One day you’re raising babies, who are unable to navigate the world without you and are wholly dependent on you to see to their every need. The next, you’ve children who want to take on the world themselves, and do all the things they claim their friends are doing.
Welcome to the pre-teen years of 9-12, where the hormones may not have kicked in yet, but the striving for independence is likely to begin.
But how much freedom should we be giving to our 9- to 12-year-olds?
Is being over-cautious as problematic as throwing caution to the wind?
Pharmacist and mother-of-three Sheena Mitchell doesn’t allow her 7-, 9- and 11-year-olds huge amounts of freedom. “We live rurally, and they would have to walk 3km down a canal path to school, and there are times I don’t feel safe there myself,” she explains. “I wouldn’t feel confident that they would not come across someone acting in a way which might frighten them.”
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Mitchell doesn’t allow her 11-year-old to stay home alone yet either. “I don’t think it would be fair to expect her to be responsible for the younger two. I fear they would fall out, and everyone would be in tears by the time I got back. Also, no idea what they would do if one of them got injured accidentally.”
I grew up with a fair bit of freedom and I would love that for my children, but ultimately the world has changed— Mother-of-three Sheena Mitchell
Sleepovers are “causing a huge issue at the moment in our house,” Mitchell says. “I don’t allow them. Ultimately, I have been terrified about child abuse from so many scandals that have broken from so many unexpected parts of communities that I just feel that I cannot guarantee their safety 100 per cent.
“They could sleep over at a family member’s, or I have a couple of my close friends who I would trust, but it is a complete ‘no’ to their friends. As, whilst their friends and families are all so lovely, can you ever know for sure that there is no issue in the house unless you yourself know the people, rather than just being acquainted to them from the school gates?”
Mitchell admits she “hates and resents” her reluctance to give her children much freedom. “I do believe I am right to be hesitant though. I grew up with a fair bit of freedom and I would love that for my children, but ultimately the world has changed. There’s a lot of social and drug issues which just weren’t as prevalent in the 80s when I was growing up.”
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Strict digital controls and access are in place for Mitchell’s children. “No phones until 6th class had been established as a fair compromise in our house,” she explains. The children are allowed to have Roblox, but “they don’t have any other online access other than the odd Google search with me for projects”.
Mitchell says her children “absolutely understand some aspects and hate others. The only one that actually causes any grief is the sleepover.”
Kelly Felton has three children. Her eldest child is nine. In recent times she had begun to allow her nine-year-old son to play out the front unsupervised. “I’m just a nervous nelly,” she says. “We live in a quiet estate in a cul de sac, but I have this awful fear something will happen.”
Felton is aware of the limited freedom she gives to her nine-year-old, but says it’s because “he’s only nine. I am conscious of it – but baby steps here.”
Online access is something Felton does allow, but admits that she worries about that issue too. “I’ve become a bit more paranoid since my eldest got headphones, as I can no longer hear what he’s watching, so I check in when I remember.”
Orla Goldrick believes it’s important to give her 11-year-old daughter some degree of freedom. While she hasn’t allowed her to travel on public transport alone yet, she does allow her to walk to local shops and shopping centres with her friends, and to have sleepovers with close friends.
“I allow her to do these things because I feel it’s a way of life growing and independence. I struggled at the start and it was baby steps, just walking to the shop, and then it grew. I had to learn to trust her and she had to learn to earn trust from me as well.
“I remember, growing up, my parents being really strict, but I just did it anyway, so I feel it’s better to let her, than her go behind my back. At least I know where she is and we have an app on her phone so we can track her too and she can’t lie.”
Online freedom is the biggest issue I think I’ve faced in my 15 years of teaching. It’s a minefield, and can’t be monitored easily— Primary school teacher Lisa Ní Theimhneáin
Goldrick has also allowed her daughter to stay home alone, briefly, on occasion. “They were 30-minute periods while I collected her brother from school. We are easing her into this and there are strict rules – she isn’t allowed open the door even if it’s someone she knows.”
When it comes to online activity, Goldrick’s 11-year-old has Instagram, “which is linked to mine so I can see who she adds and who she messages”, Goldrick explains. “She also has TikTok which is restricted. She isn’t allowed Snapchat because there has been bullying in the school, so I won’t allow her to have it.”
Primary school teacher Lisa Ní Theimhneáin thinks parents of 9- to 12-year-olds are mostly getting in right in terms of the amount of freedoms they give to their children, but concedes that it’s not easy. “Even in third class I’m hearing about sleepovers which I assumed might not happen until they would be slightly older. They’re reporting walking to and from school independently, which is great for them, given the distance is reasonable.”
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But Ní Theimhneáin adds that “there’s a real divide in third class, if I’m honest. You have totally innocent nine-year-olds mixed with very mature pre-teens almost – so I do think parents have a tough job ascertaining how and when to assign certain independent activities or freedoms.
“Online freedom is the biggest issue I think I’ve faced in my 15 years of teaching. It’s a minefield, and can’t be monitored easily. A lot of children can be heard discussing Snapchat, TikTok, and they seem to have their own accounts on these. I do think stricter regulations need to be brought in around these apps and websites. At the end of the day, it is irrelevant how trustworthy your own child is if there is somebody else contacting them via these platforms with unsuitable material.”
So how much freedom should parents give to youngsters aged 9-12?
“The family home is the training ground for life,” explains psychotherapist and mum-of-three Bethan O’Riordan. “Children are learning the edges of what’s right and wrong through their relationship with their parents and caregivers. Children don’t have life experience. They don’t know how to problem solve. They are trusting, but at the same time if we have open discussions with them about being safe, they then tune into this.”
I’ve met many teenagers in the therapy room who suffer with anxiety, and when we trace back when it started, the feeling they recognise inside began when they were left alone for ‘short times’ to drop siblings to school— Bethan O’Riordan, psychotherapist
O’Riordan explains that children need to know what to do if a problem arises, and need to be able to comfortably connect with their parent in that instance. “Is there a shop they can go to and wait in there to call you? Do they know they can come to you with anything that makes them feel uncomfortable online? This type of open relationship is formed when a parent doesn’t scold or punish a child for making mistakes, but rather uses it as a time to help them learn those importance edges of life without shame or fear.”
Leaving children home alone requires many considerations, O’Riordan says. “A parent has to think, ‘Does my child have the skills to cope if there was a fire, spur of the moment guest, or suddenly feeling alone?’ If a parent has any doubt or fear in them about leaving their child, then it’s a ‘no’. My fear with leaving children alone in this age bracket is that I am unsure if they’ve the skills to say, ‘Oh, I’m a little scared’, even if a parent asks them.
“I’ve met many teenagers in the therapy room who suffer with anxiety, and when we trace back when it started, the feeling they recognise inside began when they were left alone for ‘short times’ to drop siblings to school, etc.”
Parents have become much more cautious in recent years, O’Riordan observes. “It’s so important that parents’ fears don’t become their children’s problem. Children absorb fears from their family and these come out in anxious behaviours and thoughts. So, while the world can be a scary place, we can absolutely support children to navigate it with safety and freedom.
“My practice this year is full of children and teenagers who are self-harming, which in some part is the turning inwards of a critical voice. They all have a voice which tells them negative and critical things about themselves, so when independence is taken away, this only fuels that voice which grows so quickly. Again, with independence must come the freedom of making mistakes without shame or blame.”
“Not allowing appropriate levels of independence stops children taking the necessary brain developmental risks they need to learn what’s safe in the world, and excludes them from their peers,” O’Riordan continues. “Again, this re-enforces that inner messaging of not being good enough.”
She advises parents who are struggling to allow their children to have appropriate freedoms to “talk with your child about what they’d like to do and how to make it safe. Think of practice scenarios, what may happen, etc. But most of all, create a trusting and open relationship with your child, and then freedom is easier because you know they’ll come to you with what’s hard for them.”