It’s interesting sometimes to talk with other parents about what the right age to allow children to do simple things such as walk to school alone or other such activities. I walked alone in kindergarten, but that was normal then. Most parents I know these days are amazed that my kids walk to and from school together without me at all, under a quarter mile, nice neighborhood and lots of people around because they’re taking their kids to school or picking them up after. I know some who swear their kids won’t go anywhere on their own until their senior year in high school, which I find horrifying. How are they going to learn all they need to do as independent adults with only a year of doing things on their own? I believe it’s vital for kids to do things independently much sooner than that.
I know this is a difficult subject for many parents. We hear too many awful stories on the news, and certainly some families live in situations where keeping a close eye even on older kids is important. Not everyone lives in safe neighborhoods, after all. Most, however, really aren’t that bad.
Send the Kids Out to Play
Sending your kids outside to play once they’re old enough is one of the easiest ways to encourage independence. Start in the backyard when they’re younger, and let them play out front when they’re older. Exactly what ages these are depend on the individual child, the neighborhood, and
If you don’t have a yard, if you’re in an apartment or condo, for example, don’t give up. Even if you have to take your kids to a park to play you can encourage independence. Simply don’t follow them around much, and decrease your participation as they get older.
None of this means you can’t play with your kids outside. Just don’t let it be the only way they play outside. Encourage them to go outside to play alone, with siblings or with friends. You know, the kind of things you probably did as a child.
Encourage Your Kids to Walk Places
Having my kids walk to school is the easiest way to have my kids go places without me. It’s a short distance. Not everyone lives close enough to their children’s schools to allow this, of course, and some schools have policies that make it incredibly difficult to just let kids walk to school.
But what about other places kids can walk? Friends’ houses. A nearby store. A park. Are there age appropriate places your kids can walk without you?
It’s really easy to get things started if your child is fortunate enough to have a friend live really close in the neighborhood. Mine sometimes play with the neighbor’s daughter, and that’s a really easy walk to allow them at a fairly young age.
Independence Can Take Many Forms
Encouraging your kids to be more independent isn’t entirely about sending them out to do things away from home without you. It’s also about what they can do when you’re around or they’re home alone.
Cooking is a vital skill for everyone, but some parents get really nervous about teaching their kids even the basics. I know parents who can’t believe I let my 4 year old use a butter knife with her play dough or to butter her own bread. I see it as a low risk activity – it’s really hard to hurt yourself seriously with a butter knife. My oldest is learning more about cooking by helping me with a meal or dessert once a week.
Sure, my kids have hurt themselves in the kitchen in small ways – minor burns from the toaster oven, for example; but nothing serious and they’re more careful now. My two oldest can handle enough basic cooking chores that they can feed themselves even if I’m asleep, busy, not home or just not in the mood to cook at the moment.
The two oldest also have pocket knives. Just basic ones, but they’ve had some fun whittling with them. Giving kids a pocket knife at an appropriate age used to be a normal thing, and it encourages the kids to get comfortable with knives and their proper use. It takes a little teaching and attention, but knowing how to use a pocket knife is a good confidence builder, which encourages kids to be more independent.
Think about the age appropriate skills your children should have. Do they have them? What more can your kids do?
But Is It Safe?
Nothing in life is completely safe. Nothing. However, most kids are plenty safe going out and playing in age appropriate ways. If you have a situation where things aren’t so safe for your kids, then of course you shouldn’t encourage them to do things that are too dangerous. But you can still encourage other forms of independence while protecting your kids in other areas.
I like to keep in mind that things like kidnapping, a major fear of many parents, isn’t all that likely for most kids. Most kidnappings are by people the kids know, not strangers, yet stranger kidnapping is what many parents worry about. Kids are far more likely to die in a car accident than be kidnapped by a stranger, yet the vast majority of parents quite calmly drive their kids wherever they need to go. The perceived risk isn’t as great because we all trust our own driving skills. If there are custody issues, that’s an entirely different matter, and yes, you may need to be more careful then. But most parents and most kids? Odds are kidnapping will never be a problem.
I don’t believe in teaching my kids about stranger danger. They can talk to people they don’t know, just not go anywhere with them. My kids still know about stranger danger, as I’m not the only influence in their lives, but they know to be cautious about people talking to them from strange cars, and if they are in a situation where they do feel threatened, they can ask just about anyone else for help and they’ll probably be fine. They know that having someone they know help is best, but if that’s not an option, most people are good and will help. I’ve talked to them about when my car broke down in the middle of nowhere, before cell phones were common, no call boxes in the area and a long walk back to the nearest town, so I took a ride with a man who offered. It was absolutely scary, but better to go with the guy offering the ride than one who might demand it, and it all turned out fine. Not the kind of thing I’d recommend doing, but the best choice out of the few I had.
You can certainly have your kids carry a cell phone when they do things away from home. Nothing wrong with that and I certainly wish one had been available the time my car broke down. A cell phone isn’t a guarantee of safety, but it can sure help them get out of a bad situation more quickly.
What Do You Think?
How do you encourage your kids to be more independent? How will that change as they get older?