On Letting Kids Walk to the Park Alone

At what age would you let your child play outside in front of your house without adult supervision? Three? Five? Seven? Nine? This was part of a discussion I had recently when I gave a presentation at a parenting conference on the topic of “free range” parenting. I did not do this as any kind of expert, but as a parent who is passionate about trying to give my children room to learn and develop like my husband and I were able to do when we were young. I am not even sure I am a mom who totally practices “free range parenting,” but the beauty of this idea is it should be modified to suit each family’s comfort level.

What is “free range parenting,” you ask? It is the idea of encouraging your children to do things independently, taking in to consideration their developmental level and a realistic assessment of the risks. It is based on experiences and research of columnist and mom Lenore Skenazy. She shot into the spotlight when she let her child take the subway home in New York City by himself in 2008 and then wrote an article about it. Due to the apparent “craziness” of her parenting choice, she appeared on several television and radio news. She was taken to task by all kinds of people as a bad mom. That weekend she launched a website called Free Range Kids. The movement took off from there. She has since written a book and speaks all over the world. She blogs and shares news about the exploits of other parents like her. If you are interested in this topic, I encourage you to check it out.

I saw her on the news when she was first being interviewed about this crazy thing she let her child do and listened to the comments by outraged parents and professionals. I thought she was amazing. I began following her because I realized she was talking about giving kids the same type of childhood my husband and I had.

Skenazy asks us as parents to consider a few things—namely, that the world is not as dangerous as we think it is. We think it is worse because of the 24-hour availability of news from every corner of the world in today’s society. In fact, crime statistics are lower now than they have been in a long time. We also have a lot of self-proclaimed experts that have no actual professional credentials or training or research behind what they are telling us: parenting “experts” who know nothing about child development, safety “professionals” who incite fear without real statistics to back them up, etc. In addition, our society has become very litigious, making schools and other child-friendly zones ultra cautious in protections from lawsuits. We are also more afraid of being considered bad parents, or scarring our children for life, or letting our kids fail. Kids today have totally different and often more protected lives than children 50-75 years ago—and those children grew up to be our amazing great grandparents and grandparents. Our children are actually less healthy and more at risk for injury because we don’t let them do things like climb trees and run on the playground.

A big misconception is that free-range parenting is letting your kids do whatever they want, not paying attention to what they are doing. Actually, the basic idea of free ranging your kids is identifying their strengths and weakness and figuring out what they can do on their own—and afterwards, having a conversation about their experiences. What this looks like will be different from one child to the next. In addition, our parenting choices are based on many things—from our own experiences and fears to our current environment. One parent may be able to let their seven-year-old walk home from school by himself/herself and another parent may choose to let their eight-year-old child bake cookies or make dinner on his/her own. What will work for each family unit will vary from one to another. Skenazy knows not everyone can jump right in and encourages parent to take whatever size step they find comfortable.

You might ask why you would want to let your children go off on their own to do things. Letting young people experience independence builds self-confidence and teaches them to problem solve. A child that is allowed to be a little more independent is also probably more physically active, so in addition to mental health benefits it also improves physical health.

What are activities to consider? Here are some now “free range-y” things I remember doing as a child in Chicago…

  • Walking to the grocery store (maybe half a mile) to buy coffee or milk at age five or six
  • Taking a 20-minute bus ride at age seven to my dad’s office
  • Babysitting for neighborhood kids at the age of nine
  • Going to a movie alone with my four-year-old brother at the age of eight
  • Working as a receptionist in a neighbor’s office at 14

This was commonplace for many of today’s adults, but dare I say, few of us have let our kids do these things nor would we even remotely consider hiring a nine-year-old babysitter.

So what does free-range parenting look like in today’s world? I have let my kids:

  • Walk to and from school by themselves as young as seven years old
  • Take the subway home by themselves when my oldest was 12 (clearly not in San Antonio, but another very large city)
  • Go to a local restaurant with my credit card to get food to go
  • Fly internationally by themselves
  • Walk to the gas station to get ice cream or a soda
  • Go to the pool by themselves (there is a lifeguard, after all)
  • Go into their doctors’ and dentist’s exam rooms by themselves
  • Stay home by themselves as elementary school-age kids
  • Make food that involves using our stove and/or oven whether I was home or not
  • And more
Zachary makes pancakes on his own.

Zachary making pancakes on his own

Many of my mommy friends have commented on my choice to give my kids room to do things on their own. Some were supportive, and some expressed fears of letting their own kids do these things. I have received phone calls from other mothers to report on my kids’ activities, things like climbing retaining walls and jumping off high places. And one time—say it’s not so!—because they were throwing snowballs.

I have to say, though, I appreciate a phone call over a call to the police. During my presentation, the one fear almost everyone shared was being reported to CPS. They were not scared of something happening to their kids. They were afraid their neighbor would report them to the police for letting their child play in front of their house by themselves. There is a fine line to draw here. If a child is being abused or neglected, you would want the authorities involved. But many people have become so overly cautious and judgmental about what they deem as acceptable parenting that they do not contact they actual responsible adult first. The consensus of the parents in my presentation was that we would like a neighbor to approach us first before calling the authorities.

Marci riding the subway home in Seoul by herself as we went in the opposite direction.

Marci riding the subway home in Seoul by herself as we went in the opposite direction

I asked some of my friends to give their thoughts on their ability to free range parent. Here were their responses:

“I think things make it both easier and more difficult to free range parent these days. For example, cell phones make me feel more comfortable with my kids being at a friend’s house or walking around exploring independently for longer periods of time because they can check in and call if they need help,” says Allison. “More awareness of child predators and their ability to lure kids through social media makes me leery.”

My friend Christine and her husband let their five-year-old, whom she calls the wild child, set many of his own boundaries: “If he wants to wander around the woods at the park, he can, as long as he stays within ear and eye range. We like to let him set the new boundaries but have it still be reasonable.”

Jennifer, whose son is autistic with what she says are “ horrible executive functioning abilities” would love to “free range” it a little more, but says, “I don’t know how to make it possible for him without him repeatedly failing because of a lack of follow-through. It wouldn’t be a one-time thing, but almost every time. I’d love to hear what other moms have to say.”

“So my kids are younger, but for us it has meant not ‘setting’ them on top of a climbing structure or something similar,” says Alissa. “We figure if they can get themselves up safely, they will be able to get down the same way. I ask that they stay within eyesight of me—instead of me being able to see them—when we are out and about, and basically take a step back when I feel the urge to intervene or ‘help.’ I try to differentiate between risks and hazards. A risk is an acceptable obstacle to overcome, and I try to allow my children opportunities to take what they feel to be acceptable risks from infancy while also being aware of potential hazards and removing the potential for a hazard to ruin our day. Basically, for me, it still means being vigilant and engaged, but also allowing them to do their own thing. “

Each of these families has found what is and is not working in giving their children a little independence to try life on their own. Not everyone has found a solution that works, but they are open to the idea.

How old are your kids? What are you willing to let your child do on their own?

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4 Responses to On Letting Kids Walk to the Park Alone

  1. Barry August 30, 2016 at 12:24 pm #

    Spot on. We raise our girls this way. It already shows in how capable they are moving through the world. (This especially comes out playing with their timid-by-comparison cousins.)

    Three? Five? *Seven*? *NINE*? Ach! The fact that that could be the question shows how warped our surroundings have become. We let our girls play in the front yard (with me inside the window reading and sort of watching) when the eldest was 2. Younger for the little sister who had a big sis with her. Just like all of human history, except this blip. Fortunately, we have the sort of neighbors who cavil at *us* and not the police (though we’ve had a couple of passing cars call the police, and we actually had a passing police car stop and engage my eldest in a frightening conversation about what could happen to her — not OK!).

    There are some funny curlicues in this type of upbringing. We teach them to be obedient, so a couple of times our kid has come to us crying because an adult helped her onto a playground swing or something and she let the adult do it, but then cried because she didn’t get to do it herself. (I only wish the “helpful” adult could have seen that eye-opening part of it.

    Our parenting ideas are part of why we live where we do: a cool old neighborhood with corner stores, mom-and-pop places, bookstores, museums, and parks within walking distance. We fully expect that in a few short years our girls will be walking to get a popsicle, head to the playground for a while, and stop off at the bookstore to cool off — all stuff that I would have done at that age, and part of the slowly expanding circles of independence we design for children.

    As in the article, though, our only fear is Bad Samaritans. CPS can do great good in sparing children from neglect and abuse, but can also seriously disrupt the lives of conscientious parents of independent kids. Just recently I heard an expert say something like: imagine if everyone were afraid of the tripping and falling and head injuries that can happen from walking around, and started putting kids in wheelchairs. Weekly shows like “CSI: Head Injuries” and “Law & Order: Walking Danger” drummed it in. Then people started thinking that it’s dangerous *not* to wheel your kid around that way. So eventually if they see you walking around with your kid they’ll call the police on you. *And* the police will respond. *And* they’ll take you downtown, and put you on trial. *And* the judge won’t throw it out but will listen, very concerned, and then sentence you.

    Not too far from the world we’re living in now — especially when these “bad parenting” activities, like walking, are the very things that help kids grow, and the “good” ones, like confining them to wheelchairs, are the very definition of actual bad parenting, in that they prevent normal development.

    I’m always glad to see that these issues are treated in blogs and articles, and shared and read. Thanks, everyone, for doing it.

    • Ginger August 31, 2016 at 5:17 pm #

      So glad this article hit the right note for you! This can be such a controversial topic!

  2. Ariana
    Ariana August 29, 2016 at 12:18 pm #

    Thanks for this post! I feel like I was “given” so much freedom as a child, perhaps it’s because my parents were divorced and I lived with my mother who worked full time. I think latchkey kid is the term that could be applied to me, but I still knew what I was allowed and not allowed to do after school and I knew what my responsibilities were before my mother got home from work (that part really helped my time-management skills!). It feels like there is so much more to consider these days, and things will likely change before we are ready to start doing those with our daughter, who isn’t even a year yet!

    • Ginger August 31, 2016 at 5:20 pm #

      I think things have changed so much in recent years, but you are right that some of it could be circumstances. Can’t wait to see what the future holds for parenting!