Safe Ways to Give Kids More Freedom
We've all heard it: “In my day, my parents told me to go out and not come back until sundown.” Or, “We were expected to make our own fun, not to stay with our parents all day.”
In today's climate, it's frowned upon if kids are given too much freedom, as the Maryland couple who let their kids walk alone to the park and the California mom who was arrested for letting her son play alone 120 feet from her front door found out. Yet many parents, whether they are free-range or just want to give their kids a little breathing room, want to know how they can safely give their kids some room to discover the world on their own terms.
We asked some experts for advice on how to let kids explore and gain some independence in a safe manner. Here's what they said:
Lee Scott, Chair of the Educational Advisory Board for The Goddard School:
There are a couple of fun books for parents that can help get the message across to children such as I Can Play it Safe, by Alison Feign (my favorite) and Bea's Own Good, by Linda Talley. Children learn valuable lessons through storytelling. These books may help parents deliver safety messages while allowing their children to have a bit more freedom.
Kyle Pruett, trusted advisor to The Goddard School, clinical professor of Child Psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine, and accomplished author:
When it comes to wandering, fathers and mothers typically have slightly different tolerances as to the length of the tether they will allow the child, and fathers' tends to be a bit longer than moms' are. Some children exploit this, agitating to go the park with dad if they like adventure and with mom if they like the protection.
If dads bring home enough positive reports of letting children wander a little farther, moms may become more comfortable lengthening the tether a bit too. Moms can talk to dads about their fears, and maybe dads can provide some reassurances.
Jack Maypole, advisor to The Goddard School and pediatrician for medically complex children at Boston Medical Center:
Tracking devices and bio-monitors may have their place with kids who wander. For example, we urge families who have kids who are escape artists and fleet of foot (whose escapes we refer to as ‘eloping') to register their children with the police and fire department in case of an incident. These families may receive a GPS locator device to clip onto their child's shoe, or to have them wear it as a bracelet.
A wearable device my family has found works well is the Tinitell wearable bracelet that has very limited phone capabilities and GPS capabilities. Parents can program Tinitell to call a limited number of people, like Mom and Dad and parents can call their child's bracelet as well. Parents can also opt to track their child through an app to make sure they don't wander farther than agreed to. There will be a small monthly charge to use Tinitell, but there are many different options and companies to choose from and we spend around $10.00 a month for peace of mind!
On the other hand, if tracking devices are not for you Dr. Maypole says:
For many families, at the root, tracking devices undercut the valid and worthy old school approach of setting limits, and making the children accountable for checking in and keeping things safe. Skip the device and set up rendezvous points within a reasonable timeframe. Not ready for that? With our kids, we settled on ‘eyeshot' (sort of like earshot, but for the peepers). Our kids could roam behind or ahead of us, as long as we were in a line of sight. And while a locator device tracks where your kiddo is, it also records your data. Yes, your data is minded, but it is MINED, too. For privacy advocates, that may not be a worthy tradeoff.
As an overly protective mom, it took baby steps for me to allow my children more freedom.
To start, I gave them rules to follow in the house while I went to a different room but could monitor what they were doing. Once I trusted them inside, I allowed them to go outside with the same set of parameters. If they failed to follow the rules, I told them that they would need to regain my trust.
Once I was confident that they could follow the rules, I allowed them to go a little farther, first down the block and eventually around the block after walking the route with them a couple of times and also timing how long it should take them (with some allowance for children being slow walkers or easily distracted).
Other steps I have taken is to let them walk around a children's museum where I know they will not be permitted to leave without me, let them walk to the closest mailbox, let them walk to a neighborhood friend's house as long as I get confirmation they arrive, and let them play in our local playground while I am nearby (but perhaps not in the same part of the park). I never let my kids go completely alone and make sure they are always with one another or with a friend. It also helps to have a village since I know other parents will be keeping an eye on my kids for me, even if I don't ask them to.
For many parents, it can be a big leap of faith to let your kids wander. Take baby steps if you need to, take a deep breath, and don't shy away from wearable devices if they will help you feel more comfortable.
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