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What is the right age to let kids go places alone?

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  March 13, 2012 09:19 AM

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Recently I wrote a blog about how I caved and got my 11-year-old daughter the cell phone she wanted. One of the reasons I did it, I wrote, was that she was starting to be independent and go places alone (brief walks or bike rides) or with friends.

More than a few comments on the blog said: why would you let an 11-year-old do that? 11-year-olds should always be with an adult.

Fifth grade has always been when my husband and I have begun to let our children be independent; Natasha is the fourth of our five children to hit that milestone. It's a year when they are maturing and wanting more independence, and it's the year before middle school when they will have more of it, so we've used it as a time to practice that independence in small and controllable ways. It has worked for us -- but the comments were a little unnerving.

Then I read about a school in Davidson, North Carolina, that had a tradition of letting fifth graders (who had their parents' permission) leave the school without an adult on Fridays -- until recently. In part because of complaints about the kids being unruly when unleashed en masse, and in part because of liability concerns, they now require them to take the bus or be picked up. The principal told the local newspaper that the "students are too young to be out without an adult."

What's going on? Am I letting my children be independent too young? What is the right age to let kids go places alone?

The comments on the blog were mostly of the theme "things aren't the way they used to be," as if abductions and crime were on the rise. I did some research, and that doesn't seem to be the case. With things like Amber Alerts and registries for sexual offenders, there's actually more in place to protect children. According to the US Department of Justice, the risk of being abducted by a stranger or acquaintance is small, about 2 percent of all missing children. A child is about five times more likely to be abducted by a family member, usually in the setting of a custody dispute. As for crime, violent crime rates have come down a lot, from 47.7 per 1000 in 1973 to 16.9 in 2008. There are bad things happening to children -- such as child abuse, neglect, bullying, and online predators -- but they are mostly happening at home or school.

So why do people feel like we can't let kids go out alone? I think it's the explosion and immediacy of the media. When a child is kidnapped or hurt, the story spreads like wildfire. It can feel like it's happening in your town -- in every town. We are haunted by the excruciating details the media gives us, and can't help thinking about them when our child says, "Can I walk to Alice's house?"

There are other reasons, though, to not want your child out unattended -- these are the ones I worry more about. Being out safely alone (or with friends) in the world requires good judgment. Kids need to be able to keep themselves physically safe -- they need to be able to walk along or cross streets safely, not get in cars with strangers, not walk on train tracks, things like that. They need to be able to follow rules and behave appropriately. They also need to be able to be calm and responsible if they end up in a risky situation, and be able to get out of that situation or get help.

Every kid reaches that place of good judgment at a different age. Some 10-year-olds may have incredibly good judgment -- and some 18-year-olds may not. Parents know their children best. But here's the rub: kids need to practice that judgment. They need to try out situations to gain the skills they need for independence. If we keep them close and make all the decisions for them, they won't learn to make them on their own -- and then what happens when we can't be there?

I don't have the perfect answer to when kids can be alone -- because there is no perfect answer. It's going to depend on the kid and the family and the circumstances. But I do know that we can't let fear dictate what we do, because that hurts more than it helps.

If we want our kids to be brave, we need to be brave, too.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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