When Is It Safe to Start Sending Kids On Errands? PART 2

With some instruction and experience, they can start young!

You can’t just send your kids off without any training at all. Here’s Part 2 of our advice on when and how to start sending your kids out into the world (probably a little older than the kids on Netflix’ “Old Enough“). You can read Part 1 here.

Is there a right age to start? Or is it maturity-dependent?

We have several psychologists working on a white paper addressing this very issue right now. Devlopmentally, kids are ready to understand rules and act responsibly by age five, or maybe even four. (Let Grow co-founder Peter Gray concurs.)

But brain development alone does not mean kids are ready for the “real world,” because they need instruction and experience as well. So, if you want your child to learn how to cross the street, you can’t just say, “You’re five. Goodbye!” You have to teach them to look out for cars and pay attention to the “Walk” signs, and make themselves seen in the crosswalk – all that stuff. So it’s a combination of age PLUS instruction and experience.

And the instructor doesn’t have to be you. It can be a family friend, an older child, a babysitter… Just someone who knows how to conduct themselves safely on an errand.

Proof of concept: Here is a 6-year-old testifying for the Reasonable Childhood Independence law in South Carolina in April of this year. (Scroll down to watch her in action!)

Which errands/chores are safe for kids who might be too young to go out alone?

Kids are desperate to help out around the house. Anthropologist David Lancy says that this desire peaks around age 3 or 4 and then gradually goes “extinct” if they’re constantly told, “No, you can’t help yet.” So it’s best to get them started when they are the most psyched.

Young kids can help with cooking, cleaning, pets, even caring for their younger siblings. I was once giving a talk in Evanston, Illinois, when a mom told me her daughter’s kindergarten teacher was recommending her for the Gifted and Talented program at the school. “That’s great!” said the mom. “What made you decide to do that?” The teacher replied, “It’s her scissors skills. They’re just extraordinary.” At which point the mom could not suppress a laugh.

“I’m not surprised she’s good with scissors,” the mom said. “I adopted my daughter from an orphanage in Haiti at age 3, where she’d been using a machete to peel her mangoes.” The mom added, “She’d also been helping to take care of her little brother, who was one at the time.” Yes, the mom adopted them together.

How can parents prep their kids for their first solo outing?

Teach kids to look out for cars and to pay attention to landmarks. And also teach them this: 

They can TALK to anyone, they cannot GO OFF with anyone. 

This is much better than teaching them, “Don’t talk to strangers,” in part because it’s hard to figure out who’s a stranger (if mom talks to the cashier is the cashier a friend or a stranger?), and in part because if kids think they CAN’T talk to any adults, they won’t be able to ask for help if they should ever need it.

There was the famous story years ago of a Utah Boy Scout lost in the mountains for four days. Every time someone came near enough for him to hear them call his name, he’d run and hide. Why? Because he’d been told never to talk to strangers – they could “abduct” him.

I realize parents are really concerned about abduction, so here’s a statistic I quote in my book that could help them breathe a little easier:

If, for some reason, you WANTED your child to be taken by a stranger in a “Law & Order”-type of abduction, do you know how long you’d have to keep them outside, unsupersived, before it would be STATISTICALLY LIKELY that they’d be kidnapped?

The answer, provided for by Warwick Cairns, author of “How to Live Dangerous,” is this:

750,000 years.

It’s really hard to absorb that, and I think I can explain why. Your brain works like Google. Ask Google, “Where can I get a good salami sandwich in Brooklyn?” and up will come a list of 10 delis, all delicious. You choose one from the first page of results and you are off to a great meal.

But if you ask your brain, “Is my child safe going on an errand without me?” your mind gets flooded with stories that are literally unforgettable, like the Adam Walsh kidnapping, or Jaycee Dugard, taken from her bus stop.

Those stories are easy to remmeber precisely because they are so rare and so tragic. You can’t remember the tens of millions of kids who went to school for the last 40 years and were NOT kidnapped.

So now your “search results” for, “Is my kid safe?” are filled with the most horrifying, LEAST COMMON stories, including some Liam Neeson movies mixed up in there. And because they are the easiest to remember, your brain thinks they are the most relevant – like the first page of Google results.

Ironically, they are the LEAST relevant because they are so unusual that they are easy to remember. Meantime, all the boring stories of kids just going back and forth to the grocery, or school, or their piano lesson cannot be retrieved.

Scientists call this the “availability heuristic” – the more available a story is to your brain, the more common you think it is. Even when it isn’t.

With that, we hope that you feel a little more ready to give your kids some independence. And if you’d like a little more help and encouragement, please download our Let Grow Independence Kit. It’s free. Heck, so is our Let Grow Kid Card kids can carry to show that their parents know they are out and about.

And off they go!