A looser leash

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I was shocked to read about an American woman being arrested for neglecting her child. She had left her nine-year-old child at a nearby park, with a phone, while she worked a shift at McDonalds. Some adults were concerned and rang the police and the next moment mum’s in the slammer and the child is in care.

Of course it wasn’t an ideal situation – the poor mum should have been encouraged to come up with something better – but jailing her? Incredible. You’d be tempted to think, “Only in America”, but in cooler, calmer, more sensible Britain, only four percent of parents give their children the same liberties and freedoms they themselves had when they were kids, and I suspect even in New Zealand we might go a bit over-board with our good intentions to keep kids safe as well.

The law says a child should be supervised until they’re 14 – so should parents not let a child under that age go to the park or walk to school by themselves? Almost every time ‘law’ is imposed on family life, it proves to be a very clumsy thing. We can see what legislators are trying to do – to ensure that young people are cared for – and that is a good idea, but turning a good idea into a law is so tricky. Laws like to have crisp edges – a child is responsible on their 14th birthday but too vulnerable to be on their own the day before. Are all kids incompetent until 14? No, of course not. Some 10 year olds are more mature than I am! I would strongly say that most kids – most good kids – who have proven they are pretty responsible, from the age of eight or nine, should be allowed to play in parks or wherever, ride on public transport, and actually have a large part of their life outside of direct supervision. They should still be accountable and under oversight – parents should know where they are, who they are with and when they will be back, and similarly kids should be able access adult help and protection reasonably quickly. To use a dog analogy, the leash is still there but it is a long and retractable one, not a short tight choker chain.

I cannot guarantee your children’s safety. If bad things happen to your children then you have my utmost sympathy – I don’t know how I’d feel if that sort of tragedy ever touched my own life. The reality is that sometimes bad things happen – the balancing reality is that the probability is stacked incredibly on the side of your children being just fine.

I am talking about retuning your common sense, not abandoning it. I suggest liberty that is appropriate to their maturity. The age at which you were allowed to do things is not a bad starting place – were you less or more mature than your child at the same age? Are the dangers greater now or reduced? (Roads are busier, but the crime rate is actually a lot lower than it was 20 years ago).

The greatest risk of giving your kids more liberty is the tut-tutting you might get from other parents. But the stories your kids will tell at their 21st are going to be much more exciting than theirs.

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John Cowan

Writer, speaker and broadcaster, John Cowan shares his insight and opinions about the latest in parenting and family news in New Zealand. Hear John speak on radio stations every week throughout the country and regularly on national TV.  Follow @JohnCowanNZ on Twitter

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