Imagine a five-year-old walking alone to school. Half-hidden by their backpack and wide-brimmed hat, like an upright turtle in a school uniform.
Here in Australia, that picture would raise major alarm bells: "Where are the child's parents?" "They're too young to be alone!"
But in other countries, this is simply the norm. In Japan, for instance, parents teach their kids to catch public transport and walk unsupervised from an early age.
And in Denmark and Germany, most kids — even in early primary — make their own way to school on foot or on bike.
Why are Aussie parents reticent to foster such early independence? Why do so many of us feel we must accompany our children everywhere, and are there downsides? When is the 'right age' for kids to start playing and commuting alone, and why do parental attitudes differ so dramatically from country to country?
It takes a (safe) village
According to Jan Garrard, a senior lecturer in the school of health and social development at Deakin University, parents in English-speaking countries tend to be more protective of their kids.
"That's not just because we're more 'helicopter parents'," she points out.
Concerns around the public safety of children are understandable, even as statistics show violent crime is declining over time.
While the most recent government reporting of violent crime against children shows decreasing numbers, perceived threats remain present for many parents, and vigilance is part of their responsibility.
Dr Garrard says the decision to let kids travel unsupervised to school is usually based on three factors:
- The built environment (Are there footpaths, road crossings, traffic lights?)
- The regulatory environment (What are the road rules and the sanctions for disobeying them?)
- The cultural environment (What are our expectations about what parents and children should and shouldn't be doing?)
In countries where it's the norm for kids to travel independently, there's a culture of communal child-rearing, Dr Garrard says.
"In Japan, the whole community looks out for the kids, who often start trotting off to school at kindergarten-age, usually in small groups," she says.
She says attitudes towards responsibility also differ between Australia and Japan.
"Rather than blaming parents if [a child is involved in an accident], they will blame the driver," she says.
As Dr Garrard points out, with Australia's more individualistic community standards, keeping children safe near roads is seen as the primary responsibility of parents, whereas, "in a lot of other cultures, it's much more, 'What was the driver doing? And what can we do to ensure that drivers are extra cautious in moving near children?'"
What's the law say?
In Queensland, parents can be charged for leaving children under 12 years unattended "for an unreasonable time without making reasonable provision for the supervision and care of the child during that time".
The law says whether the time is unreasonable depends on "all the relevant circumstances", making it a case-by-case matter, according to past Queensland Law Society president Christine Smyth.
The laws of other states and territories do not outline a specific age for when it is permissible to leave children unsupervised. However, there are laws that say parents or guardians are responsible for their children's safety.
Pitfalls of 'playing it safe'
Even if your child has demonstrated they can play unsupervised or walk to school solo, there's a chance you'll still be judged for granting their independence "too soon", says child psychologist Kimberley O'Brien.
"If kids are quite young and they're doing things independently, from the outsiders' perspective, it might look like they need more support, and that they are at risk," she says.
"People in Australia might call Families and Community Services because they feel the child's parents are being irresponsible."
Dr O'Brien says such attitudes create a culture where parents are reticent to encourage self-reliance.
But unsupervised play and travel are important learning steps for children, she adds. Trying to protect your kids may do more harm than good.
"Talking about independence is the solution to the issue — it's good for children's self-esteem and confidence."
The pros of independence
Self-esteem isn't the only advantage. Dr O'Brien says encouraging kids to be active and catch public transport will build social skills and problem-solving abilities.
Dr Garrard adds there are substantial health benefits to allowing your children commute independently, especially en route to school.
"When we're worried about the obesity epidemic, and children growing healthy muscles and bones … all of those things are improved through physical activity."
So, when is the 'right' age?
Dr Garrard says children can vary enormously in their maturity levels, so parents are best placed to decide when they're ready to take on responsibility.
"In terms of allowing children to, say, walk or cycle to school independently, parents have to be convinced they can do it safely," she says.
Consider the size of your child and their past record with separation anxiety, recommends Dr O'Brien. And try introducing independence slowly.
"Between the ages of seven and eight, start to introduce the idea of kids picking up the change, or running into the shops to grab a loaf of bread," Dr O'Brien suggests.
Begin with small steps that you feel comfortable with.
And don't worry if it feels like you're going against the cultural grain, says Dr O'Brien.
"It's about sending the right message to the child, that they can do things for themselves," she explains.
"I think it's important, even if it feels like it might be against what your local community is doing."
Editor's note (31/12/19): This article has been amended to include information on relevant state laws and Australian crime statistics.