When I was a child, my parents let me run around the neighborhood as soon as I knew how to cross the street. We live in a different time, and no one is quite sure how much autonomy is appropriate. When can you let your kids roam the neighborhood alone? Are we stifling our children by not allowing them the freedoms we so enjoyed as children?
I have vivid recollections of wandering the neighborhood with my siblings, going to the corner store, the park, and an abandoned construction yard (!!!), all before I even hit the fourth grade. It was glorious, and I always felt free. As for my own children, my 11-year-old son is allowed to walk the few blocks to school and home, but he has to text me as soon as he arrives. It's so much different from my own wild and independent childhood that the two experiences are unrecognizable from one another. But what's the right way? Is there one? Amy Rollo, a licensed psychotherapist and owner of Heights Family Counseling in Houston, Texas tells Romper that there is definitely a movement to give children back some of the independence that has been slowly eroded since millennials were children.
Called "free range parenting," she says it "aims to give children independence. When children have the ability to take risks and are in charge of assessing their risks, it not only promotes physical and mental health, children are often much safer." The basics of free range parenting is that it's tailored to each child's own level of maturity and ability. While some children might be ready to head to the park on their own during elementary school — and they might be perfectly safe — other kids may need more supervision and structure. Rollo adds that "there is no perfect age to allow independence."
She suggests that parents take small steps when introducing the idea of this style of personal freedom to your kids. You're not just going to drop them off in the middle of Times Square and say, "OK, younglings, now find your way home." That's unreasonable. Break the steps down for them. "Don't just give your child free access to the neighborhood their first time out. First allow them to bicycle on the driveway while you are inside," Rollo cautions. "Maybe the next step is 10 minutes on the sidewalk on the street. With each success, your child is learning independence, building confidence, and proving they are ready."
While this idea is far from universal, therapists do seem to get behind this idea of a probationary freedom. Katie Lear, child therapist, tells Romper, "Childhood is a wonderful time in our lives, but it's also the time when we have the least control over our daily life: other people decide when we eat, when we sleep, and what we do all day at school. The increased independence that children feel when they are able to navigate their neighborhoods alone can help children feel capable and in control of an aspect of their lives." Freedom of movement can expand a child's horizon, so learning when you can let your children roam the neighborhood alone can help foster that growth. "Generally, I think the preteen years are a good rule of thumb." (Which makes me feel less guilty for just now allowing my 11-year-old to walk to school alone.) Lear suggests that "it may be helpful to do some trial runs first: travel at a distance behind your child to ensure they're aware of traffic rules, since children often go into 'autopilot' mode when standing right beside an adult." My children certainly do. They trust me to guide them through busy Brooklyn streets, and they sort of just blank out through the walk.
Which is why Lear suggests that you "role play situations to help children practice how to respond to adults and ensure they're aware of stranger danger." Observe how your child interacts in their environment. Mind their capabilities and strengths and work with those. Rollo adds that technology can also help ease worried minds. Phones, smart watches, and the like can keep you in communication with your children, and let you be aware of their location. Just make sure to have frank, up-front discussions about the dangers of using them as they walk — distracted walking is very dangerous. But having the ability to call or contact you when they need to or when they need to check in can calm both parties.
In the end, this sort of autonomy is another developmental milestone like learning to walk or learning to ride a bike. It's not going to be the same for every child, and that's OK. It's all about knowing your kid, and doing the best by them.
Amy Rollo, M.A., LSSP, LPA, LPC-S, a licensed psychotherapist and owner of Heights Family Counseling