Give Your Tween Room to Grow
I rode my bike in the street, without a helmet, when I was just 5 years old. Was I asking for trouble? Maybe, but if I was, a whole block of 5- and 6-year-olds were, too. After riding with such abandon, we spent our afternoons running from house to house, often ending up around the block. And the fun only came to a screeching halt when our moms would begin the evening roll call out our screen doors.
If you're the parent of a 5- to 8-year-old, this scenario is probably nothing new to you, but that's not because your child is partaking in such activities; rather, you're probably of just the right age to remember doing this yourself. So if I did it, and you did it, why can't our children do it?
Chris Crutcher, an award-winning children's author and a family therapist, knows all about giving children the freedom to grow. He has dedicated his life to giving this generation "a voice." When I asked Crutcher what he thought about letting 5- to 8-year-olds roam, he wasn't enthusiastic.
"It would be pretty hard for most parents to allow young kids that kind of freedom after watching more than an hour of CNN," he says. "I do believe there are more threats out there today, but I also believe it's hard to evaluate the true nature of those threats, because of the sensational quality of our daily news."
Most of us would agree that there are threats – even though some may be sensationalized – but it's still possible to give your kids the room they need to grow into self-assured individuals. Here's how.
Be a Scout
What's the Boy Scouts' motto? Be prepared. That should become your motto now, too. Your child is bound to ask if he or she can ride a bike to so-and-so's house. Then, there will eventually be requests for sleepovers and afternoons on the town. While your gut feels woozy, your head will start pondering all sorts of questions: What are these parents like? Are there guns in the house? Is this parent a good driver? What if somebody tries to abduct my child while he's walking or riding over? Should I say no? Should I say yes? What can I do?
"We can scout the environment ahead of time," Crutcher says.
Be prepared. Walk the route with your son or daughter, at first. Point out any glaring safety issues. Take note of whether or not you have a clear view of the house in question from your property – if you stand on your porch, can you remain in the shadows while still observing your child safely to the friend's doorstep? Can your child walk, keeping a safe distance from the street? Can he or she cut through the backyards?
Jennifer Nicola of Pittsburgh, Pa., has a few rules that make her feel more comfortable with the idea of giving her 7-year-old son some room to grow. "Dante knows the rules," she says. "He's not allowed to walk alone, and I don't care if it's just two doors down. If his brother is going, too, then they both walk together. Two of the boys in this neighborhood live next to each other, and they can run out their backdoors and meet in their yards, so those guys will most of the time walk up to get Dante, because they know the rule, too."
In a new neighborhood or at the beginning of a school year, you might feel caught off guard by requests to go over to so-and-so's house. Nicola, who also has a 9-year-old son, Roman, says she has a plan for that, too. "If my boys are invited to go to somebody's house and I don't know them or their parents, I ask the boys to play at our house instead," she says. "I might even suggest that the other parent and kid meet us at a local arcade instead – my treat. This usually works, and I get the chance to observe the kid and talk to his mom."
Be a Hawk
Another thing you can do to keep your child safe is to keep your eyes open. "We can watch more closely without getting in the way," Crutcher says.
That can be tricky, but it's not impossible. "When Roman was in kindergarten, all he wanted was to ride his bike around the block to his friend's house," Nicola says. "He wanted to show the kids that he could ride without training wheels. I told him I'd walk him up, but he was really against that, so eventually we decided that I would drive up at a safe distance. I stayed behind him all the way, and when he pulled into the driveway, I kept on going home."
Nicola's story isn't unique. We've all heard of parents who followed the bus to school those first few days of kindergarten. The good news is that this philosophy of watching from a distance can be adapted to many different situations. When your child wants to take in a movie with a friend, and you aren't quite ready to let them do so unattended, remember that you can always sit a few rows behind them. And if the kids want to play in so-and-so's big front yard, but you're a little nervous about them being in plain site of any old soul driving by, why not grab a cup of tea and a good book and settle in for quiet observation on your front porch.
Watching the kids isn't simply a one-parent job, either. "We can join with other parents to keep vigilance," Crutcher says.
Don't be afraid to ask your neighbors to keep an eye out for the kids, especially if you have noticed any "funny business." Nicola noticed her boys were sometimes taking a detour and playing on a bunch of landscape rocks in another neighbor's front yard before heading over to their friend's backyard to play.
"I asked the neighbor to call me or to send the kids on their way the minute she saw them messing around," Nicola says. "It only took me walking down once and then her saying something to them once, and they haven't stopped since."
Be a Geek
Parents may blame the modern world for placing more dangers at their children's feet, but that same modern world has equipped parents with valuable tools to keep their children safe, like helmets, seat belts and fenced-in yards. Here are a few more things you might want on hand to help keep your child out of harm's way:
Alarms: A quick Internet search for child alarms will yield many options for outfitting your child with a device that can do everything from sending out a shrill alert to tracking his or her whereabouts. Most of these devices work by notifying the parental unit that something is wrong, whether it is that the child wandered too far, pressed a "panic button" or that the device is in danger of being removed.
Walkie-talkies: While yelling out the screen door may no longer be fashionable or effective, checking in with your child on a walkie-talkie or two-way radio is a great way to stay connected. You can purchase walkie-talkies with a several-mile range at discount stores, like Wal-Mart, or electronics stores, such as Best Buy. The rechargeable variety saves you the headache of batteries and start at about $49.99. (Regardless of the technology on hand, keep in mind that nothing should be used in place of true parental supervision.)
The next time you're daydreaming about the relative bliss of your childhood, don't fret. Your child will one day be doing the same, whether or not he or she ever knows the feeling of riding bikes in the street or running "wild" around the block.
"Kids today don't remember those times when kids roamed free among the neighborhoods, so their sense of freedom is relative," Crutcher says. "I think the point is to teach kids matter-of-factly to be careful, at the same time setting up situations that reduce the likelihood of some bad incident happening."
The bottom line: Fun is fun – no matter what the parameters.