I've never been one to mollycoddle my kids. Perhaps it's the Queenslander in me. I grew up in the country, riding bikes, exploring dried-up creek beds, playing backyard cricket and kicking the footy around with my older brother. He and my dad never treated me differently because I was a girl, although I do remember pulling out the gender card when I needed to, like when I was pinned on the ground during a sibling squabble.
And because of my "she'll be right"-style upbringing, one of my goals as a mum - especially one of three girls - has been to raise children who aren't wimps but who instead are self-reliant and independent. From the age of 8, my eldest was flipping her own pancakes on a Sunday morning. Not because I was being lazy (well, not always), but because I wanted her to learn that if she wanted something she was (in many cases) capable of getting the job done herself. Of course, it took months of training - teaching her how to mix the batter, turn on the stovetop and use a hot frying pan safely. But she got there and set a great precedent, becoming a role model for her younger sisters.
As parents, when it comes to our kids' independence, it's up to us to set the pace. And you need to lay the groundwork early. Start with baby steps - instead of jumping to their demands for a drink or snack, stock a shelf they can reach with suitable snacks and plastic cups. It may surprise you how quickly and easily they adapt and rise to the challenge. One piece of parental advice I pass on, if asked, is to never underestimate your children. They are remarkable young humans who are generally more capable than we think. Over time, you slowly add to their "can do" list, increasing their capabilities and building their confidence. And before you know it they'll be getting dressed by themselves, making their own breakfast and school lunches and packing their own bags. That morning routine will slowly shift from (hugely) painful to (fairly) painless.
Our daughters are now 14, (almost) 11 and (almost) 9 and are pretty much self-sufficient in the mornings. My husband and I are now reaping the benefits. We've started loosening those reins a little and even managed to escape for an exercise class together. I've never been so motivated to work out. Just an hour to ourselves and out of the house while we let the kids get themselves sorted. Heaven - I know!! Of course, they still needed some parental oversight. We were home to make sure they got out the door with teeth cleaned and everything they needed and, yes, we had to chase one of them down the road with her water bottle (forgetting things is a lesson in itself). But all up it was a win-win. Good for them and good for us.
And the rewards keep coming. With a 14-year-old at home to supervise, we've reached that enviable milestone where we can leave them at home at any time of the day without a babysitter. The younger ones often beg to stay home rather than be forced to tag along, anyway. And in this Covid climate, I'd actually prefer they stay put while I duck to the shops to grab groceries.
So when is it OK to leave your kids home alone? In Australia, there is no legal age, no one law that states when children can or cannot be left unsupervised. Parents have a legal duty to make sure their kids are properly looked after but the law differs from state to state.
Australian parenting website raisingchildren.net.au states that in Queensland leaving a child under 12 for an unreasonable amount of time without supervision is a criminal offence. But the legislation also says that determining whether the time is unreasonable depends on all the relevant circumstances, which leaves a lot of room for interpretation.
In other states, laws are more general and focus on a child's situation instead of age. Parents are legally obliged to make sure their children are safe and their needs are met and can be charged with an offence if they leave their children in a dangerous situation – not fed, clothed or provided with accommodation.
NSW provides government guidelines for different ages. For example, a child aged 10-12 can be left for up to 12 hours but not between 10pm and 6am. He or she must have a back-up adult available and can look after one or two other smaller children. Children aged 8-9 can be left for up to two hours as long as they are in a safe environment.
Another consideration is your child's maturity. Every kid is different - some 14-year-olds look and behave like 17-year-olds, while others look and behave like 10-year-olds. Psychologist Sandy Rea says ultimately it's about marrying your expectations and your knowledge of your child with their requests. "One of the most important 'rules' of parenting at any age is never to forget 'parental oversight'," she says. "You always have a responsibility to ensure young people are safe and accountable. That means you are 'present' even in absence!"
Our kids may be old enough to burn down the house but they're not so silly. They're sensible and responsible and know who to contact in case of an emergency. Even if they have an inane question, want to check in, or just want some company, they pick up a device and FaceTime us, family or friends.
Remember that as parents we know our kids best, so when it comes to working out when the time is right to leave your kids home alone, make your own judgement.
As they get older and get that taste for freedom, they'll crave more independence. Sandy says: "Our job as parents is to provide our children with the capacity to be able to trust their own judgment. Mistakes are made, risks are run, but they have the safety net of their parents who they can turn to. Mammals are not designed to have dependent adult children!!"
Thankfully my husband and I are a long way off the empty nest stage, but our little chickens are spreading their wings and with that comes greater parental freedom. After 14 years as full-time "babysitters", we're absolutely relishing it.