Saturday, November 5, 2011

Freedom without Fear

Sometimes I let my children play in our front yard.  Alone.  Unsupervised.

Occasionally a friend or family member or neighbour asks me about this practice.  They are surprised that I am not more concerned about the safety of my daughters, ages 7 1/2, 5 3/4 and 3 3/4 years.  And since I'm not concerned, I always ask "What are you worried will happen?"

Inevitably I get two responses:  That the children will get hit by a car or that one will be abducted.

Yes, I recognize the possibility that one of those two terrible events could occur.  But let's talk about them and see if we can understand those fears better.

They could get hit by a car.
Yes, they could.  If the car went out of control, mounted the sidewalk and ran through our fence.  Our street has a speed limit of 30km/h and our driveway is just 50 feet away from a stop sign, so most cars going past our house are slowing down, not travelling at high speeds.  Yes, I've heard of tragic stories where a family is on the sidewalk and is run down by a car.  I've also heard of a bus hitting a bus shelter where people were waiting.  And I've heard of children drowning in the bathtub.  And I've heard of children strapped safely into carseats who were killed in horrible collisions.  Yet, I haven't stopped walking on sidewalks or taking the bus or bathing my children or taking them out in our car.

So yes, I see the possible danger.  But it is possible.  Not imminent.

And I trust my own children.  I have been outside with them so much that I know their habits and playing styles.  I know that they won't go on the street.  I know that they won't wander down the sidewalk.  In my mind, they are as safe playing in our front yard as they are playing in the living room.

They could be abducted.
You know, I used to walk home a kilometre every day along a country road and I don't think my parents ever worried that I could be abducted.  And it's not that more children are being abducted by strangers NOW than 30 years ago.  It's more that parents are much more fearful today because when it does happen, the modern media is able to keep it in the forefront of our minds until the tragedy is concluded.

And stranger-abduction is a very, very scary possibility for any parent to imagine.  When Elizabeth Smart was abducted from her own bed and when Tori Stafford was abducted from her own school, I'm sure that each of their parents assumed their child was safe.

So why am I not afraid?  I'm not afraid because being afraid will not prevent it from happening.  And rather than scaring my children by telling them to be wary of every stranger who passes our house, I use common sense to remove my own fears.

For one thing, I have never asked my children to talk to strangers.  Now think about that for a second.  Most parents make their children answer everyone who speaks to them:  cashiers, receptionists, passengers on the bus, co-workers, teachers, etc.  Then those same parents tell their children to never talk to strangers.  How is a kid supposed to know the difference between 'good' strangers and 'bad' strangers?  To solve this conundrum, I simply never ask my children to speak to anyone if they don't want to.  I don't care if the other person is offended--I care more about the integrity of my children.

I have also made sure that my children are well acquainted with many, many of our neighbours.  They see that I am comfortable with these people, we have been in their homes and I have helped many of them or received help from them.  This type of reciprocal relationship with people who would otherwise be on the periphery of our lives teaches my children how to develop a relationship of trust with people outside of our family and close friends.  It also allows them to feel safe in their neighbourhood.

Additionally, I am totally confident that my children know their way around our community.  Many times I have let them guide us home from the playground, the toy store or the drug store.  Many times I have let them guide our walk around the neighbourhood and they always capably find their way home.  IF (and it is very unlikely) they decided to leave our property without me, I totally trust that they would stay within our immediate neighbourhood and be able to find their way home.  No, this knowledge wouldn't prevent an abduction, but it does mean that if I look out the front door and I don't see them immediately that I don't panic and phone 911.

Freedom, not Fear
Have you heard about Free Range Kids?  I like it, though I'm not there yet.  After all, my oldest child is just 7 1/2 years old, and although she is really mature and responsible for her age, she simply is not interested in going anywhere by herself for any reason whatsoever.  If the day ever comes that she says "Hey Mom!  Can I go around the corner to buy a newspaper?", I'll probably be utterly stunned.

But that's not the point.  The point is that I can't see the sense in inhibiting the free-play of my children by either keeping them indoors or by harping on them about the dangers of playing outdoors.  Do possible dangers exist?  Yes.  Do I think that they would be safer if I made them afraid of these dangers?  No.  I prefer to see their incredible joy as they revel in their constant freedom.

What do you think?  Do you feel comfortable letting your children play outdoors without hovering over them?


  1. Great post (again!!!)

    I agree that I'm comfortable just letting them do their thing. My kids are still young so I don't let them play out front unsupervised yet. But, I will as I observe their readiness. My two oldest enjoy riding their bikes to the corner and back, but get mad at me if I don't watch them the entire time. I know they're safe and I'm attempting to cultivate relationships with our neighbors, too.

    I like your point about the hypocrisy of asking kids to speak to strangers then telling them never to speak to strangers. It just doesn't make sense.

    Also, I understand that tragedy happens. I don't want to make fear-based decisions. It's not a way I choose to live my life. But, I don't judge anyone else who feels or parents differently, of course.

  2. i let my son play outdoors without me all the time. we live in a housing complex that has a gate and there are many eyes and ears around the property so my son knows he is never "alone". if he needs help or wants company in his outdoor adventure, it is there for him. his sense of independence and self confidence has grown ten fold since our move. i think it is fantastic!

  3. In our old house, we had a fenced yard, and I would let my older child play outside unattended (from age 4 through 6). My husband was really nervous about this at first, but I explained that our daughter knew what to do to keep safe and I made sure of this by asking her three questions every time she went out:

    1) Where are you going to play? (Inside the fence)
    2) What will you do if someone comes into the yard? (Run inside and get mom)
    3) What will you do if I call for you? (Answer back or run to the house...this one I'd added when she started thinking it was fun to give me gray hairs by hiding when I called for her)

    Our new yard isn't fenced and we're on a corner and I don't know the neighbors well yet and my 2yo runs out in the street and eats holly berries at every opportunity, so I'm more cautious about letting them play outside on their own (I'd still let my daughter but her brother always wants to go with her).

    There's a great book I read called Growing a Girl by Barbara Mackoff that has a chapter on teaching safety without teaching fear.

    And sorry for the long comment. Sleep-nursing child on my lap always makes me a bit verbose.