When I was young and would head outside to play, my grandmother would always ask me: “Are you going out for a toot?” It was her way of asking if I was going exploring. A toot meant adventure, fun, and pretty much up to no good … but in a good way. I am from the generation of kids who played outside and roamed the neighborhood with friends until the street lights came on.
These days, that sort of childhood seems as ancient as the dinosaurs. Parents are helicoptering so much of their kids’ environment that there is no room to roam and explore. Exploring your neighborhood with friends and going on mini-adventures around the block is important for self-esteem, confidence, and overall well being. Fear is being taught, not self-reliance. How will our children grow up to trust their own sense of judgment and be able to feel confident to be on their own? We as a society are over-loving our children and paralyzing their abilities to live an independent life.
I live on a street that should be swarming with kids playing outside: half the houses have kids under 10-years-old and it’s a dead-end street. None of the kids play outside, let alone with each other. They are kept in the back yard, safe, and contained. On the flip side, my girls are always outside. They have a small radius in which they can go adventuring. Sometimes it’s as simple as scootering up and down the street, but other times they want to go on an Explore.
An Explore consists of baskets and the freedom to walk a bit further from home to see what sorts of natural treasures they can find. The girls know their boundaries: they can go down a few streets to the left to the stop sign, our full dead-end portion of the street, and the alley near our house. They enjoy this little bit of freedom and they are so invigorated when they come back to show me their treasures. One day, Alex and I decided to secretly follow them and watch what they did.
They did what kids do … walk a little, sit under a tree and talk, smell the flowers, and skip. We were concerned they would push their boundaries and go past the stop sign, but they didn’t. They simply turned around and walked home once they made it to the stop sign.
I do draw the line at going into the park alone. Because the park buttresses against four acres of open forest. I am not comfortable having them there without an adult. They can go on an adventure, but with a few limits.
An adventure to the local bookstore on their own is another safe way that I let them spread their wings. We are very lucky to have a small independent bookstore two blocks down my street. On adventures to the bookstore, one of the girls wears a watch. A time limit is set and I watch them as they take their time crossing the road, all holding hands. The people at the bookstore know the girls and have my number in their computer. If something should happen or the girls need me for some reason, the store can call me. I usually give them a half-hour at the bookstore to read or play. They feel like such big kids on their own! The big girls are very good keeping track of time and they are usually home earlier than they need to be all babbling about the latest story they read.
I see how their spirits lift each time they come home from a successful outing. They are so proud of themselves! It’s empowering for them to have these opportunities to stretch and grow.
Yes, the world is different than when we were young, but that doesn’t mean we need to keep our kids locked in a protective bubble. It’s time to “loosen the apron strings” as they say and let them be a bit more independent from time to time. Let them go on a toot every now and then. When they come back glowing in exhilaration, you will know how important that adventure was for their soul.
Here are a few tips for taking your first baby steps in allowing your baby to take her first steps to independence:
- Invite your child into the conversation. Ask him/her how they would like to experience more freedom or independence. It may be as simple as walking around the corner to a friends house! By inviting them into the conversation, they become part of the process.
- Create the boundaries. Where in your city would you feel comfortable having your kids out of your sight? Maybe where you live is too busy, but is there a park or a section of the community in which the kids can roam on their own with you close by?
- Regular independence. Can they walk home to and from school? Mina’s school is about a 10 minute walk away. Because there are usually a lot of kids walking, this is a safe way to gradually expand your child’s radius on a regular basis. This year Mina will begin walking to school and I have arranged for her friend to meet her at a certain corner so they can walk together.
Even in big cities, there are opportunities for our kids to learn independence and interdependence from us. Connect with friends and coordinate time with other kids so they can learn together. It really seems harder on us parents to let go than on the kids to accept responsibility. You have taught them well, now it’s time to trust them.
Photo credit: Annie Spratt