Talk of free-range kids is in the news — how much independence is your child really ready to handle, and how willing are you to grant it?
“Mom, can I walk to Courtney’s house?” Jeannie, age 10, asks her mom.
Mom considers the usual, “Is there a parent home?”
Then mom considers the route. Courtney lives in their neighborhood, a cul de sac, just down the street. There are no busy streets to cross, the streets have sidewalks and Mom knows this family well.
“Okay,” she answers, “I want you home by 5 for dinner. You go nowhere else before checking with me first, OK?”
Summer is here and kids are looking for fun and freedom during their break from school, and the scenario above is common while the weather is nice. There’s a lot of hype in the news lately about “free-range” parenting. The news stories of phone calls to child protective services and authorities when parents have allotted certain freedoms for their children can make a parent second-guess themselves on when kids can be home alone or travel alone.
A single mom of three, Beth Wartman says she feels there’s safety in numbers. Her children are 12, 10 and 9, and she lets them stay home alone together. However, 12-year-old Zoe is the only one able to stay home alone. Beth has had to field phone calls from school and the authorities in regards to her decision.
Knowing the right age for being home alone is not cut-and-dry. The states of Ohio and Kentucky have no specific laws to guide parents. Sharon James, Parent Education Program Manager, Mediator and Parent Coach with Beech Acres Parenting Center says that the question “Can I stay home by myself?” usually arises between ages 10 and 13.
“It’s not about age,” she says. “It’s about the maturity of the child and her ability to make decisions.”
Beth knows this well. She says, “Zoe is super responsible and I trust her judgment in most situations.” James says this is key. “Your observation of your child’s ability is the knowledge you base your decision on.”
When you and your child feel she is ready, you can “start with a short time away and build on it,” James stresses. The first time you’re gone you want it to be easy for you to be home quickly if needed. Sometimes children are scared and that’s OK. A parent needs to validate that feeling and normalize it. Give your child the room to say, “I’m not ready.” James says, “Some parents are eager for their child to reach this milestone because of childcare budgets and freedom to come-and-go.” But this can’t take precedence over your child’s readiness.
James also says to make sure your child understands what’s expected of her when she’s alone. Do you expect a text or a call when she gets home from school or when she wakes up on a summer day? Do you expect a chore to be completed? If the school year is in session, should she do homework?
After the first time alone, congratulate your child on what she did well. If she struggled in a certain area, don’t tell her what to do, but brainstorm solutions instead so she can be resourceful next time. The key is to help your child find her comfort level and confidence.
Navigating the Neighborhood
Alone in the world is different than alone at home. Walking the neighborhood starts with good practice as a family.
According to the National Center for Safe Routes to School (NCSRTS), children ages 7 to 9 are developed enough to understand in-depth instruction about safety behaviors. With a parent’s guidance, children can practice decision-making and attention-switching skills required to navigate things like oncoming traffic, safe places to cross and other pedestrian traffic. Know the most common route your child will take and walk it with her. Don’t drive. See the obstacles she will face on foot and help her navigate them. James suggests making a game out of it. When you come to an intersection or a place you want to cross, let her determine if it’s safe. Your example and your guidance in the early years is how she learns safe behaviors.
The NCSRTS says that by age 10 children are developed enough to walk short distances alone. James says the child’s freedoms should have to do with her abilities and capabilities. She suggests that you first observe your child when you’re together in a store. Is she aware of her surroundings? Her ability to be alert and observant in public will tell you what she is ready for by herself. When your child pays attention to what’s going on around her, she can avoid dangerous situations.
If your child has a cell phone, is she walking and texting? Technology has made an impact on your child’s observation skills — and it’s not always good. Help her remember to keep her head up and pay attention while out in public. This also lays the safe groundwork for future driving. When you’re traveling — walking, bicycling or driving — no texting.
Along with your child’s behavior, parents must also consider the child’s route. Just like you started small when she first stayed home alone, start small here. Start with a neighborhood route with light traffic. If you live in the suburbs this may be a short route to a friend’s house where there are sidewalks and cul de sacs. As the child gets older she can expand her reach with her sharpened skills.
All skills start when we practice with our parents. The more we guide our children through decision-making, the easier it will be for them to transition to making decisions on their own. Resist telling her what to do. Encourage her to think it through. The hard part for parents is taking that deep breath and stepping back to let their children do it on their own.
Remember, what we see on the news are the exceptions to an otherwise safe world. Statistically we live in the safest time in America. Homicide rates are lower now than they were in 1965. The real dangers our children face when navigating their neighborhoods are the dangers of traffic. Pedestrian and bicycle safety are things we can teach, thereby empowering our kids to be competent travelers in their little part of the world.
Technology can offer Parents Peace of Mind
My 14-year-old is a freshman at a high school 30 minutes away. I drop her off in the morning but in the afternoon she takes the city bus home. On a regular day, when she doesn’t have band rehearsal, I expect a text around 2:25 p.m.: “I’m at the bus stop.” Then another one at 2:30 p.m.: “I’m on the bus.” One more around 3:10 p.m.: “Off the bus.” The bus stop is three blocks from our house so I can expect her to walk through the door within 10 minutes.
From the time a parent decides their child is old enough to have a phone, they present her an opportunity for more independence. A child no longer is completely alone. A simple text to Mom or Dad gives parents the peace of mind they want and the independence a child craves. I’m grateful for the technology my parents didn’t have when I ventured out into the city alone as a kid. Not only can my daughter communicate with me, but she can use the bus route app to know when the next bus will arrive, and she can use the map app on her phone to navigate an unfamiliar route.
It’s efficient, but not fail proof. My daughter has forgoten to text me, she’s missed her stop, let her phone die listening to music, and she has even had it on silent mode with her nose buried in a good book, leaving me panicked on the other end trying to connect.
These are all learning opportunities. They give parents a chance to develop communication expectations with their children. Parents should always know the child’s route and have a backup phone number if they’re with friends.
There’s a downside to this safety net. Sharon James of Beech Acres Parenting Center says that while constantly communicating with parents about their day, children can fail to make decisions for themselves. “Kids who have Mom and Dad at their fingertips are not as resourceful,” says James. It’s easier to just text a parent to see what they should do instead of figuring it out for themselves.
Your child will make mistakes and sometimes it’s scary. However, it’s necessary she learns now, with your guidance, rather than later when she’s on her own.