Preteens Venturing Out Alone
The majority of today's parents can remember a time from their own childhood when their neighborhood was filled with children playing in the streets, walking to friends' houses or even visiting the corner store without parental supervision. The time was as carefree as the children were and parents gave kids a limitation of blocks or even miles, not fences.
According to the National Safety Institute, the age at which a child is given unsupervised freedom to venture into his own neighborhood has increased from age 7 in 1980 to 12 in 1999. In addition, the area over which children are allowed to travel without supervision has decreased an average of 75 percent, from one mile to two city blocks. The NSI reports that these changes may be due to increased media coverage of crime, increased awareness of crime, as well as an increase of violence itself in local neighborhoods and schools.
One common myth is that occurrences of violence against children only happen in big cities such as New York, Los Angeles or Miami. In reality, city lines do not bind incidences involving children. A 1998 report from the NSI states that violent crimes against children are just as common in rural areas as in urban or metropolitan areas. Carrie Myers Smith, a freelance writer from Landaff, New Hampshire says, "We live on a very rural road -- no sidewalks -- and the traffic speeds by. People here always think 'it' won't happen in these small, quiet towns. Truth is, that's the perfect place for it to happen because we think it won't."
Practices of "safe houses" or neighborhood watches, which helped parents feel secure with letting their children play unsupervised, are still active, but at a much lower rate than in previous years, according to the NSI. In addition, the Federal Housing Authority and National Home and Housing statistics report that the number of families renting homes in place of buying has increased approximately 36 percent over the past six years resulting in frequent relocations of families in and out of various neighborhoods. The increased number of families relocating tends to decrease the number of participants in neighborhood watch programs. Sherry French, a college instructor from Ontario, Canada says, "People know fewer of their neighbors. Neighborhood watches used to be an automatic thing, kids knew people in so many of the houses on their street and the parents in these houses also knew the kids. Now, even though neighborhood watches are set up, a lot of people on your own street wouldn't know your children or that something wrong was happening right before their eyes."
Parents need to know their neighborhoods, and what limitations to place on their children. Martha Pieper, co-author of "Smart Love" and columnist for the Chicago Parent says, "One aspect of knowing when to let your child go out on their own is the environment in which you live. There are specific, somewhat urban, environments where even a responsible child could be in danger. A parent must know their area, or neighborhood, as well as know what their child is capable of doing. An older child who is small in size will need to know how to defend him/herself if the need arises as well as what to do in the event of an emergency. This is something that has to be individualized to each family depending upon their area."
How does a parent decide if her child is old enough to venture out alone?
There is not a magical age in which a child transforms and becomes old enough, or mature enough, to have the increased responsibility of unsupervised activity. Each child is unique, develops differently and will be capable of handling more responsibility at a different age. According to Pieper, "Parents need to decide how old is old enough based on their child. There are kids at the age of 9 or 10 that are very solidly responsible and 16- and 17-year-olds who are no more responsible than a toddler. If a parent knows their child is easily swayed by peers, or are not comfortable with the peers, or the child repeatedly shows a lack of responsibility, then certainly the child is not ready to be left alone or to venture out alone. However, if a child has shown repeated knowledge of what to do or not to do, as well as shows responsibility regularly, the child should be given the option of taking small amounts of time unsupervised."
In various areas or family situations, children do not have a choice as to whether or not they venture out alone. Whether it is to a school bus stop, walking to and from school, or even to an after-school program, some children must take on this responsibility of unsupervised activity. Parents can help to protect their children, as well as aid the child's self-esteem and confidence, by offering consistency, restrictions and education.
For example, designing a daily schedule for a child to follow, including times for homework, chores and meals, as well as when to expect the parents home, will give the child a sense of consistency as well as a sense of accomplishment. In addition to a schedule, a list of restrictions for phone calls, computer or video game time and where or who the child is allowed to visit while the parents are out of the home, sets the boundaries that a child needs.
Topics of educating a child for the increased responsibility of unsupervised activity may include fire plans, emergency numbers, what to do if a stranger approaches, and instructions for answering the phone or door. Each of these topics can be individualized based on a child's age and maturity.
"Any child that is going to be alone or venture out by themselves must be educated on what to do in the event of a stranger approaches or in the event of an emergency," Pieper says. "Review these things with your child often. Education is the best tool to keep any child safe."