Age-old questions: Is childhood independence a thing of the past in a modern world?

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Catherine Wells, 16, got a Facebook page when she was 13, but before then, "we talked a lot about the Internet," her mother, Cyndi, said. "We discussed how everything online is permanent." Photo: Brianna Larocco Catherine Wells, 16, got a Facebook page when she was 13, but before then, "we talked a lot about the Internet," her mother, Cyndi, said. "We discussed how everything online is permanent." Photo: Brianna Larocco

Movies make it easy. Their rating system provides a pretty good suggestion for the appropriate age for kids to see certain flicks. Real-life? Not so much. Which is why it can be challenging for parents who are trying to determine if their child is old enough to, say, walk alone to the school bus stop or surf the interwebs unsupervised.

It doesn’t help that parents are navigating a very different world than the one that nurtured them as they grew. The Internet hadn’t been invented, cell phones were the stuff of fantasy, and Amber Alerts were only found on stoplights. These and other changes mean the norms of yesteryear are totally out the window in today’s modern world.

Of course, age is a number and each child’s maturity level is different. Parents know their kids better than anyone else, and it’s important to remember what works for one family may not fly in another household. So we asked area parents how they’ve handled some age-old concerns.

When should children be allowed to…walk or ride bicycles to friends’ houses alone?

Ten-year-old Jordan Chambers doesn’t go unescorted. The Reverend Ernest Chambers said it was easier for his mother to keep tabs on him during his childhood jaunts to friends’ houses. “My mom could yell my name and I could hear her,” he said. But here in Charlottesville in 2014, that’s not the case. Chambers, who’s also a school teacher, says it’ll be a few years before his youngest son can go alone.

Eleven-year-old Connor Wells is just now able to walk to his friend’s house by himself, but mom Cyndi watches until he’s out of sight, and “he has to call home when he arrives.”

What about simply playing outside unsupervised? “They can go around the block with the neighbors’ kids,” said local songwriter Ellis Paul of his two children, 10-year-old Ella and 7-year-old Sofi. “But we are a few years away from the ‘free roam’ mentality.”

What’s the right age to…go to the movies without a grown-up?

At 12, Carter Tegen is allowed to go to the movies if it is with a group and there is a parent chaperon in the theater.

Anne Delaney said, “Our seventh grader will go with friends, but there is always a parent along. At 14 or 15, we’d be comfortable dropping her off with a group of friends.”

When should children be allowed to…stroll on the Downtown Mall unescorted?

“At what point do you think they’re mature enough to exercise good judgment?” asks Charlottesville Police Chief Tim Longo. “We see kids as young as 13-14 years old, but usually mom and dad go to the mall to have dinner and the kid meets up with their friends.”

Reverend Chambers said letting 10-year-old Jordan stroll the mall alone might be several more years away. “My youngest is more like me, easily distracted. If you know your kids can handle not being swayed (by other kids), the age could be much different.”

Cyndi Wells’ high school-aged daughter can go to the mall with friends, but has to check in via text every 30 minutes. “It’s building that freedom in the kids, but it’s important to teach them to be responsible.”

By the way, the city of Charlottesville curfew for minors (under 17) means they cannot be out alone after midnight. For Albemarle County, the curfew is 11pm.

What’s the right age to…have a cell phone?

Sixteen-year-old Catherine Wells got her first cell phone in fifth or sixth grade. She had to get herself on the bus in the morning and she needed to communicate if there was a problem. But her parents established clear ground rules first. “She knows it’s our right at any time to look at her phone, but not without her there,” Cyndi Wells said.

At 18, Scottie Chambers has had a cell phone for six years, but his brother, Jordan, doesn’t have one yet. “My oldest son is more grounded,” his father explained.

Twelve-year-old Carter Tegen will likely get a cell phone in eighth grade, according to his dad, John, “so he’s got a year or two to acclimate with it before high school. It becomes a social stigma in high school if they don’t have a cell phone.”

Scottie Chambers (right) has had a cell phone for six years, but his younger brother Jordan doesn’t have one yet. Photo: Brianna Larocco

When should children be allowed to…ride in the front seat of the car?

Anne Delaney’s four kids, ranging in age from 10-16, usually ride in the back. “It’s not just a safety issue—it’s more about keeping the peace. If one gets to ride in the front, it becomes an issue, so they all just get in the back.”

“He always calls shotgun first,” John Tegen said of his 12-year-old son, Carter, who does his best to beat his sister to the front seat of the car.

Virginia state law requires children to ride in a secured child or booster seat in the back up to age 8 or up to 4’9″. According to the Virginia Department of Health, a child under 13 is allowed in the front seat if the air bag is turned off, the seat is as far back as possible from the dash, and the child is safely restrained by a child safety seat, booster seat, or seat belt, as required by law.

When should children be allowed to…date?

“By herself? 25 or 26 maybe?” laughs Chief Longo, when asked what age he’ll allow his 14-year-old daughter to date. “I’d have to know the young man well and spend some time with him, and get to know his parents to get an idea of the values and character…maybe 16 or 17 years old.“

John Tegen’s daughter Madison is 17. He said appropriate dating age depends on the date: “Is it to the movies? Dinner? Is there parental oversight?” He said it also depends on the date’s age: how much older is he? “One grade is probably O.K. two grades is pushing it.” He summed it up by saying “driving age” is an appropriate dating age.

And for boys? When the time comes, “I’d be O.K. with him dating as a high school freshman if he were supervised,” Anne Delaney said of her 10-year-old son.

When should children be allowed to…get a laptop or surf the Web?

“We have passwords to all of Catherine’s accounts,” said Cyndi Wells of her 16-year-old’s laptop. “We talked a lot about the Internet before she got on Facebook at 13, and discussed how everything online is permanent.”

Carter Tegen, 12, is allowed to play games on the computer and has his own e-mail address, but “he knows we check in on him,” his dad, an engineer, said. He can play shooter games if there is no blood, but “graphic violence is where we draw the line.”

Ten-year-old Ella Paul got a laptop for her birthday this year, but there are limitations on using it. “We have a list of sites she can go to, and she can roam around YouTube a little bit as long as someone is there with her,” said Ellis Paul. “The Internet is a scary place. It’s so easy to get in trouble there. Hopefully they’ll be responsible. It’s their world as they’re growing up.”

When should children be allowed to…stay home alone?

Virginia doesn’t have a state-wide statute for kids to be home alone, and nearly every parent answered the same way: It depends on the child’s maturity level. When asked about his own children, Chief Longo answered, “Probably 12 or 13.”

“We started having our oldest daughter ‘practice’ staying home alone for short periods of time in fifth grade, because there was no after-school program for her in sixth grade,” said audiologist Anne Delaney. “We’d be fine with our 13-year-old staying home alone, but she doesn’t really like to.” As for her 10-year-old son, Delaney said he can stay home alone for 20 minutes while she runs an errand, but at this point, it’s a phone issue. “We don’t have a landline, and he won’t get a cell phone until he’s 11.”

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