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How One Family Got Their Young Kids to Start Going Outside On Their Own, Unsupervised — Without Freaking Out The Neighbors

The other day we asked readers to tell us how they’re giving their kids more unstructured time, something that many families are eager to do. Here’s one really helpful response came from Hamilton Carter  a dad of three kids, aged 8, 7, and 4. He and his family live in San Francisco where Hamilton works as an engineer, and writer.  The kids spend their time exploring the Bay Area, making new friends, and learning new things.

How We Got Our Kids Outside — Without Us!

We’ve done a few things that have made the difference for us. More generically though, the most important thing has been doing these things over and over again. Here’s what they are:

We met our neighbors: When we moved to our new neighborhood about four years ago, we made an effort to meet everyone we could. That meant folks on our block and down the streets headed to the main drag of our neighborhood, and the folks who work in all the businesses we visit. We introduced the kids as well. This got the neighbors more used to seeing the kids out and about, and more inclined to tell others that it was okay for them to be out. They know the kids, and what they’re capable of.

We take public transit all the time: We extended our network of people who know the kids by taking public transit everywhere. The kids ride with and with their nanny and we’ve gotten used to meeting new people because they’ve met the kids first.

Again, this has been a huge help because the other people on the buses and trains know the kids should be there, and are happy to see them. The 8-year-old now rides by herself and with her friends pretty frequently, and loves it.

We send the kids out on their own a couple of times every day: I know this seems like the objective rather than a way to obtain the objective, but it’s both.  Once again, it gets the neighborhood used to the kids and vice versa. They’ve been approached many times by “concerned adults” and have learned how to handle them. They listen politely for one or two iterations of ‘”Does someone know where you are? Are you okay?” and then say, “We’ve got to go,” turn around and walk off.

Hang out at local libraries several times a week: Again this has to do with being known, but also with having very safe places to hang out if they ever need them. All the librarians know the kids and are used to seeing them with or without us. The kids know where the libraries are and that they can cruise inside if they need to. Nothing even remotely approaching a safety reason to go inside has ever come up.

Another perk of libraries is we actually met new neighbors who warned us that their across-the-street neighbors had considered calling the cops on our kids until the new neighbors had vouched for them saying they “see those kids and their dog all the time, and they’re okay.”

Back to meeting folks at local businesses: The kids know the people at our markets as well as we do. This helps a huge amount on sending the kids to do errands. The business owners/workers expect to see them, and don’t freak out when they walk in unaccompanied. Another way we’ve set the groundwork by this is by:

Shadowing practice runs: When we started the kids running errands on their own, I covered the shopping on one side of the street while they did the other. We agreed to meet at our bus stop. I then went to the store they went to after I was done. The workers told me they’d seen the kids. I told them thank you, and I knew, and to expect to see them without me more in the future. Now, it’s no big deal. Now that we’re working on sending them all by themselves, I go along about three blocks behind to serve the same purpose: Talking to folks that want to be reassured that everything’s cool.

Practice riding transit alone: As each kid gets old enough to legally ride transit on their own, we spend the year before with them getting in the front door, me getting in the back, and them being responsible for choosing the correct stop and whatnot along the way. It gets the drivers used to seeing them alone, and lets them practice paying attention and being responsible for the ride.

Going places in other neighborhoods: as the kids are getting bigger, we’re applying the same principles in a wider network across town.

They’re starting to branch out to seeing their cross town buddies and taking themselves to various camps and classes. So far, so good!

We wrote back to ask:

1 – What it is you say to others as you follow 3 blocks behind the kids?
2 – How do the kids feel about being stopped by well-meaning folks who worry they shouldn’t be out on their own?
3 – How did you meet the neighbors? Ringing doorbells? Walking around?
And Hamilton responded:
1. I’ve only run into people that were concerned a few times. When I was downtown, a gentleman asked me if I was with “those kids that just went by.” I told him I was, and that they were going to be walking along this route routinely, and that it was okay, I knew they were doing it, and that he could expect to see them again in the future. He seemed fine with that and went on about his business downtown.
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The one time an adult asked about the kids in our neighborhood was much more fun. The kids were headed down to the market on their own. I wanted to have about three blocks between us so I waited a bit before I headed out. As I rounded the corner onto the street they were headed down, I saw that they’d become fascinated with something about a block and a half down, so I stopped to wait for them to move on.
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I heard, “Can I help you?” from the front porch of the house I was standing in front of.  I hadn’t realized the man who lived there had come outside. When I told him I was waiting for the kids to head further down the hill, he asked me if I was there dad and when I said yes, he said, “I see those kids all the time and they’re so happy! You must be doing something right. I run into them when they’re walking their dog in the park and they’re always having a great time.”
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I’m pretty sure the thing I’m doing right is not being there. Anyway, we had a great talk about how his now-adult son had also grown up in the neighborhood and had also really enjoyed heading into our nearby park for adventures. I got to meet a new neighbor, and as happens pretty frequently, he knew the kids even thought I didn’t know him yet.
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2. The kids consider it an eye-rolling annoyance to be stopped by well-meaning adults. Unless we ask specifically, they usually don’t bring it up, but when we do discuss it, the oldest–who deals with the adults–rolls her eyes and says something along the lines of “Yeah, someone stopped us to ask if we were okay again. They asked if we’re alone and if anyone knows where we are. They just kept asking until finally I said, ‘We have to go now,’ and walked off.” Then, when she’s done telling us about it she does a heavy sigh and that’s the end of it.
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We (I) haven’t worked up the temerity to approach our mayor about a Let Grow [or Free-Range Kids] proclamation yet, because things are working so well. On the off-chance we’re flying under the radar, I don’t want to jinx it. But when the kids and I have discussed asking for a proclamation, they light up.
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3. We met the neighbors at first by walking around. It’s been kind of easier because people are out in front of their houses a lot in our neighborhood. When we moved in, as we came across new neighbors, we introduced ourselves, including the kids. It’s kind of grown from there.
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Since the kids are out around the neighborhood more than we are, they’re growing their own network now. We met the people who work in and own our markets the same way. We introduced ourselves and the kids, and then made sure to say hi every time we went in.
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We lived in a suburban environment before we came to San Francisco, and I have to admit, we didn’t know our neighbors there. When we moved, my partner said she’d like to know the neighbors better at our new house.  That got things kicked off. – H.C.