The age of independence

Children.
Children. Photo: James Alexander

In some ways, looking after babies is a relatively simple caper. Most follow similar developmental stages for walking and talking and parents are filled with pride or fear as each milestone is achieved. As children get older, however, things become more complicated.

At what age are they ready to walk home from school alone? Sleep over at a friend's house? Go to the movies? Catch public transport?

Melbourne psychologist Sally-Anne McCormack says only a parent can judge when they think a child is ready to do certain activities independently.

''I always hesitate in giving definite ages for when children can do things,'' she says.

''In a grade 6 classroom, you can have young children and young adults in the same age group. Likewise, you can have 15-year-olds who are still children and those who are almost adults.

''It also depends on the context. Some primary school children may be fine to walk to school alone but it would depend on where they live and with what kind of child they are.''

She says children under the age of five should not be left at home alone under any circumstances and kids should not be left alone at night until at least their mid-teens because their deep sleep patterns mean they may not wake for sounds such as smoke alarms. Responsibility for a younger sibling is another conflicting factor.

''It is not fair on an older child to be responsible for a younger sibling,'' McCormack says. ''The parent has to be confident that the younger child is also responsible.''

The Roads and Traffic Authority recommends that children walking on footpaths or near roads should be accompanied by an adult until the age of 10. It is also against the law for a child younger than four to sit in the front seat of a motor vehicle.

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As children move into their teens, there are laws governing many major life events, such as driving, voting and having sex. The classification board also places restrictions and recommendations on films, television programs and other media.

In many other activities, such as owning a mobile phone, using social networking sites or choosing clothes, the limits are unclear.

The Raising Children Network last month released the results of a survey of parents' opinions on age limits.

Almost half of the parents surveyed said social networking sites should be not be accessed until a teenager is at least 15 years old, while almost 30 per cent cited 14 as the age when a teenager could go to a shopping centre with friends during the day.

The content director for the Raising Children Network, Warren Cann, says there are three options when a teenager asks to do something: yes, no and maybe.

''No is a clear category - you are not ready to do that or that infringes on my rights or the rights of the rest of the family,'' Cann says. ''Maybe is a way of setting limits. Allowing a child to do something but with conditions attached, such as curfews.''

Negotiating conditions gives teens experience in compromise and the experience of thinking through an activity.

For toddlers, experimenting with autonomy could mean letting them decide between a blue or a red T-shirt. For older children, pocket money can help teach financial responsibility.

''A parent can suggest to the child, do they want to spend or save the money? But they should still allow the child to make their decision and live with the consequence,'' Cann says.

In Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry), American author Lenore Skenazy rails against what she sees as a generation of over-protective parents, those who are fearful of even letting their children play in the backyard unsupervised.

While the negative stereotypes of the modern parent suggests that children are either over-scheduled or under-supervised, Cann disagrees.

''What you are really seeing on the whole is modern parents sacrificing their own pleasure time to provide wonderful experiences for their kids,'' he says.

''I think this generation of parents will be known as the conscious generation of parents.''

Top tips

Quiz children on their plans to assess their ability to deal with problems. For example:

- If the child is staying home alone, do they know parent and emergency phone numbers?

- If a teenager wants to meet friends at the cinema, is their phone charged?

- What they would do if they lost their friends while they were out?