Why I let my young children roam the neighbourhood alone

Raising resilient kids by letting them roam our neighbourhoodToday I had my own Lenore Skenazy moment. Who’s Lenore Skenazy? Lenore Skenazy is the mum who left her nine-year-old in Bloomingdale’s (deliberately) to find his own way home to Brooklyn on the subway and bus. Now, I didn’t leave my kids (ages 8, 7 and 5)  in the Queen Street Mall, but I sent them off to walk a circuitous route, unaccompanied, on an errand.  Am I a terrible mother? Let’s discuss.
Today I was baking things for the kids’ lunchboxes next week – a walnut and date slice and cheeseymite scrolls to be precise. (Scoring any good mum points yet?) Midway through the slice recipe I realised I had no eggs. Bugger.

My friend Kate lives a few blocks from me and when you walk to her house you don’t need to cross any roads. Got that last part? No crossing of roads. My kids have been going from our house to Kate’s house all their lives, virtually, and could walk there in their sleep, I’m sure.

Google map showing the route from my house to my friend's houseSo, I sent my kids off to Kate’s house to collect the eggs. Unaccompanied. I can hear the collective gasps now. (Google Maps says it’s about 700m each way and should take about two minutes).

Why did I risk my children’s safety so recklessly for a few measly eggs?

Well, a few reasons really.

The world is a safe place

Firstly, I think it’s safe. I’m not the sort of mother who is reckless with her children’s safety.  I thought about the walk. I even discussed it with their father! I decided they were capable.

Secondly, I think it’s good for their independence. At their ages they should feel comfortable in their neighbourhood and free to roam about. It’s a reasonably quiet street. We know the families immediately surrounding us. I don’t want them to be intimidated or shy outside of the confines of their yard. The only way to build confidence is by giving them successful experiences.

Thirdly, kids should push boundaries and my three have never been that far unaccompanied before. It’s good for them to do things they’ve never done before and it’s my job to make that as safe as possible.

Fourthly, by experiencing something like that (a short, five minute walk without adults) they are learning to rely on themselves and their own judgment. They can assess risk and test themselves.

Are the eggs really worth it? For example, there is an opportunity on that walk, to take the longer route that would have taken them past one of my daughter’s friends’ houses. If it had occurred to them, then they could have decided on their own, without me beside them to prompt them, on what the correct thing to do is. Should they break the rules and go across the road, take the other route and risk getting into trouble? Or should they stick to the rules, follow the prescribed route, play it safe and not get into trouble?

I’m giving them opportunities to explore their boundaries in a reasonably safe way.

Door-knocking is not dangerous!

I accept that this is not every parent’s view and I certainly don’t judge those who are more conservative with their children’s safety. But I must confess, my thinking was triggered into action by a note that came home from our school last month, which said: “We have educated the children about the dangers of door-knocking…”

At the very least, that sentence should have read “potential dangers”. But it didn’t. It said, in black and white, that door-knocking is dangerous.

That’s simply not true.

My children door-knocked last week, selling chocolates for our school’s music program. They walked up and down our street, together in a group of three, and sold almost all 50 of the chocolates. At no point were they accosted, threatened or abducted.

And here’s the real danger

I believe that we are raising a generation of children to be afraid of the world. That’s a different thing entirely to raising them to be aware of potential dangers.

Raising them to be aware of potential dangers means teaching them your mobile phone number as early as you can, so they can have an adult call you if you become separated or they are in trouble (mine knew my number from about three years of age). It means telling them, when they go door-knocking, not to go inside the house, not to talk to strangers in cars who pull up and talk to them, and to never go anywhere with anyone they don’t know. It’s telling them to always travel together.  Teach them how to be safe in the world, not how to be afraid of the world.

If we raise them to be afraid of the world, how will they go forth boldly and stamp their identity on it? If we raise them to be overly cautious of everything how will they learn to assess risk and reward for themselves? As Ms Skenazy writes: “A child who thinks he can’t do anything on his own eventually can’t”.

Mean World Syndrome

Mean World Syndrome leads us to think we see violence on TV therefore we live in a violent worldI understand why we’re afraid for our children. We see children abducted on the news every single night, and we know their names (Madeleine McCann) which it makes it seem more personal, as though a child from our own village was taken. We read books like The Lovely Bones (or see the movie) and it makes us clutch our children that little bit tighter to our chest, kiss them that more little bit longer at bedtime and vow we will never let that happen to our kids.

The thing is, the world is not a mean and scary place. There’s a thing called Mean World Syndrome. We see violence on television – on the news, in TV shows and in the movies – and believe it is a reflection of the world.

It’s not.

The world is not out to steal our children at every opportunity. They won’t be abducted if they door-knock the street selling chocolates. Those dangers do exist, albeit remotely, and so we can safe-guard our children against those risks. But the way to do that is not lock them away in our homes and not let them out. It’s teaching them safe behaviours and how to assess risk.

4 comments for “Why I let my young children roam the neighbourhood alone

  1. Wendy
    August 11, 2013 at 8:45 pm

    Love this! As a mother and a teacher I think this is so important and seems to be sorely lacking in some children so I commend you on your efforts!

    • August 11, 2013 at 8:46 pm

      Phew! Thanks Wendy! It’s nice to know I’m not alone on this one!

  2. August 11, 2013 at 10:26 pm

    I love you Felicity Moore! I would do exactly the same thing – if it weren’t for the major road they have to cross at the end of our street. The traffic is the big change from when we were kids (especially as I grew up at the edge of a country town) – not danger from people.
    This is the reason that I give them their heads as soon as they hit the bike path, and let them leave school ahead of me to ride to the end. So long as they wait for me to accompany them on the road section (especially that hairy right hand turn into Main St) I have no worries that the two of them together are going to get into any major trouble.
    Well done – and keep it up!

  3. August 12, 2013 at 6:31 am

    This is a great topic for discussion. I’ve been asking my friends, to see where I fit on the scale of giving the children too much freedom to wrapping them in cotton wool. I probably lean on the side of the cotton wool. My children (aged 7 and almost 10) are allowed to play on our close, but that’s about it. I’m planning on letting them make trips to the corner shop (a left and a right on suburban streets), but their lack of concentration when crossing roads concerns me. That’s my own fault though, because I let them rely on me to make the decision as to when it’s safe to cross.

    Your post has made me wistful for the carefree days of my own childhood when I had free reign of the entire neighbourhood at age nine, but it has prompted me to get off my butt and teach them a little more independence!

I would love it if you would tap out a few words here!