You know you’re getting old when you look back to your own childhood and start thinking, “it was all different in my day”. How we parent our children and the freedoms we allow them have changed almost beyond recognition in many cases. But so too have the challenges.
So, what exactly should our children be allowed to do at certain ages? At what stage do parents venture into overparenting territory? And are there consequences for children when parents are overly cautious in childrearing?
Sinéad Kelly has two children – Amelia (7) and Charlotte (5) – and lives in Kerry. She doesn’t allow her daughters to play outside the front gate. “I fear that one of them would run out after a ball or bike on to the road,” she explains, adding that she doesn’t feel she’s “too cautious” about things.
While Amelia has a tablet and access to the internet, she “not too bothered” about it and prefers to play with her sister, Kelly says.
If ever she had a tumble or fall I would do the over-dramatic gasping that I am prone to, while Eva would firmly reassure me, ‘Actually it’s only medium sore’
Sleepovers with friends aren’t something her children partake in. “Amelia has anxiety about this. Up until this year she wouldn’t even go to parties alone ... I’d say it would be a very long time before she has a sleepover at friends because of this.”
Clare Fitzsimons has three children – Elizabeth (10), Scott (8) and Jennifer (4). She doesn’t allow her eight-year-old to walk home from school because of the distance, but also she says because she “couldn’t guarantee that he wouldn’t take all afternoon to get home”.
Her under-8s have internet access that is completely supervised, she explains, and they don’t have their own devices. Fitzsimons doesn’t allow sleepovers with anyone who is not family “as we wouldn’t have enough of a bond with families to allow this; and because of Covid, playdates are only really coming back strong now”, she says. “I don’t actually think we are cautious. We’re just trying to parent small children who have had so much to deal with over the past few years that we don’t want anything else to upset them.”
Sharyn Hayden, owner of Skinny Batch Bakery, is more relaxed when it comes to freedoms with her 8-year-old daughter Eva than she was with her 11-year-old son. “It’s most definitely a second-child thing, but it’s also an Eva thing,” Hayden says. “She has been telling me, ‘Mam, I’m fine!’, since she could talk. If ever she had a tumble or fall I would do the over-dramatic gasping that I am prone to, while Eva would firmly reassure me, ‘Actually it’s only medium sore’. In other words, ‘Could you like, relax?’ She’s been asserting her strength and independence since she was very young and I feel it’s my job to believe in her.”
Eva doesn’t really bother with online access, Hayden explains, and they host lots of playdates. But Eva doesn’t go on sleepovers. “I used to think that my parents were so cool for having such a fun, open house and always letting me have pals sleep over. Later on, I realised that I didn’t often go to anyone else’s house for sleepovers myself because they were keeping me close, and I think I feel the same way about my girl.”
Tracey Flynn is a primary school teacher and author of The A-Z of Minding Me. She says she’s witnesses the consequences of restricted freedoms at school. “As a teacher I am conscious and mindful of what our children have been through over the past three years. I also have seen how this had led to some parents becoming extremely anxious, and this fear and anxiety may have manifested itself as overprotecting their child. This can be visibly seen as separation anxiety in the mornings and fearful of any change in the school routine, for example – parents accompanying the child on outings or turning up to extracurricular activities outside the school building [but during the school day].”
It is unquestionable that most young children have access to the internet, and this age is getting younger
Flynn wonders if this compromises “a child’s opportunity to negotiate their school day independently and with their peers, trust in their own abilities and indeed in the school. Children come to school and indeed go through school with varied needs, challenges, and abilities, so it is difficult to say if children are infantilised longer due to a lack of freedom or nervous parenting. Children pick up things far quicker in school, especially if someone your age is doing something you’re not!
“However, society has made things more convenient for both parents and children, Velcro shoes and buttons being one example – we still tie laces, do buttons, zips, blow noses etc, every day. That said, there is no greater joy as a teacher [than] when you see a child accomplishing a life skill such as tying a lace. These are the moments I love.
“Playdates are back and children love sharing their news about these in school,” Flynn adds. “However, I often wonder about children who do not partake in these [logistics, not being asked, protective parents]. Children seem to be spending more time with cousins and family.”
Flynn says “it is unquestionable that most young children have access to the internet, and this age is getting younger. I regularly hear children refer to Snapchat, Insta, Whatsapp in school – mainly girls, 8-year-olds and younger. Children talk about Roblox, Fifa, Minecraft and Animal Crossing, all of which you can talk to your friends on as you play.”
Children use these games for many reasons, she explains. “Technology is part of every child’s tapestry... Children younger than eight know that these games are not only for playing but they are also a form of communication, through the chat and text function – as a teacher I see how when children discuss being online, they are connecting – this is ‘playing’.”
Younger children tend to get more freedom than oldest children. Also, the anxiety level of the parents is a huge factor
Flynn says the 8-year-olds in her class have spoken to her about “their experiences online and the things their parents do to keep them safe. These included listening in on their headphones, checking messages, limiting groups to family and selected friends. I also know that a lot of children under-8 are not playing games and communicating online, due to parents’ wishes, being too scared, or not having a social circle on the platforms.”
Child and adolescent psychotherapist Dr Colman Noctor says there’s a difference between what children “should be able to do and what is reasonable to expect them to do”.
“For example, an 8-year-old going to the shop alone would very much depend on where you live and the distance to the shop and the safety of the route.”
Birth order is another variable, Noctor explains. “Younger children tend to get more freedom than oldest children. Also, the anxiety level of the parents is a huge factor. The rule of thumb is to maximise the independence of the child without compromising their safety. The problem is, sense of safety is subjective and varies from person to person or parent to parent.
“Children are prevented from developing independence because of the anxiety of parents, but it’s hard to criticise as the fear is real and doing things for their children is simply less anxiety-provoking. All of this was a problem before Covid but it’s 100 per cent worse now.”