My oldest was 4 years old, and she was happily playing with her toys in our 3rd-story apartment. Suddenly, a knock came on our door: a 7 year old girl who lived a couple blocks away wanted to know if our daughter could come out to play.
My husband and I looked at each other. Could she just go out to play? Where would she even go? Our apartment building was mostly surrounded by parking spaces. And could she just skip away with this little girl without one of us accompanying them?
We asked our daughter what she thought about the idea. Her response was to leap up and run for her shoes. So we told the neighbor that it would be alright if they stayed nearby. Our 4 year-old couldn’t have been prouder to cross our threshold without us.
And we were left peeping through a a chink in the blinds to make sure everything was alright.
And it was! They had a great time running around a little patch of grass for a while, and then the neighbor brought her back upstairs. Pretty tame, as far as first outdoor independent play goes. But powerful. It was the first foot in the door to a world where our child didn’t need us anymore. A scary prospect for all parents, but especially when we’re bombarded daily with headlines and messages that make us all want to keep that door locked tight until the 18th birthday.
But the problem, of course, is that it doesn’t work that way. Growing up to become an autonomous adult is a process that must build throughout childhood. Parents should feel supported as they make decisions on what exactly this will look like for each of their own children. It’s hard enough to do this confidently — even without the internet endlessly supplying worst-case scenarios and vilifying parents for daring to make reasonable decisions about what their kids are capable of.
And if parents aren’t trusted in these judgement calls with their own children, how can we possibly trust our teachers?
That’s why, when I talk about independent play, my first goal is to reassure parents. They need to know they are not bad parents for letting their kids walk 3/4 mile to school (even in the rain!), or for allowing their child run a lemonade stand without continual supervision, or even for leaving him/her in the car on a mild day while you run in for a quick errand, if you, as their parent, have judged them capable of handling these scenarios.
The hardest part about building autonomy in our children is that it is almost guaranteed to feel uncomfortable. We can’t predict exactly how it will unfold — will they get along with others? will they remember the path home we’ve walked together many times? will they remember how their bike lock works? — but that unpredictability itself is one of the essential ingredients required for autonomy to unfold.
So let’s think about ways we can support and reassure parents as they strive to build autonomy in their kids:
- Share accurate statistics on crimes (Pew Research Center is a great source), such as the fact that violent crime has decreased since 1990, or the low chances of random child abductions from strangers (“…if you wanted your child to be kidnapped by a stranger, do you know how long you would have to leave that child outside, unsupervised, for this to be statistically likely to happen?…You’d have to leave your kid waiting at the bus stop 750,000 hours [or 85 years].” ~Lenore Skenazy)
- Hesitate before sharing that scary “see-how-easy-it-is-to-snatch-a-child” video or “my-child-was-almost-abducted-from-our-shopping-cart” story. Given the statistical rarity cited above, the sad truth is that such stories tend to be rooted more in racial bias than actual danger.
- Encourage adventure playgrounds and other environments that promote healthy risky play.
- Join your school’s Safe Routes to School organization to help make kids’ walk or bike ride to school safer.
- Share strategies for reasonable precautions parents can take without making them feel like they have control over all possible scenarios.
- Support legislation like Utah’s free-range parenting bill that protects parents trying to make these judgement calls for their children’s autonomy.
From that first encounter with outdoor unsupervised play to watching a high school grad embark on their new journey, let’s find ways to help parents feel confident in building happy, healthy, and independent children!
featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto