I like to think that my kids (13, 11 and nearly 3) are pretty free range, and as far as the urban jungle goes the big kids take the bus to and from school (OK, so it picks them up a block from home and drops them off right outside our door), and they’ve been bike riding around the neighbourhood, walking to the park and through our local bush reserve by themselves for a couple of years now.
But my thoughts on how free range my kids are were blown right out of the water when I read a thought-provoking 12-point checklist from 1979 regarding a child’s readiness for school.
I thought back to when my big kids were starting school, and they got “yeses” for most of the points (will they be six years or older; do they know their home address; can they tell their left and from their right), but when I got to number 8, I was floored. It read: Can they travel alone in the neighbourhood (four to eight blocks) to the shops, school, playground, or to a friend’s home?
What? A six year old walking eight blocks? Alone? Crossing roads without an adult holding their hand? I started to feel tight in the chest thinking about my year 1 babies (now into and on the brink of teenagehood) crossing the road to fetch a ball that had escaped our yard, let alone walking eight blocks alone.
After I stopped hyperventilating, it really got me thinking. When I was four years old I rode my bike or walked to kindergarten by myself. Yes, I grew up in the country, and mum could have seen most of my journey from the front yard if she’d stayed out to watch (she didn’t). When I was six I regularly walked a few blocks to and from a friend’s house. I got chased by neighbourhood dogs a couple of times. I once slipped on a gum nut and skinned my knee, finishing the walk with blood running down my shin onto my favourite Big Bird socks. But I was fine, and I felt like I’d had an adventure. It was a story to tell my mum and dad when I got home, and the Big Bird socks washed up just fine. In one generation, it seems like our children have lost a lot of this independence.
When my big kids started taking the school bus (aged 11 and 9 at the time), their first trip home didn’t quite go to plan. The bus driver hadn’t been told where their stop was, so dropped them off where he “thought” he should. Three kilometres from home. On a street they didn’t recognise. Armed with only their wits, they backtracked along the way the bus had come until they recognised a familiar street name, and then navigated their way home. Half an hour later than expected, I heard the squeak of the front gate opening and “humphs” of two cranky kids who’d had to walk, pack-laden, home.
Listening to their story, my immediate thoughts were “where’s the duty of care from the bus driver?” and “who tells kids to get off a bus in a neighbourhood they don’t know?”. But after simmering down I realised not only were the kids fine, they were raving about their adventure. Exaggerating their trial to where they now had dragged school bags full of cinderblocks for a whole 15 kilometres, they were planning the intricate retelling of their odyssey for their friends the following day.
My mild heart attack moment was an opportunity for them to make decisions for themselves, with no adult advice or supervision, and they were just fine. More than that, they’ve learnt that they are capable of solving problems without me, and more willing to take on new challenges as a result. We spend a lot of time teaching our kids how to make the right decisions, but don’t necessarily provide many opportunities to exercise these learnings. With that in mind, I’m wondering how soon is too soon for our toddler to walk himself to daycare…