Children learn how to make decisions and develop their own good judgement when you give them the freedom and independence to do so. Letting go of the reins to let them do this – while keeping them in a safe environment – is always a challenge for parents and grandparents.
We want them to learn about the world on their own and to handle awkward or challenging situations. We also want them to be safe and to feel protected. How do we balance these two needs?
On July 21, 2015, CBC-TV carried a story about “free-range kids” – a controversial movement in which parents allow their children to play and navigate their environment unsupervised. Not unlike the way many grandparents (and some parents) grew up. This style of parenting is in sharp contrast to that used by “helicopter parents” who hover and monitor every movement their child makes.
The key is to find the balance so children can learn to be responsible and make good judgement calls at the earliest appropriate stage of their lives. It is believed that they will be safer in a wide variety of environments because they will have a better understanding of how to handle the situation. Most importantly it requires talking to them in advance about how much responsibility they want to, and are capable of, taking on.
“A Free-Range Kid is a kid who gets treated as a smart, young, capable individual” – Lenore Skenazy
Independence requires knowledge and tools
Giving children independence skills also requires giving them the tools they need to handle situations.
Scenario: A young mother recently rented a cottage in a resort. It was a safe environment to allow her two daughters – four and nine – to explore their independence, riding their bicycles, playing in the nearby playground, and making new friends. On the first day her four year old did make a new friend, and promptly followed her home to play in her back yard. Had the mom not seen this occurring, she realized that she might have spent considerable time looking for the two four-year olds that were busy playing – in their own little world. So how do you keep track of children when you give them the freedom to wander on their own?
Name and location tags around their neck might help. Giving them a cell phone so you can stay in touch is one option. But that solution comes with a high cost, as well as a considerable additional responsibility at such a young age.
A practical and suitable solution for any age that is old enough to be left to play alone is a two way radio system. They are low cost, easy to use, and have a reasonable range for communication – much better than hollering as you walk down the street trying to find young ones that are concentrating “in their own little bubble”. A three to four year old can handle voice-activated communication and tell you where they are when they hear your signal. Or they can listen to instructions that you give them to return home. Older children can use a walkie-talkie to tell you where they are cycling, or that they have stopped somewhere for a snack. They can alert you if they have a problem, such as a flat tire, and are walking their bike home – so don’t worry when they are late.
Country or city – this tool will give you comfort when your children are not within eyesight. It is a safe way to let them:
- play in a neighborhood park or a friend’s backyard,
- learn to shop at the local variety store by themselves, and
- navigate to and from school, without supervision.
The radios can also be used when traveling for family members to communicate with each other, when multiple activities are involved. They are an excellent alternative to cell phones.
Making children safer
This is also an excellent tool for a child with special needs to carry. I recently witnessed a teenage boy at a pool in an RV park having a seizure. A few near by adults ran to assist as soon as we realized what was happening. But it was minutes before one of his friends could run and get his parents to come. In the meantime, none of us really knew how to help. Had he been carrying a two way radio, his buddies could have summoned help much faster and/or the adults on the scene could have been given specific instructions to be more helpful.
Some key feature to consider when choosing two way radios:
- Choose lightweight models, so children don’t mind carrying them. Make it easy for them to carry while biking or walking.
- Make sure everyone has a receiver and the channels are on the same frequency so you can coordinate activities and sometimes do a hand-off, especially if one child is helping to mind a younger sibling.
- Pick the radio that has easy-to-use and age-appropriate features, like voice-activation (especially for younger children).
- Select a rechargeable unit or ensure that you always have a sufficient supply of batteries around so you don’t lose communication at critical times.
- Make it a FUN thing to do – so children and especially teens don’t think it is merely a means of monitoring their activities or spying on them. Encourage them to check in occasionally – even if nothing is happening – and especially when they are on their way home. One way to encourage this behavior is to ask them to let you know their ETA so you can have a treat like ice-cream or baking ready for them when they arrive.
The Motorola two way radio in its bright yellow color (making it easily found), has excellent features including a charging station and rechargeable batteries.
A three pack allows you to keep one at home and let two wander with your kids – as long as they are not tramping more than a few miles from home! The good news is most kids don’t want to be that far from the comfort of mom, dad, and their own home.
As children get older, cell phones are another way to give them additional independence and safety. As well as giving them the appropriate tools, make sure they know why they should keep the lines of communication open.
TIP: Teach your children how to be “safe”. Then give them the tools to ensure that safety. Congratulate them on their independence and confidence.
How do you keep track of your kids AND give them more independence?