Do you let your five-year-old go to the park alone?

In PDX we have a monthly parenting magazine; Metro Parent. It usually has good articles but one piece in particular captured and has held my attention since April – Free-Range Parenting: Letting Go So Kids Can Growread it here (flip to page 24).

The gist of the piece was that kids can go out on their own and still be safe. AND not only will kids still be safe but they’ll also be better prepared to deal with the world, build confidence and quite possibly have a happier childhood. It opens with a story of Emily,who at age five, made a deal with her parents that she could go to the park (200 ft away from their home) on her own. The article goes on to cover the book Free-Range Kids, How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry) by Lenore Skenazy.

Supposedly Skenazy wrote the book after writing a column for The New York Sun on “Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Take The Subway Alone.” In Skenazy’s words, “Two days later I was on the Today Show, MSNBC, FoxNews and all manner of talk radio with a new title under my smiling face: “America’s Worst Mom?”” Wow.

Check out this video below for an intro to the book.

As part of an unschooling / Free School family I’m used to criticism about my parenting decisions so I’m not shocked that Skenazy was targeted for suggesting a parenting style outside the norm, yet I’m a little surprised people got so mad and upset.

That said, the article really made me think. It’s been on my mind almost continually since April. Why? Because I’m 100% guilty of NOT being a free-range parent. It’s an odd turn of events to realize this because…

  • We unschool so Cedar gets more freedoms than many kids his age – food freedom, educational freedom, etc.
  • I’m a huge nature / outdoor adventure advocate and think kids belong outside more often than not.
  • I don’t believe in arbitrary rules for kids – I believe in rules that make sense from a safety standpoint but think that many rules enforced on kids are overrated. Yes I believe in helmets and baby proofing but I’m not the sort of parent who thinks a set bedtime or saying, “Because I said so” makes sense.

Yet, I don’t allow Cedar total outdoor freedom. Oh he’s outside a lot because in my opinion kids need to be outside but he’s out there with adults. We go out to the park or on a walk or he’ll go biking with his dad or he goes out with his pals at the Free School or at camp but he doesn’t go outside on his own much.

In New Mexico when he was three to six years old he did go outside on his own all the time because we lived in student family housing for the university I attended. Lots of kids, a safe park area, etc. He was always out running around. He had a set check-in time, but otherwise he was on the go alone. In Washington the same, I’d let him head out with his pals but not let him go very far.

Currently we’re in Portland and we’re living in a neighborhood without too many great places to play. We moved here to be closer to his school but that’s at a cost of green spaces. There are sidewalks but we have to walk a little ways to get to the neighborhood park. Since we’ve moved here Cedar doesn’t go out on his own. At nine he should be outside on his own – a lot.

When I was a kid I spent almost no time inside at all. Cedar doesn’t spend a lot of time inside either but he also doesn’t spend alone time outside. I almost never had an adult with me outside as a kid – I’d ride my bike for miles, climb tall trees and even hit the local swimming pool on my own or with friends. My pals and I would stay out until late at night even.

Now, I know very few kids who play outside with their parents and almost none who go out on their own nowadays.

WHY THE SHIFT?

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Skenazy writes that the shift may be because adults think, “Times have changed.” And she goes on to say…

“They’re right of course — nothing stays the same. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, crime was on the rise. It went up and up until it peaked around 1990. The strange thing, though, is that since then, it’s been going back down. Dramatically. Today we are back to the crime level of 1970, according to Dept. of Justice statistics. So — unbelievable as it seems — if you were playing outside as a kid in the ’70s or ’80s, your kids are actually SAFER outside than you were!

It doesn’t feel that way (at ALL), because when our parents were raising us, there was no CSI. Law & Order was something you believed in, not something on the air 8 nights a week, made to look depressingly real. The other day I got a letter from a guy in an old Brooklyn neighborhood where they shoot a lot of Law & Order scenes. On TV, it’s always the backdrop for a rape or murder. In real life, he said, it’s a safe, quiet safe neighborhood — and therein lies the tale: There’s a big disconnect between the horrors on TV and the reality we live in.”

She’s not wrong. Stranger danger makes the news while car accidents (MUCH more likely to happen) don’t.

WHAT’S WRONG WITH SAFETY?

Nothing in my opinion but the more I think about free-range parenting the more I think that kids are being overly protected. At the free-range blog Skenazy sums it up nicely, saying, “Do you ever…let your kid ride a bike to the library? Walk to school? Make dinner? Or are you thinking about it? If so, you are raising a Free-Range Kid! Free-Rangers believe in helmets, car seats, seat belts — safety! We just do NOT believe that every time school age kids go outside, they need a security detail.”

By overly protecting kids we’re raising kids who aren’t brave or confident. Here’s a perfect example. At age nine I thought nothing of going outside on my own. Nothing. Today, my son wanted to stay home from camp because my boyfriend Dave’s daughters are here. Dave thinks it’s perfectly acceptable that his kids can sit inside all day and play video games or watch TV or read or whatever because, “They need a break – it’s summer.” I DO NOT agree. Yeah a break is good but it’s summer. Kids belong outside. Kids need exercise. Kids do not belong inside on their butt all day. Period.

I told Cedar, “Well, you can stay home from camp for the day, but you have to go outside a few times to play.” He said, “On my own” I said “Yeah, I’m working, that’s why you go to camp – because during the summer for most of the day I’m working and can’t go outside with you, and kids should be outside” – OMG you’d think I’d suggested he kill someone.

  • Cedar: “I want someone to go with me!”
  • Me: “You’re old enough to go outside on your own.”
  • Cedar: “NO”
  • Me: “Well, fine get your shoes on, I’m taking you to camp.”
  • Cedar: VERY reluctantly, “Okay, I’ll go outside by myself.”

Do you realize how insane this is?

INSANE. And worse it’s my fault. In any case I managed to send Cedar off outside. He didn’t get kidnapped, I didn’t worry at all and he got some scooter riding in.

I’m lucky in that I know kids belong outside; playing. We do get out. Many kids don’t get out at all even with adults. However, I’m not so smart in that I’ve been going along with Cedar when he goes outside. That’s good for me actually, because I like being outside, but it’s not good for him. Plus sometimes, like today, I do need to work and can’t get outside.

I’m worried we’re raising a bunch of kids who won’t grow up to take risks. Kids who think it’s okay to be inside all day long. Kids who are losing out on a lot of fun. It’s really sad. My goal this summer is to read the book Free-Range Kids and to send Cedar out more often all on his own.

Read another opinion on free-range kids.

What do you think? Are we making a mistake by being overly concerned with strangers and dangers? OR are you already raising free-range kids?

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Comments

  1. Laura says

    This isn’t really directly related, but it is in my mind. I remember when I was a kid (in the 90s) and there was this fear of kidnapping. I got a new backpack with my initials on it, but I couldn’t get my name on it because someone might see it, call my name and then I’d trust them and they could take me. Now people put stick figure stickers on their cars of all their family members and pets – with names! It’s like we’re more paranoid than ever but giving out even more personal information… I think people are definitely overstating problems in society.

  2. says

    As with a lot of things, I think there’s a middle road. Yes, I think we can be overprotective, but tell that to the mom whose kid was riding a bike in front of her house and was taken.

    My ex-daughter-in-law was completely the opposite. She never worried about anything happening and thus allowed her three-year-old to wander the cul-de-sac, refused to correctly install the car seats etc.

    I think it’s important to have a series of talks with kids as they are getting older about the dangers. It’s not a matter to alarming them. It’s a matter of arming them.

    I grew up outside of New York City. Starting when I was 11, I took the train by myself into the city to meet friends from camp for lunch and a Broadway show. Once when I was on the train, a man sat down next to me and put his hand on my leg, I had no idea what to do. I sat their frozen while he ran his fingers up and down my leg. I’m 65 years old and I still get creeped out when I think about it! AND, I never told my parents about it either. I wish my parents had not just said, “Don’t talk to strangers,” which I’m sure they did, but had explained what to say or do in this type of situation or even more importantly, had role played what to do.

    I think the challenge for parents is to build self-confidence in kids by giving them the information they need to confront what they will without scaring them. Make them aware of the potential for danger, role play situations rather than lecture them about them, let them know you are concerned for their safety but trust them to make good decisions etc. based on their age and maturity. It’s always safest for kids to travel in groups–adults too for that matter, so encouraging that is great too. And really helping them to become aware of their surroundings and most importantly, to follow their gut. If they feel uncomfortable, leave the situation, scream, call you or whatever.

    Thinking about the fact that the purpose of being a parent is to equip your child to care for himself confidently, rather than to keep him wrapped in cotton all the time, might help as you begin to educate him to spend more time alone.

    On the other hand, I know plenty of people who were over protected while growing up who as adults became extremely adventurous because they had been denied it as a kid. So for parents who worry about being overprotective, at least the kids grew up!

  3. Jennifer says

    That’s scary what happened to you while you were out alone BUT I think it’s important to point out that stuff like this, can sadly, happen anywhere – i.e. with a family “friend”, teacher, etc. I think what you said about role playing and talking about lots of situations is so important with kids. People freak about “strangers” but people you know can be equally as bad, which is one reason I’m for educating, not overly protecting. I’ve met people like your ex-daughter in law too and that’s a whole other side of the coin. I think freedom for kids is not anywhere near the same thing as ignoring them or being lax; people get it so confused though.

    It’s a hard issue because yeah, that first statement you made, “Yes, I think we can be overprotective, but tell that to the mom whose kid was riding a bike in front of her house and was taken. Of course I worry about that but I also worry that Cedar won’t have the same freedom and experiences I got to have as a kid – freedom to play outside alone, explore, etc – stuff kids should do. Right now Cedar is nine so I have it a little easier. We can have talks better now than when he was younger and couldn’t grasp strangers. Actually, we never say “stranger” at my house. We go with the whole, “You CAN trust these specific adults” vs. you can’t trust so and so. I think it makes more sense to have a small list of people who Cedar knows he can 100% trust vs. him having to think, “Is this person a stranger…? Or just someone I don’t know well?”

  4. Jennifer says

    OMG you’re right. People are more scared now; so scared they won’t let their kids outside but all their personal info is on Facebook? It’s so weird. I remember the initial issue of the 80s too – guess I’m older than you :) BUT we still had that whole, don’t put your name on stuff issue.

  5. says

    Agree 100% Jennifer. I think I read that something like 90+% of abductions, molestations etc. happen with people you know or the child knows.

    The important thing I think, if for parents to THINK about this stuff. Too many don’t.

    L

  6. Ashley says

    I’m 13 and I still can’t go to the park alone. So I went to practice at my school with a few of my friends. A man walked up to us with a cat on his shoulder and asked if we wanted to pet him. We said no and he asked if we would be walking to the track…

    What has the world come to if I can’t walk outside(I live in a good area) without having to worry if someone will hurt me?

  7. MrsHm says

    Hmm, it’s interesting that you moved to where you live now to be closer to a school that fitted your idea of what was good for your son, but sacrificed some other freedoms for your son because of that, whereas we’ve kind of done the opposite. I’m not really happy with their school, but there really aren’t any alternatives in our local area (the school they attend is supposed to be one of the best in the city, and what I’ve seen of other schools nearby doesn’t seem like an improvement over where they are at the moment) & I don’t feel homeschooling is a viable option for us. The area we live in is in a city, but on the edge of a green valley which leads out into the countryside, acting as a wildlife corridor. Directly behind our house is a park (really just a large area of grass with a playground), then behind that is a forest, then beyond the main road behind that that there is a river, a canal & a fairly wild area of trees & scrubland (the valley bottom is a floodplain so has escaped the developers!). The view from the back of our house is so green you’d find it hard to believe we were in a city if that was all you saw! We also have a good sized garden for the kids to play in with a large cherry tree & a swing, and a gate leading out of the back onto a little patch of trees on the edge of the park, where my kids and their friends have built a den. Since we moved here the kids have spent so much more time outside than where we lived before (same city but different area) – as soon as they’ve done their homework they tend to go and call on a friend and play in the garden, the park, or the woods. The neighbourhood we live in is actually considered a deprived area, but I am eternally thankful that the planners of the 1920s had the foresight to believe that even low income families need decent homes, big gardens, parks & trees!

    We also try to get some family time outside regularly – we go on walks, plant stuff in the garden, or I just hang out with them while they play, or help them with things like building dens. I do feel that this freedom they have outside at home (as well as other aspects of their home life) goes some way to compensating for the damage done by the conventional school they attend. They may spend the day being forced to sit still, pay attention, do as they are told, but they get home and go outside and the world is theirs!

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