photo by Stacey Greenberg
My boys, ages 8 and 10, started a new school last year. The school is a little over a mile from our house and they asked if they could walk home by themselves in the afternoon. It would certainly be more convenient for me, but I worried about them being on their own.
Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry), considers herself an expert on fear. She says if you look at FBI statistics, you’ll see that crime has been steadily decreasing since the 1990s. However, most people’s perception of crime has been steadily on the rise. “Crime is at the level it was before color TV was invented,” Skenazy notes. “But we believe and act as though times have changed for the worse and kids are in constant danger.”
Skenazy’s rule of thumb for parents unsure of when to loosen the reins is to think back on something you loved to do as a kid that you don’t allow your own children to do and seriously consider why.
Walk home from school • Age 10
I started walking home from school with my twin sister in first grade. We had to cross two major intersections, but with the exception of one skinned knee, we did it without incident. I decided to let my boys try walking home alone. It’s been great for their confidence. They regularly make playground stops and go to the corner store every once in awhile, just as my sister and I did.
Tom Edwards, a licensed clinical social worker and the clinical director of Jewish Family Service, says age 8 to 12 is particularly crucial because the issue of self-confidence is at the forefront. “Children in this stage of development are moving away from imaginative play and activity into the realm of doing things, becoming competent to manipulate their environment more efficiently.”
Edwards notes that parents have to walk a fine line during this time with their children, balancing their need to provide guidance and safety with the child’s need to explore. He compares it to dealing with the adventurous toddler, but with perhaps more risk.
“During this phase, parents have to learn to tolerate times when their child is not in their eyesight,” says Edwards.
Making the decision to let your child walk to school by him or herself, for example, can be tough, says Edwards. “At roughly age 10, most children can handle this responsibility, as long as the distance is reasonable and doesn’t involve unsafe intersections,” he says. Parents ultimately should use their own judgment as to the safety of your neighborhood.
Bike to a friend’s house • age 10-12
Katie Billings, a Midtown mother of two, gives her 9- and 10-year-old children a healthy dose of independence. They regularly walk the dog together, ride bikes to friends’ houses, and walk to the store to buy snacks for movie night.
Other areas of competence children can manage produce a little less anxiety, according to Edwards. Kids between 8 and 12 can be taught several tasks that will serve them well when they achieve independence.
Make a meal, do laundry • Age 6-10 (with supervision)
“Making a meal for the family can be enjoyable, interesting, and provide gratification for young cooks,” he says, adding, “Having a family that appreciates the great taste of ketchup is a plus during some of the culinary experiments.”
Edwards acknowledges that making laundry fun for the child may be a stretch, but believes the clever parent can find a way. Yard work is another example of a necessary task that these children can find engaging.
“There is a certain sense of pride that comes with mastering even routine activities. It is even okay to allow your child to fail at some of these new endeavors. This developmental stage is also significant as a time when resilience is learned and developed. The helicopter parent, unfortunately, prevents failure and thus the subsequent learning,” he explains.
Edwards notes that with this age group, the most important rule of thumb is to not say no when you could just as easily say yes. “Sometimes we parents find it quicker and less complicated to do things ourselves. This convenience for us can deprive our children of important experiences,” he says.