We want our children grow up to be responsible, resilient, and self-reliant. To develop these qualities they need to be able to experience freedom of movement and unsupervised time.
Some people call this the Free Range Kids philosophy. (Free Range Parents believe kids should have some freedom, independence, and unsupervised time and that they are not in constant danger.) I call it helping your child develop healthy independence and self-sufficiency. We can’t expect them to grow into competent adults without some practice navigating the world on their own.
My two oldest sons are in grades 7 and 10 and have the freedom to travel around our large city. Not only do they ride public transit to and from school on their own, they visit friends, go to sports and music practices, and go to the mall or the park after school.
For our family this has been gradual and in baby steps.
I have a photo of my eldest son at age 3 walking the 2 blocks from our house to his grandparents’ house. (We live in a quiet close-knit community and his grandma was waiting for him on the other end.) By grade 6 he was taking the subway to his karate class and back by himself. My middle son’s first bus rides alone last year were with me riding my bike behind the bus while he practiced getting his bearings. Now he navigates the transit system like a pro. Both our sons have flown several times on their own- even getting to the airport on public transportation. I know they have the maturity and experience to handle this and I don’t worry about them at all. (The fact that they have cell phones helps.)
But we didn’t just open the door and set them free. We had guidelines and family discussions all the time about how to keep yourself safe when mama and dad are not with you.
So– How do you keep free-range kids safe?
- Let them to talk to strangers.
Stranger Danger. Don’t Talk To Strangers. This concept never made any sense to me. I want to keep my kids safe, but I want them to know the world is a good place, full of kind and interesting people. Without talking to strangers, how could they ever develop a sense of community, gain an understanding of reality outside of their own bubble, or learn to navigate this complex world? How would they ever meet anyone new?
My daughter is one of the most outgoing and engaging people you will ever meet. As soon as she could talk, she would sit in the shopping cart and loudly say “Hi!” to a nearby shopper until he or she acknowledged her. I walk with her in our neighbourhood and people I don’t know greet her by name. As her brother says, “She’s good with people.”
This is one of her greatest strengths. If we had raised her not to talk to strangers, we would have denied her the chance to develop this amazing skill.
- …But teach them about Tricky People.
I was thrilled this week to learn that many professionals are recommending a different approach to keep our kids from harm. Tricky people. A tricky person can be someone you or child knows or a stranger.
A tricky person is someone who might ask your child to do something that makes them uncomfortable, go somewhere without permission, or keep a secret.
A tricky person could be someone who makes them feel icky. Just like us, kids can sense when someone is a bit off or strange. Teach them to trust that gut feeling. Just because you can talk to strangers, you don’t have to talk to everyone.
- Stress that they should never go anywhere with anyone they don’t know.
(Or even with someone they know without talking to you first.)
Some experts recommend using a code word to prevent abduction. In an emergency, a child could go with someone she doesn’t know if they know the code word. I personally find this a confusing mixed message and fraught with possible complications.
We told our kids NEVER under any circumstances would we send a stranger to get them in an emergency.
- And that grown-ups should never ask kids they don’t know for help.
Anecdotally, we hear about kids getting lured away to look for a lost dog, etc. Tell your children adults should never ask kids they don’t know for help. If they do, it means your child should immediately ask YOU for help.
- Teach your children who to ask for help.
Find a mother with kids if they are lost or need help.
- Never keep secrets.
If a grown-up or older child tells them not to tell mom and dad, that is their cue that it is very important to tell us!! Even if that person says we’ll be mad. Tell them you will NEVER be mad if they tell you something someone has asked them not to tell.
Secrets in general are confusing for kids. If you want to keep your spouse’s birthday present a secret? Tell them it’s a surprise.
- Practice, review and repeat.
I review all these guidelines with my daughter monthly. She’s 10 and starting to have more freedom in our neighbourhood. No public transit yet though! I ask her, “What would you do if…” and we run through the scenarios.
I make sure she knows this is a one-in-a-million and very unlikey because I want to make sure she knows the world is a good place. She understands that it’s always good to be prepared.
- Baby steps.
Let your kids experience venturing out unsupervised or staying home alone a little at a time- with lots of talking and guidance.
My eldest son went to karate and back with an adult many times before he ever did it on his own. Before my middle son’s first solo public transit bus trip, I was on my bike on the same route and we met up at our destination.
We have to face it- we can’t keep them close forever. It’s scary to let these precious ones out of our sight. But if we don’t, we are robbing them of the opportunity to develop into the confident and competent beings we want them to be.
If we want our children to grow up to be responsible, resilient, and self-reliant we have to give them the opportunity to develop those skills.
How do you keep your free range kids safe? Leave a comment below!
Sarah Rosensweet is a certified peaceful parenting coach, speaker, and educator. She lives in Toronto with her husband and three big kids (ages 13, 16, and 20). Peaceful parenting is a non-punitive, connection-based approach that uses firm limits with lots of empathy. Sarah works one-on-one virtually with parents all over the world to help them go from frustrated and overwhelmed to, “We’ve got this!”
Read more at: www.sarahrosensweet.com