How Safe Is It to Let Kids Run Errands Alone? PART 1:
With the popularity of the Netflix show, “Old Enough,” a reporter sent us these questions about what age can kids safely start running errands here in the United States.
Here is Part 1 of our advice:
How safe is it to let young children run errands alone?
Obviously every neighborhood – and every child — is different, which is why it is up to you, the parent (not your neighbors, your in-laws, or the state), to decide when your kids can start running errands.
This may seem daunting, because kids have been given less and less independence over the years. Look at this amazing map of “How Children Lost the Right to Roam in Four Generations.” An 88-year-old great-grandpa says he used to wander 6 miles as a kid. His son-in-law, a grandpa now in his 60s, used to walk a mile in childhood. His daughter, age 36, walked half a mile to school. And now the great grandchild, age 8, is not allowed beyond the end of his street – and he barely even goes there. His mom drives him to school.
That has been the story in much of the English-speaking world, leading to “First World Problems” – like skyrocketing rates of childhood depression and anxiety. So when a parent is thinking, “It is safe to let my child run some errands alone?” they should also be thinking, “It is safe NOT to let my child do anything independently, considering the serious mental health issues that are going up as childhood independence is going down?”
How safe is it to let kids go to school by themselves? What is “too far?”
Once again, it depends on your kid, your neighborhood, and all sorts of things, like whether there are sidewalks or stop signs or roving bands of rabid wolves. Really, the thing to do is walk to the school with your child a few times to teach them how to navigate, and anything they should be watching out for.
If it’s hard for YOU to cross the street because there’s so much traffic, of course it will be hard for them, too. If it’s simply a matter of teaching them to look both ways – which is what I was taught as a kid: “Look left, look right, look left again” – then our job parents is to make sure they understand when, why and how to do this.
What’s interesting about “Old Enough” is that it’s not that the parents aren’t nervous. And it’s not that the kids aren’t sometimes a little scared, too. It’s that worry alone is not considered reason enough not to let a child start doing something. The reason the show is so charming is that the kids (and parents) triumph OVER some worries and hiccups. There can be no growth without trying something new and a little daunting.
What I’ve seen over and over again (and I actually hosted a similar show called “World’s Worst Mom” on Discovery Life TV – now it’s on YouTube) is that the fear is far more fragile that it seems. On my show I took the kids of EXTREMELY anxious parents away from them for a couple of afternoons and sent them to do things like climb a tree, walk to school, run an errand, ride a bike… Even one mom who was still FEEDING HER 10-YEAR-OLD IN HIS MOUTH ended up insanely proud of her son when, thanks to my prodding, he learned to ride a bike, and then went on an overnight. Her fear was replaced by pride and joy. It happens in “Old Enough” and it happens even with very nervous, anxious parents in our country: Seeing your kid blossom is even more powerful than worrying about their every move. Pride and love melt away the anxiety.
What if you don’t want anyone to think you’re a bad parent?
It is truly hard to be the ONLY ONE sending your kid on an errand, because you feel you may be shamed or even reported. Obviously, Japan has normalized the sight of little kids doing things on their own. To help renormalize childhood independence in America, Let Grow is doing two things:
1 – We recommend schools assign The Let Grow Project:
The Let Grow Project: Students get the homework assignment: “Go home and do something you’ve never done on your own before. Walk the dog. Make a meal. Run an errand…” When the child succeeds, everyone is transformed: The parents see their child as competent, blossoming – and so do the kids themselves. The Project breaks the ice of anxiety in both generations. Here’s a 2-minute video of some 7th graders discussing how The Project changed them. One teacher told us that after she had her kids do The Project 20 times in a single year, a boy wrote to tell her that thanks to her optimism and The Project, he was now off his anxiety meds. (We actually have a PhD candidate currently studying the impact of the Project on children with a diagnosis of anxiety.)
2 – We are getting states to pass “Reasonable Childhood Independence” laws. So far, four states – Utah, Texas, Oklahoma and Colorado – have. (Colorado just passed theirs last month.) These laws narrow the definition of neglect, protecting parents who — by choice or economic necessity — give their kids some unsupervised time…for instance, to run an errand.