5 Rules for Kids that Roam

At what age is it safe for your little one to run free without mom or dad by their side? We've got some advice for keeping school-age children safe while giving them freedom and independence.

Seven-year-old Peter Moore can’t wait for summer to start, when he can ride his bike to his friends’ houses and play at the park without Mom tagging along. Last summer, his mother spelled out exactly how far Peter could go in their quiet St. John’s, Nfld., neighbourhood.

She watched him cross the street, observed his reactions to situations, and insisted he check in with her every 10 minutes so she always knew where he was and where he was headed.

“Peter proved to me he was ready to take on the responsibility that comes with independence,” says Carolyn Anstey-Moore, “so this year I’m comfortable allowing him to venture out beyond the loop of our street, over to the next block.”

Playing outside alone whether it’s just on the lawn or down the street is an important part of your child’s gradual journey to self-reliance. But how do you negotiate this so you can trust your child will make the right choices when you’re not watching?

“Whenever you’re encouraging a new step in a child’s development, you want to do it in stages. For instance, let them walk to their friend’s house with you watching from your porch,” says Julie Freedman Smith, co-owner of Parenting Power, a family resource and education company in Calgary. “The message is, ‘I have confidence that you can look after yourself from here to there.’ The more we express that trust to our children, the more they believe in themselves.” Here are a few rules to help navigate this new terrain.

Rule #1: Know your street
If it’s a busy, high-traffic road, it simply may not be safe for your child to be unsupervised period. “I live on a busy street and I will not let my daughter skateboard down it alone,” says Freedman Smith. If this sounds like your neighbourhood, it might make more sense to stick to your backyard. “Leave them for short periods of time, two minutes, five minutes and build from there,” she says.

Rule #2: Set clear boundaries
Know your comfort zone. She can ride her bike to the bend in the road, for example and then ask your child what she’s comfortable with. But remember, you have the final say. At the same time, lay out the consequences of disrespecting those boundaries. “Children intuitively want to explore, so they are going to push the limits,” says Anstey-Moore. “You have to make them understand independence is a privilege, and if they break that trust, they lose the privilege.”

Rule #3: Hold dress rehearsals

Before Shaun Carroll of Tsawwassen, B.C., let her eldest, nine-year-old Frances, play at the park on her own, they had plenty of dry runs and lengthy talks. Since she walks both Frances and seven-year-old Doug to school every day, they were both already well aware of street safety. Still, Carroll went over specific situations and quizzed Frances on how she would react. “I was with her, enforcing the rules for quite a while before I let her play on her own,” says Carroll. And she gives Frances a quick recap each time she heads out.

Rule #4: Make them stranger savvy
You don’t want your child to think every stranger is out to hurt her, but you do want her to be street smart. “Point out safe places she can go if a stranger approaches or someone makes her uncomfortable; a store or public library, the home of someone you know, a Block Parent’s home, a house with kids’ toys out front,” says Freedman Smith.

And make sure she knows her full address, phone number and parents’ full names, and that her name doesn’t appear on the outside of any ball caps, jackets or bags, which could give a potential predator an easy way of getting her attention.

Rule #5: Listen to your gut
If you’re still nervous, organizations such as Calgary’s Safe and Sound offer safety courses for kids aged three to 12 in neighbourhoods across Canada. Sign up. “Most important,” says Carroll, “know your child and what they can handle. You have to feel comfortable in your gut that they are ready to play outside alone.”

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