Is my child old enough to go out alone?



At what age is a child old enough to walk to school unsupervised? Would you allow your eight-year-old child to walk to your nearest corner shop alone, or across the street to play at a friend's house?

If you haven't hit this milestone with your kids yet you will eventually - and possibly much sooner than you might anticipate.

There's obviously no 'magic answer' to when children are old enough to be allowed out of your sight. Every child is different, and determining when a child is ready to exercise some independence will depend on a whole variety of factors, from where you live to how mature they are.

So how can you tell if your child is ready for a bit more freedom?

Angela, mum of two, says her 10-year-old daughter doesn't go anywhere unsupervised at present, but theoretically Angela says she'd have no problem allowing her to walk to school with a friend.

"Her primary school is a mile away and she'd have to walk across a secluded field with woods attached," Angela explains. "A 14-year-old girl was assaulted there 18 months ago but if my daughter had a friend to walk with her to school I'd allow her to. I wouldn't let her do it with her younger brother though, because they might argue on the way and end up going their separate ways."

Angela concedes that she's more more liberal than many of the parents of her daughter's friends. "Some of her classmates aren't allowed to go on school trips if they involve taking the Tube," she adds.

While Angela's laidback approach might raise a few eyebrows with other parents at the school gates, Anna Fisk (a mother, early years professional and senior advisor for a chain of nurseries in Kent) thinks she's got the right idea.

"If we teach our children independence and choice-making skills from early on they will quite plainly show us when they are ready to take steps alone," she says. "Let's not become a cotton wool society; let's produce confident brave adults for the future. Our fear as parents is ours and should remain that," adds Anna.

So should we be more concerned about the risks we take by not giving children adequate opportunity to experience and experiment with their own independence at an early age?

Lucy Birch, a University lecturer who oversees the wellbeing of over 2,500 students, thinks so. "As someone who deals with students who don't have the life skills to survive independently of their home and/or parents, I can't overstate the importance of allowing kids to do stuff on their own," Lucy says. "I've dealt with 18-year-olds who apparently don't have the skills to cook a microwave meal, get a bus or set an alarm clock by themselves, let alone walk to the corner shop."

That's a sentiment shared by Claire Hardaker, a lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire who is personal tutor to students aged between 18 and 21."Letting someone totally loose for the first time when they hit college or university is a recipe for disaster, since their first year just turns into a crash course in survival," says Claire.

"I suspect we end up with more students dropping out of university due to their sheer inexperience of independent living than we do through straightforward academic 'negligence'. Poor diet, money disasters and bad work/life balance can all scupper their academic progress."

To avoid what she calls the long-term disservice of setting young people up for that sort of shock, Claire advocates introducing opportunities for independence early on. "Becoming independent should be a gradual process of small self-responsibilities that slowly build up into bigger ones," Claire says. "Start introducing those from as young as reasonable caution allows and common-sense permits."

But mum of one Laura is more hesitant about heaping independence on young shoulders. "You can spout statistics about children being more in danger in the home than they are from strangers, but if your child is snatched while unsupervised, then the public's condemnation and bile will be directed at you as the parent," Laura says. "In the light of that, are we really supposed to just leave our children to walk to the shops or to school on their own, after years of shadowing their every step?"
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Ultimately, you know your own child and your local community best, and it's important to resist any pressure (from the child's friends or your own peer group) to increase a child's freedom before you're sure the time is right.

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And, of course, the benefits of greater independence for a child must always be weighed carefully against any risks to their safety.

Children's life coach Naomi Richards thinks this is a deeply personal issue, and asserts that a child's parent/carer is best placed to determine whether they're ready to stretch their wings.

"We all want children to be able to take more responsibility for themselves and their belongings by the time they start secondary school, so it makes sense to gradually increase their opportunities for independence before they reach Year 7," Naomi says.

"Being too restrictive with a child can be just as detrimental as allowing them too much freedom. Children need to learn to do things for themselves on a gradual basis from the age of about five, and will benefit enormously from the knowledge that they are trusted by their parents. With older children, try practising a short journey with them until you feel they are happy and secure enough to do it by themselves, and make sure there's a back-up plan incase they take a wrong turn or something unexpected happens."

More on Parentdish: What should your child be able to do and at what age?