With all the press about the mom who got arrested for leaving her nine-year-old child unattended in a park, and the resulting outrage, it’s raised the question across the country: What's an appropriate amount of freedom for kids, and what is not? Growing up in NYC in the '70s, my friends and I played outside and roamed around independently from an early age even though the city, in general, was not as safe as it is now. We learned street smarts and independence that, undoubtedly, spilled over into other areas of our lives.
For many reasons, parenting seems different today. There's a lot more pressure to constantly supervise children, even older kids. It can be hard to imagine that our "babies" will ever be ready to go out into the wide world alone. But with the start of a new school year, the reality is that many children will begin traveling on their own or with a group of friends. With my kids—a teenager who is fully independent and a tween who is just learning to navigate the city on his own—I've modified the '70s-style hands-off approach to include today's more safety consciousness to develop a training course my kids must complete before being allowed out on their own.
Here's how I taught my own kids to be street smart city kids from an early age:
Children under the age of 5 should always be supervised by an adult, but you can still start teaching them street smarts. Narrate the safety steps you take, like stopping and looking both ways at corners. As you walk together make sure you always model good behavior, since children often do as we do, not as we say.
5- to 9-Year-Olds
While children in this age range may yearn to be more independent, they are still too unpredictable to be left to their own devices. If they’ve shown they can follow basic safety rules, they may be ready to play outdoors with responsible older children.
When you think your children are starting to show signs of being ready to travel in your own neighborhood independently, allow them to practice by walking a few paces in front of you. This forces them to make decisions on their own, rather than follow your lead. They will feel independent (I loved doing this as a kid), but still be close enough that you can keep them on track if needed.
9- to 12-Year-Olds
Between the ages of 9 and 12, most kids are ready to practice navigating the city without an adult. Of course, kids mature at individual rates. My daughter took her first solo trip to the corner grocer before she turned 9, but my son wasn't ready until he was almost 11. Gradually work up to more independence as they mature and demonstrate responsibility. Make sure they are prepared and know what to do in situations that might arise, like getting lost or being approached by strangers.
First Solo Outings
When you are ready for them to go out on their own, pick a store or friend’s house a few blocks away. Draw a map, illustrating a safe route that doesn't cross any dangerous intersections. If they don’t have a cell phone, make sure they have memorized your phone number or write it on a piece of paper. Talk through the route and how they should deal with any potential issues.
Navigating the City
Once your child is comfortable making short trips in your neighborhood, or to known destinations, it’s time for a supervised challenge. Take them to a place that is not immediately familiar, but still within walking distance of home. Give them a map or a smartphone to help them navigate, and allow them to lead you home. Again, make sure you walk a few paces behind them so that you don’t unintentionally lead the way. These navigating skills will come in handy if they are ever lost, miss a subway stop, or take a wrong turn when they are truly on their own.
As much as you prepare your kids, the real test will come when they are out on the streets. That's why it's important for trips to start out short and close to home, and then work up to straying further. Traveling in a group is always preferable to being out alone.
Most city kids graduate from practice trips by the time they are 12, but ultimately, you must use your own discretion and knowledge of your child to decide what they are ready for. Nothing in life is 100% safe and, as much as we might like to, we can’t keep our children in bubbles. Yes, bad things do sometimes happen, no matter how safe we try to be., but in my opinion, the rewards of having confident, independent, street-smart children far outweigh the risks.
Disclaimer: These guidelines are the opinion of the writer and should not be construed as legal or parenting advice. Any use of this article is at the risk of the reader who is ultimately responsible for the well-being of kids in their care. While many states don't have specific laws regarding at which age children can be left unsupervised, some do. So if it doubt, please check your state's official website. Mommy Poppins does not assume responsibility for damage or injury to persons or property arising from the use of any information provided by this website.