When can a child walk to school by themselves?

Miles pic

This has generated lots of passionate discussion on social media.

This article from Miles police appeared on social media and in the news through the week, causing enormous uproar. It cautions parents against letting their children walk to school by themselves. As a mother and a police officer, I have strong opinions on this, and judging by the commentary on social media, so do many other parents.

Firstly, I want to clarify that yes – this is a current piece of legislation in Queensland. Yes, the exact age of twelve is specified. The law considers that at this age, children are considered responsible. But importantly, this law does not immediately deem children under that age irresponsible. The key phrase in the legislation is “without making reasonable provision for the supervision and care of the child”.

What is ‘reasonable provision’? What defines ‘an unreasonable time’? It’s open to interpretation. But if you can name even one thing that may constitute this provision, then you probably have no need to worry about this law.

Does your child walk with siblings or another child? Do they have safe ways to cross any roads? Have you walked the route with them and addressed possible problems? Have you spoken to them about what they should do if approached by someone? Will someone quickly let you know if your kids fail to turn up? Any of these are reasonable provisions.

Some parents send their five year olds off by themselves to get to school. There are ten year olds sent off to school who detour past the local skate park and never make it to classes. There are seven year olds who wander out in peak hour traffic on their way to school, trusting in the quick reactions of drivers. So these specific laws are dragged out by exasperated police when dealing with repeated situations like this.

When I was a kid, our parents were happy for my brother and I to walk to school as soon as we were old enough to attend. This was the norm. But my parents also made us ride in the boot portion of the family station wagon after we’d been to the beach so we didn’t wreck the upholstery. We live in a different world today. As much as I’d like my kids to have a childhood disappearing all day and returning home once the street lights came on, it’s just not the same. There’s been a shift in awareness.

However, I do want to raise independent and capable children who can make practical decisions. So my children, aged seven and nine, walk part of the way to school by themselves on some mornings. I have made a number of provisions and I have no fear for their safety. This is even though, as a police officer, I know the sort of people lurking around and the sorts of things that happen. By applying due diligence and common sense, I’ve minimised the risk. I accept there is always some small risk, but this is inherent in everything we do. If someone attempted to charge me simply on the basis of the ages of my children, it would be thrown out of court. I don’t believe it’s the intention of the legislation. What age you are happy to let your children do things alone is a question for your family, and not the law – providing the ‘reasonable provisions’ have been met.

I recently discussed this very piece of legislation with the detective in charge of my local Child Protection Investigation Unit. I was on the cusp of leaving my nine year old at home by herself for short periods of time. The same law applies for this as for walking to school alone. He asked whether I had made ‘reasonable provisions’ for my daughter. She knows my phone number. She knows which neighbours she can go to. She is forbidden from going to the door unless it is a short list of specific people. She knows about ‘tricky people’ as well as ‘bad people’. She has been quizzed on what she would do in numerous hypothetical scenarios. She is responsible and sensible. As a parent, I am happy to leave her alone for short periods of time.

The age of twelve is arbitrary and Queensland seems to be the only state which has set this. I personally thought high school would be the age when I would leave my children alone for longer, so they wouldn’t have to go to vacation care when I’m at work. But with high school now including Year 7 in Queensland, many kids will start at the age of eleven. So do they have to return to primary school vacation care programs until they turn twelve? Or do the ‘reasonable provisions’ extend to a full day?

It boils down to what steps you have taken to ensure your child is safe. If the worst case scenario does happen, what could you say about your actions?

I’m not sure what prompted this particular notification in Miles. But I can guarantee there is more to this story than police randomly choosing a child quietly making their way in to school. Although I think this particular notification was probably ill-advised and the interpretation that ‘kids under 12 cannot walk or ride to school alone’ is flawed, the resulting reactions show that it is clearly a topic many parents seek guidance on.

It’s certainly prompted parents to think about their views and why they hold them. And that in itself is a positive thing.

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