A mom of a 7-year-old asked me the other day whether her son was old enough to go to a public bathroom by himself. She was going on a trip and wondered if it was safe, especially in an airport.
Lately there has been a lot of discussion about what a child should and should not be allowed to do. In Maryland, two children were briefly taken into child protective custody for playing in the park alone. Last year, another mom, Debra Harrell, was arrested for letting her 9-year-old child play in the park by herself.
When is the right age for a child to go to the park or public bathroom alone? Is a parent “neglectful” for allowing older child to have a little bit of independence?
There are really no black-and-white rules or policies. Most local or state laws are vague, saying there should be “supervision appropriate to the child’s age and development”. So how do you decide what your child should be allowed to do?
As a pediatrician, I see many different types of kids in my practice. What’s interesting is how different each child is. One 6-year-old may be setting the table and helping to unload the dishwasher, but another one may struggle to get ready for school.
All children develop and mature at their own pace. This means that every child will cross the threshold of independent tasks differently. A child that is aware of his surroundings and is more cautious could be trusted enough to go to a public bathroom by himself at a younger age. A child who is easily distracted and wanders off might need parental supervision for even minor tasks for longer. The key is to know your child and know the right circumstance for him to do all right.
But can you help your child get to independence more quickly? In many cases, your guidance and teaching can go a long way. When you’re crossing the street together, does he look both ways? If not, keep reminding him and eventually he will remember himself. Ask what he would do if a stranger approached him in the bathroom or a stranger offered him a toy at the playground. Talking to your child about these situations will give you an opportunity to learn his personality and teach him how to handle situations.
Eventually your child will have to make a decision on her own. The world is not just school and the playground. Your child could be led astray in your own home, on the Internet , social media, or at a playdate at a trusted friend’s home. Or as a teen, a friend might offer him a “cool new drug”. There are perils everywhere.
My twin 9-year-olds are definitely different. So I allow them to do independent things at different times. The other day, after talking her through it, I let my less independent child go into the grocery store to buy milk by herself. She came out smiling with the carton of milk.
And seeing her accomplish that put a smile on my face, as well.