Helping children develop their independence is no doubt one of the key jobs associated with parenting. It is also one of the most difficult things to do. Knowing when and how to allow children to become independent and do things for themselves can be very difficult. What will work for one child may not work for another.Children's maturity levels and abilities don't always match their age. How parents feel about the world around them will also play a role in how comfortable they feel in letting their children become more independent in public places.
Parents are sometimes criticised for their reluctance to allow their children to do things that previous generations may have allowed children to do, such as walking to school by themselves. Concerns about community safety, often driven by media reports, can lead to parents being concerned about letting children have freedom in the neighborhood.
At the same time though parents might know that becoming more independent is an important part of their children's development. Being able to think for themselves, take responsibility for their actions and gain confidence as they take on the challenge and excitement of doing new things are all positive aspects of growing up for children. Parents will often remember vividly their own positive experiences as they learnt skills and became more competent and independent. Physical activity associated with walking to school or riding bikes around the neighborhood obviously has benefits for children's physical health and importantly reducing the risk of obesity.
Recent findings released by Latrobe University, VicHealth and the Parenting Research Centre (http://www.vichealth.vic.gov.au/Publications/Physical-Activity/Active-transport/Beyond-the-bubble-wrap.aspx) from a study exploring parents' fears in allowing their children to play and travel independently highlighted these very concerns. Over 2,000 Victorian parents of children aged 9 - 15 years completed a survey. Parents and children also participated in focus group discussions. The preliminary results found that most nine year olds were allowed to play in their own yard without adult supervision (97%), go to a friend's house (80%), ride a bike in the street (75%). 56% were allowed to go the local park, 37% were allowed to use public transport and 13% were allowed out after dark without an adult.
Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, gender differences were found to play a role in the degree of freedom for independent play and travel parents allowed. That is, boys were allowed more freedom than girls at all ages.Where children lived also made a difference with those children who lived in rural and regional areas being more independent than those living in metropolitan areas. Fathers did not differ from mothers in how much independence they reported giving their children.
The survey also explored parental fear and found that 18% of parents reported always worrying about their child's safety when they were out without an adult and 13% were fearful of letting their child go out anywhere without an adult. In relation to specific fears, 48% of parents worried about strangers approaching them when they were without an adult.
As we might expect, the research found that children's actual level of independence was related to parental concerns. Parents who were more concerned about safety in general and strangers in particular reported that their children were less likely to play and travel independently in the community, across all age groups from 9 to 15 years. Although parents were able to recognise the low risk associated with their children being harmed by a stranger they were very aware of high profile cases of child abduction and felt concerned that they would not forgive themselves if something ever happened to their child.
The researchers recognised that the decisions and process around parents letting children become independent in their play and travel is very complex. While parents acknowledged the many benefits (health, social and enjoyment) that children gain from independence they weighed those benefits against considerations such as children's skills and maturity, potential risks and demands on parents' time. A positive sense of community seemed to be important in parents' comfort in allowing their child greater independence. For example, parents were more likely to let their child travel and play independently when they lived in communities where people knew each other and there were other children and adults walking. Children and parents feeling safe and knowing people in their neighborhood was an important factor in parents letting children play and travel independently. Other neighorhood factors such as fewer traffic and pedestrian hazards also played a role in these decisions.
The busy-ness of life also played a role with parents who worked outside the home reporting that time constraints meant that they drove their children to school. In addition when children attended before and/or after school care their opportunities to practise travelling by walking, cycling or public transport to and from school were reduced.
Pressure from other parents and family members also play a role in parents' decisions. When parents reported more disapproval from family, schools and other parents their children were found to be less independent.
The researchers concluded that these preliminary findings suggested that parental fear was just one important factor in parents' decision making about children's independent travel and play. This could mean that suggestions that parents are being over-protective of their children is much too simplistic as an explanation for children's lack of independence. Community norms and social connections cannot be ignored when understanding the experiences of parents when making decisions about their children's independence.
Helping children develop the skills to make responsible and safe decisions is important and can become a focus for parents. Tips on helping children make good decisions can be found on the KidsMatter website: https://www.kidsmatter.edu.au/sites/default/files/public/KMP_C2_HCMD_DecisionMaking_SuggestionsForFamilies.pdf.
Finding ways to balance the challenges of keeping children safe while learning to become confident and independent will require a comprehensive approach to parenting. As children learn skills and show their competence parents may also feel more confident when using their judgement. Parents talking with and supporting each other when making decisions could also be key to helping parents feel more confident.