follow. These rules should be designed to help the child stay safe, feel safe and keep them in contact with their parents. Have a family meeting to roll out some rules. Set specific neighbourhood boundaries, outline which homes they can and cannot visit and be clear about any areas they should avoid. Teach children to ‘never go anywhere with anyone without asking parental permission first’.
2. Look for signs of maturity. Is your child generally responsible with things like homework and chores? Do they react well to surprises, follow the rules and avoid unnecessary risks? Chances are if you find yourself answering “yes” to these questions it is time to let them spread their wings and go a bit further afield without you. If your child is initiating the request for greater independence it is a sure sign that they are ready to take on further responsibilities. Often it is our peace of mind as parents that restricts our child’s growing independence. Remind kids that with rights also comes responsibilities. If they feel they are ready to explore, then remind them that any freedom you give them comes with sticking to the rules that were laid down. Clear guidelines and consequences need to be enforced if these rules are broken.
3. Consider your neighbourhood. Does your child know lots of friendly neighbours who they would be willing to ask for help if they needed it? Are you near major roads? It takes a community to keep a child safe. Let neighbours know that your child may come to them if they need help.
4. Talk safety with your child. What kids really need to develop before they can be truly safe, either in the real or online world, is critical thinking skills. Classic ‘what if ...” scenarios are perfect for teaching kids about basic safety skills. Keep conversations going about safety issues. Share newspaper articles and talk about issues which arise on the evening news, or even experiences you had as a child. Talking will not put your child in danger – it actually increases their awareness and gives them clues about how to assess situations for safety.
5. Take a friend. Teach your child to always take a friend or sibling with them on walks and bike rides. Educate them to stay in plain view and avoid shortcuts. After all, safety in numbers is a rule that works, and anyway, it’s almost always more fun to go with friends.
6. Be an active parent. Know where your child is, and who they are with. If they are visiting a friend’s house, have them send you a quick text message or make a quick phone call when they get there, when they are heading home, or if there has been a change of plans. Enforce all rules, ask them how their day went, and get to know their friends and their friends’ families. Model good behaviour by letting them know where you are and when you’re running late.
As parents we may perceive the world out there as a big scary place for our kids and be inclined to overprotect them. However, by empowering ourselves and our children with some basic safety rules and guidelines, we can watch them soar and grow into independent young adults.
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