An Alaska Mom Lets Her 9-Year-Olds Roam without a Cell Phone

As She Worries "What If...?" Her Kids Revel in Independence

Nancy Fresco is a writer and climate change researcher in Fairbanks, Alaska, and mom of twins. Her recent book, Go Play Outside! Tips, Tricks, and Tales from the Trails, offers parents and kids the tools to enjoy adventures big and small in all seasons — including the Alaskan winter! (Bonus: Info included on how to avoid moose.) In this excerpt, her kids, age 9, were heading out for some urban exploration, and sandwiches!

In Which I Try to Stop Wondering “What If…?” as I send The Kids to Roam

I said goodbye to the two of them at the roundabout. They pedaled away from me, pigtails poking from beneath helmets, little twenty-inch tires churning. They didn’t look back.

As I ran up the hill to West Ridge, the road’s shoulder looked narrower than I remembered, and the slope seemed steeper and longer. Would they have to walk their bikes, when it was time for them to find me? What about the two busy roads they needed to cross, both coming and going? Would they correctly calculate what lunches they could purchase with the money I’d provided? Did they remember the combination to the bike lock? How about the location of my new office? What if…

Two Hours of Adult Worry for a Little Childhood Independence

No. Stop. I opened the glass doors of the International Arctic Research Center. The kids would buy their sandwiches at the café in Gulliver’s Books, I told myself. They would peruse a few used paperbacks. And then, in two hours’ time, they’d bike up the hill. My little free-rangers would be just fine.

Up in my office, I waded through the slurry of emails swamping my inbox. I quickly rummaged for my lunch in the break-room fridge, which was adorned with a discomfiting laminated note reminding everyone to refrain from storing scientific experiments therein. What were the kids eating? They loved taking command of little wipe-off cards that allowed them to micromanage what kind of bread and fillings they prefered. Toasted or not toasted? Provolone or Cheddar? With the shredded carrot? The spinach? Oh, the thrill of it! They could take ten minutes to carefully plan a sandwich.

Kids as Young as Six — 6! — Can Do Things Without Adult Supervision

Being in control turns the humdrum into an adventure. This piece of kid-psychology isn’t new-fangled. Classic novels that I’d passed on to my children over the past couple of years – books by Elizabeth Enright and Arthur Ransome – feature buccaneers as young as six joining older siblings in adult-free urban exploration, rural camping, and sailing. It warmed my heart to see my third-grader burying her nose in a 400-page moldy-looking volume that once belonged to my mother. That the story in those involved bold and unapologetic free-range girls pretending to be Amazon pirates – well, that was pure perfection.

Spreadsheets. I glanced at the clock. What if someone saw the twins out there, and didn’t share my views on parenting? It didn’t help that my nine-year-olds looked younger than their years. One of them was barely the size of the average first grader. What if someone thought… No. I glanced resolutely at my emails again.

One thirty. They’d be leaving the bookstore now – if they remembered what we’d agreed, and if they remembered to look at their watches. Two traffic lights. One roundabout. And those two awkward three-way intersections protected only by stop signs. But they knew enough to make the right choices. They would press the buttons and wait for the Walking Person. They would look both ways, cautious for the type of drivers who think that “right turn on red” is one of the Ten Commandments. Spreadsheets. Back to my spreadsheets. They would come back.

Then Someone Sees My Kids Outside, Unsupervised

Ping! A message. But not from the kids; they didn’t own phones yet.  It was a message about my kids. But this was not a message from Social Services. Nor was it a message from the State Troopers, Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, or the FBI. No, the writer was a good friend of mine — the father of another little free-ranger who often flocked with my daughters.  He wrote, “What a pleasure it was to see those strong, independent, skillfully biking young women.”

Young women! Ha. On one hand, it seemed like a stretch to describe my freckled, scabby-kneed pipsqueaks in such a manner. On the other hand… growing up is incremental. That’s the whole point, isn’t it? A grin spread across my face.

And then, impeccably timed, I heard an ebullient chirrup at my elbow.

“Hi Mom! We’re here!”

Cluck. Cluck. Good little chicks.

Want to send your kids out on their own? Click here and print our Independent Kid Card.