The first time we allowed our nine-year-old to walk alone in our neighborhood, we made the decision quite spontaneously and for pragmatic reasons.
My wife was running an errand with our two older daughters while I stayed home with our sleeping baby. They were just a few blocks from home when I realized our eldest daughter needed to be home pronto to catch a ride to play rehearsal. After a quick phone call, we decided: Our daughter would walk home solo. I stepped outside, leaving the front door ajar so I could hear the baby if she woke up. I stood on the sidewalk, peering into the distance until my daughter appeared up the block, a massive grin on her face—the smile of independence gained.
Since then we’ve allowed our daughter to walk and bike ride by herself, always along the same prescribed route: an area right near our house that requires her to cross only one street. So far, she’s been content circling those same four blocks repeatedly on her solo walks or rides. But before too long, I am sure, she will agitate for a wider space in which to travel, and as she shows us she can handle the extra freedom, we will gradually expand the area in which she’s allowed to roam.
We also have given her other moments of independence, such as the time I left her shopping in a CVS while I ran down the block to get cash from an ATM. She’s loved the freedom and solitude, and I believe they’ve helped her grow in confidence—and given my wife and me new confidence in her.
Some of our friends express surprise when they learn about the freedom we allow our now-10-year-old daughter, although none have openly expressed judgment or disapproval. (We have gotten our share of sarcastic thank-yous as my daughter’s friends have started to ask for a similar dose of independence from their parents.)
It’s not without fear that we let her go off on her own. But our primary anxieties are not what you may think. In our leafy, quiet neighborhood, I don’t fear for her safety, nor do I suspect that my supremely cautious and responsible daughter will do anything risky. She is a rules follower who will not watch a new TV show without first asking if it’s OK. She does her homework without being reminded—and will come out of bed and do it at any time of night if she remembers that she forgot an assignment. (The only challenge in that first solo walk, she reported, was her reluctance to cross the street, at an intersection, with a four-way stop, while any cars were present. One driver finally took pity, rolled down her window and told my daughter, “You can cross, honey!”)
Instead, my concerns—then and every time she goes off independently—revolve around the fear of something else entirely: a knock on the door from a police officer, or a hail of criticism or even bullying on social media, were anyone to find out we let our child out alone.
This may sound farfetched, but it’s not. The media is filled with reports of parents being investigated, arrested, and even prosecuted, for allowing a child to walk to school or play outside alone— and reportedly in one incident, on the front lawn, with Mom keeping an eye on her child from the window! In other, less headline-making instances, parents are shamed in person or on Facebook and Twitter for similar offenses, which can easily escalate to bullying and harassment. All for making what is, or at least should be, a personal decision about how to parent, and about how much responsibility a child has earned.
Leave your kid alone in the playground for a while, and the danger today is less about the predator in a van giving out candy and more about the potential for social-media fury or the authority’s arrival. Put another way, the outsized perception of danger leads to the very real danger that a parent might find himself in deep and scary trouble for the “crime” of parenting a different way than others believe he should.
That’s not to say that bad things don’t happen; they do. But we can’t shield our children from all dangers or let our fears become the main driver of our decisions. I respect others who make different choices about the independence they allow their children; as a father who thinks deeply about how I parent mine, I expect that same respect in return.
There can be no one-size-fits all rule for when kids can do what on their own. So much depends on the specifics: the neighborhood, the distance, the activity, even the weather will play a role. And what’s right for one child may not be right for the next, even within the same family, and what’s OK today may be unwise tomorrow.
My daughter understands the potential dangers, and we’ve discussed what to do if, say, a stranger offers her a ride. She appreciates that her freedom is a privilege earned by her consistent show of responsibility. She’s the type of kid who seemingly came out of the womb gunning for independence. On her belly at one day old, she picked her head up, leading the pediatrician to comment, “Nice two-month-old you have.” Determined to get shoes with laces instead of Velcro, she spent months teaching herself to tie shoelaces. Similarly determined to be allowed outside by herself, she gradually asked us to take interim steps, such as crossing the street by herself or walking ahead of us alone.
For my wife and me, erring on the side of greater independence, for a kid who’s earned it, brings myriad benefits. Independence breeds self-confidence and teaches children to live and thrive in the real world, to make decisions, and become their own autonomous people. Independent children grow into independent adults; overly sheltered children may have a harder time doing so. We’ve all heard about today’s young adults relying on Mommy and Daddy—for decision-making, advocacy for their needs, and providing basic shelter and care—long past when they should need such intense parenting. Perhaps if these children had been allowed more freedom to bicycle around the neighborhood or walk to school on their own in their tween and teen years, they’d be able to do more for themselves as adults today.
I love my children and look forward to a lifetime of close relationships with them, but I don’t need them calling me when they’re 25 to ask how to boil an egg or where to buy milk. Allowing them to walk our neighborhood alone is not a guarantee they’ll grow to be capable adults—nor is it the only way we’re preparing them for adulthood, obviously—but it’s a decent place to start.