Years before either of my kids was old enough to venture out into the world — or even into the front yard on their own — I was in a reading and discussion group with other neighborhood parents that met every week to talk about raising our kids.
The DIY course, Healthy Children-Healthy Planet, covered topics like creating meaningful family rituals, healthy eating, technology, advertising and creativity.
For a unit on kids and nature, we each mapped our own childhood stomping grounds with our houses at the epicenter to get a sense of how far we were allowed to roam. My territory was immense. No surprise. We had all been free-range kids.
I don’t remember anyone teaching me how to be out in the world alone. Or when my boundaries expanded from my yard to the neighbors’ yards to the whole street to anywhere I could pedal my bike. In first grade, I walked to school with a pack of kids, no adults. By age 7 or 8, I rode my bike to swim practice everyday — a mile or two through neighborhoods and dirt path, short cuts. I bet you did, too. We were not just allowed to explore on our own, it was expected.
Now parents are arrested for sending their kids to the park. Maybe you agree with the strangers who called the cops on this kid and his mom. Maybe you would never let your 7-year-old take off alone. That’s your choice. As parents, we get to decide what’s best for our own kids, our kids, not everyone else’s.
The skills older kids and tweens need to handle an emergency, or to venture out alone, are things we all need every day as adults.
1. Confidence. Reassure your kids that they can do it. Tell them they are OK in the world. Whatever happens, they can handle it.
2. Competence. Tell them that in case of emergency: do not freak out. To do this, they must stop the sound track in their heads from playing every possible catastrophic outcome and instead start focusing on a solution.
3. Trust (in themselves). Let them know that not all strangers are a threat — and not all “friends” are safe. We all have an internal alarm system. It’s rarely wrong. Tell them to listen to it, even when their brain disagrees. Instead of teaching kids to run from the unknown, teach them to hear and abide by their intuition.
4. Logic. Show them how to navigate. Walk the neighborhood with them, asking how they would get home from various spots. Point out clues they can follow, like the way house numbers get larger or smaller depending on the direction you’re walking. They should not only know the blocks or neighborhood streets around your house, but how to get home if they roam into unfamiliar territory.
5. Humility. Teach them to ask for help. When in doubt, they should call for help. If you don’t have a phone or they can’t reach you, tell them to find an adult or another kid they can trust to help (see 3).
Yes, keeping our kids safe is paramount, but we also need to raise competent, capable, confident beings. If we can do that, our kids will be safe without us standing watch every moment, at least as safe anyone can be in a world where anything can happen at anytime to anyone –- you and me included.
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