Growing boys, growing freedom

We’ve talked about this subject before, but it’s always an interesting conversation to me. Mom, don’t read this post. You won’t like it!

Now that the weather is fine, the boys have started playing outside every evening after dinner, and they’ve made friends with the family that lives across the back fence. Their kids are a little older — ages eight, 10 and 12, I’d guess — but they seem to enjoy playing with Tristan and Simon. They’ve been playing catch over the back fence (it’s one of those 6-foot wooden plank fences) and Tristan has clambered up and over once or twice — until I firmly and unequivocally forbade him from doing that. Even so, the kids on the other side (and it’s one of those yards that seem to contain almost all of the neighbourhood kids) climb up from their side and sit on the top to chat with the boys.

I like this family a lot, but I don’t know them very well. Just a kind of “Hi” over the back fence thing. I think Tristan is old enough to play with them as a peer, but they’re tolerant of Simon as well. I’ve debated pulling out a plank or two to give the kids access through the fence, but worry about (a) damaging the fence and (b) the dog escaping. Last time we talked about this, someone suggested adding velcro to a couple of the planks, making them removable. This seems like a neat idea, but I really don’t want to muck too much with the fence — a replacement fence is simply not in the budget right now, nor is building a gate. Plus, I’m just not sure how long this fledgling friendship will last — I figure the older kids will lose interest pretty quickly.

After a couple of evenings of watching them play and holler across the fence, I started thinking about walking Tristan and Simon around the block to let them play in the other kids’ yard. This poses a couple of inconveniences, including what do I do once I’m there (with Lucas) — do I sit on the deck and supervise in someone else’s yard, waiting to walk them back home again? Knock on the door and ask the mom to call me when they’re done? This seems to me to be a big imposition, because her kids are old enough to play unsupervised.

So I started thinking about letting them walk over by themselves. There’s lots of reasons why it would be okay. It’s a single block — no streets to cross, and they live on a cul-de-sac, so it’s pretty safe all the way along. Tristan is fairly responsible, and there is safety in numbers. I could see them when they get there, and they could come home whenever they wanted without having to call for me and I wouldn’t have to wait for them. Plus, I do believe in giving freedom where freedom is earned. The drawbacks are that if they left the yard, I couldn’t see what they were up to, and I don’t know that any progress is made if I spend the whole time hovering at the window spying on them.

Late last week, I took an informal poll on Twitter, asking this question: would you allow your five and seven year old to walk around the block, unescorted but with no streets to cross, to play with the kids who live behind you?

The results were split pretty much down the middle, with most of the “yes” answers having the caveat along the lines of “as long as they’re together” and quite a few “as long as I could see them” or “I’d creep along behind them” type of answers.

I’m a huge believer in the idea of “free range kids” and I wish there were more (heck, any!) kids on our street for the boys to play with. Not to haul out this old song again, but really — when I was four I was walking to and from school by myself, and when I was six I used to walk down to the corner store and the park by myself all the time. I really don’t believe the world has changed so much in 30+ years that it’s any different now.

In the last year, the boys have been earning more and more freedoms. They’re now allowed to play in the front or back yard unsupervised (unless I leave the front door open or watch from the bedroom, I can’t see the front yard from the house) and they’ve been allowed to walk to the mailbox around the corner unescorted to get the mail by themselves. There’s a park across the street and down a bit, just out of my line of sight, and I think next summer they’ll probably be allowed to go over together and without an escort. (Although by that time, Lucas will be old enough to demand that he go to the park with them, and perhaps two is a little young for unescorted trips to the park…)

So what do you think? Would you let your five and seven year old walk around the block unescorted to play outside? Not a supervised playdate, just neighbourhood kids running around together, just like I remember doing back in the golden days of my childhood. If not five and seven, then what age? And is it really so different now than it was in 1975?

Author: DaniGirl

Canadian. storyteller, photographer, mom to 3. Professional dilettante.

23 thoughts on “Growing boys, growing freedom”

  1. First I would go and introduce myself to the neighbours saying something like – our kids seem to be playing together a lot lately, so I thought I’d say hello and make sure it’s okay with you if they hang around here once in a while. I think things have changed a lot in 30+ years, but if you’re comfortable that your neighbourhood is reasonably safe, give it a try. You might want to invest in one of those kid to parent cell phones so the boys can take it along and you and they can keep in touch (i.e.: calling you when they get there and/or when they’re on their way back home). Of course when they forget or don’t answer because they’re busy playing you will totally freak out.

  2. I didn’t answer this one on Twitter b/c I honestly didn’t know. I wanted to say, I’ll let you know in a couple of years. I do think the world is a much safer place than we give it credit for being. I also think kids need to be afforded some agency or how else will they figure out independence and responsibility. But, in short, I try not to have opinions on parenting issues that I haven’t had to tackle personally yet.

    And captcha? “Death’s goody”. What’s with that?

  3. I’ve just started allowing my 6-year old to visit her friends and play outside around their house, which is only 2 doors away, but around a corner so I can’t see her. She loves it soooo much and is a “rule-follower” kid so I do have a lot of faith in her judgement.

    I understand the worries about strangers-in-cars, but I really do want her to have some fun in her young life! The kids run about yelling and rough-housing and playing make-believe games and it reminds me so much of the fun I had during my summers too.

    So, yes, I have loosened the leash. But at the same time, I am always thinking up new and tempting things that will entice the neighbourhood kids into our yard so then I don’t have to worry at all! My latest little dream idea is a rock-climbing wall at the back of our house.

  4. Well, we’ve had to have a few “stranger danger” discussions with Josephine, because of where we live. In the community centre two blocks away, a man was just arrested for taking photos of young boys in the locker room. It was at our local Loblaw’s that a guy was caught taking upskirt photos of very young girls. At a subway station nearby two years ago, a five-year old girl’s hand was taken and there was an attempt to lead her away from her mother. I called the police on the guy who was in one of our parks last summer who appeared to be groping for a roll of lifesavers in his pocket for a really, really long time. Your area may be safe, ours is iffy.

    We’ve talked about safe places for her to go if she’s ever alone or separated from us, and about asking other mommies for help if needed at the parks on playdates. I think if your boys know a few neighbours between your house and theirs where they can go if they’re scared or harassed; if they know all the pertinent information (Jo doesn’t have our phone numbers memorized yet, but our address and names, yes. For a while, we realized since we never use our first names in conversations, she didn’t know them well!). I grew up in a wealthy suburb, and recall on two incidences when I was in fifth grade, walking along with girlfriends, a guy pulling up along side us in a car and masturbating. I still feel invaded by that, and my mom never warned me or told me what to do, so I fell for the “come look at the puppy on my lap” the first time. I’m afraid until she’s much more aware and street smart, there will be no running around with neighbourhood kids for her.

    In your case? I’d prop a ladder up on each side of the fence, and teach them to use it. If there’s no reason to walk around, why should they? Or do a few wooden stepping blocks. Make it an adventure.

    Captcha oracle: ss uncivil

  5. I would and I did, and his trip included a street to cross. A school friend lived within eyeshot of our house, if he walked through the backyard, our back-door neighbor’s yard, crossed the street and walked through one more yard. I coudl see the target deck and door, but not all the bits in between.

    I let him do it, and it was huge to him. HUGE. He was so proud and excited.

    At his age, I was running around our block, going to friend’s houses on the block. We knew the rule was “stay on the block” and it was a small town block with 7 houses all backed up against each other where everyone knew everyone else.

    I really don’t think the world has changed as much as we like to think it has because it has changed so so much in other ways. I don’t think oru kids are in any more danger in an equivalent neighborhood than we were (which is to say taht we were probalby in more danger than our parents thought, but our kids are in a lot less danger than many of us fear).

    Childhood has to be a process of increasing freedom and self-responsibility. I know parents who still don’t let their young teens around the block alone. These are children who will be legally adults in 4 or 5 years. You can’t wait until they’re adults and then hand over full responsibility without ever having prepared them beforehand.

    So yeah. Going four houses away, out of my sight — its a tiny first step along that path, but he was more than ready at 6-7.

  6. I wouldn’t. But mostly because my five-year-old is a possum in training; he has an unnatural attraction to the middle of the street, particularly when cars are driving by. And I don’t know that I would trust a seven-year-old enough to care for the younger one. But that’s my kids – your mileage may vary. You know what they’re capable of, what their normal patterns are.

    As far as the stranger thing, I think things are quite different than they used to be when we were kids. I would regularly walk to the store, a mile away, during the daytime on weekends and in the summer. My mom would often not see any of us all day. As long as we were out of the house, she was good with it.

    With all of the opportunities we have today for getting snatched or otherwise getting themselves into a bad situation, kids aren’t as safe as they used to be.

  7. The 7 year-old sure – not the 5 year-old. I don’t think the 7 year-old should be responsible for the 5 years-old. I am all for teaching to look out for one another but is the 7 year-old responsible enough to stick by that 5 year-old no matter what (wanting to stay with the big kids, 5 year-old wants to go home..etc)

  8. No way. Maybe Tristan once he turns eight. Definitely not five-year-old Simon (and I agree with Windex that the older boy should not have to be responsible for the five-year-old).

    Given the high-density (and often high traffic) of the Ottawa burbs, I would not be comfortable. You mentioned that the neighbour-behind-you-house is on a quiet cul-de-sac, which is perfect. Are you also on a quiet and low-traffic street? You can see where I’m going with this.

    I am also in the “free-range kids” camp, but we’re not in a small town anymore and we don’t know all of our neighbours anymore. There are parts of Barrhaven that are literally polluted with townhomes and even the singles are stacked right on top of each other…if the boys are going to walk a potentially mid-to-hi residential populated area, I just wouldn’t be comfortable. Sorry!

    My kids are sooooo much younger that I find this fascinating and look forward to hearing your conclusions as I know I will someday be faced with similar issues. This is just my two cents. In the end, you know your kids and you have great instincts. Do what feels right for you and your family.

  9. When my son and daughter were that age I started letting them go around the block to play with the backyard neighbours and to bike around our block, a small crescent in Stittsville. It made me nervous at first and I would do drive bys on my bike…but they were so proud to have a bit of responsibility. Now they are 7 and 9 and I am letting them bike to friends a little further away and they phone me when the get there and when they are leaving. We talk about stranger danger and I always remind them of who we know on the route if they need to stop for help along the way. It’s hard to let go but they have start with a little bit and move up as they show they can do it…

  10. I found “Protecting the Gift” by Gavin de Becker sort of helpful in tackling these issues. But I still struggle with it myself. My kids are younger, the oldest is 4, so I’m not there yet. But I might be soon. I certainly like the idea of giving my kids freedom, allowing them to explore their world.

    I don’t think the world has changed. I think that parents and our approach might have, though. And so if I’m concerned about anything it’s that my children wandering the streets would be the only ones, leaving them somehow more vulnerable. I’m not sure how logical that is, though, really.

  11. I let my eight-year-old son walk to some friends homes in our neighborhood, but I always make him carry a walkie-talkie. That way, he can reach me and, more importantly, I can check up on him anytime I want.

    Sadly, I do think things are different from when I was a child. I roamed all over my town with almost no supervision. My parents never worried that I would be snatched.

    I am trying to find a balance between letting my son have more freedom and being overprotective. It can be difficult sometimes.

  12. According to the RCMP, between 2000 and 2007 there were 327 reported cases of stranger abduction in Canada (where “stranger” includes relatives, friends and acquaintances — anyone who is not a parent of the child). And in that same seven year spread there were 407,993 reported runaway children. So it seems that Tristan and Simon are 1250 times more likely to hit the road like Tom & Huck than they are to be snatched up on their way around the block. In addition to stranger danger discussions, you might want to rehearse the obvious benefits of not building a river raft while they’re out of your sight 😉 Kidding aside, would I let Sam (now 6) head around the block unsupervised? Hell no. There are nearly four kids per province/territory per year abducted by strangers in Canada. And only 3 of those kids come home safely. What if Sam was the one kid…? I can pile him in the car and head out to the highway without thinking about collision statistics, but I can’t yet fathom letting him head around the corner on his own. It’s nutty, I know. But there it is.

  13. Ah, Trixie, I am *howling* at the “obvious benefits of not building a river raft while they’re out of your sight” line. HOWLING!

    So many interesting perspectives. Marla, you know what? If they were girls I suspect I wouldn’t allow them to do it yet, and I’d be much more wary. What does that say about me, and about our society? So very interesting.

    Trixie raises the one thing most likely to make me not let them — the big “what if” factor.

    I’m not at all convinced, though, that the world is any different. We might, as a parental generation, be more paranoid, but I truly don’t think the world itself and the neighbourhoods in which we live are inherently more dangerous.

    Then again, I don’t think I rode in a car seat when I was a baby, either, and I certainly wouldn’t dream of not having one now….

  14. Growing up, a friends house backed onto a big ditch and (ready?) a railroad track that we liked to play at. I know, right? But the tracks aside, what her dad did was removed two of the fence boards then re-attach them by hinging (is that a word??) them to the boards next to them. Not a gate by any means, but when then swung open it was wide enough for a child to get through (or an adult to squeeze through if necessary).

    I understand not wanting to alter the fence much, but I really think it’s the best option. Either the hinges or the velcro would give your boys access to the neighbours behind but still have easy access TO YOU. And should you sell or the neighbours move, just hammer those boards back in place.

  15. 7 years is old enough (always depending on the child, of course!) but 5 years I think is too young, and I agree that it is a lot of responsibility to put on a 7 year old — not just for the walk over, but the continued supervision while over there playing. I would definitely introduce myself to the mom-over-the-fence and scope out the situation. If it looks like the friendship is going to last, I think I’d arrange a ladder or stile, or take out the fence boards to make a pass-through for the summer.

    I do believe that children need to have freedom to play and explore the neighbourhood within boundaries set by their family. I believe the only way in which our neighbourhoods are more dangerous today is that fewer children are playing outdoors, and fewer parents are peeking out of their windows to keep an eye on the neighbourhood children — not that the actual threats to the children are any higher.

  16. Back in the 1970’s when I was a wee girl (of 4-8yrs of age) we played outside on our cul-du-dac and in the back forest of Pineglen. We would walk up to Karem’s (beside the dirty dollar now) and ride our bikes. My Mom now admits that there were times she worried a lot, but we would always come home. Sometimes we would be gone for hours and hours on end. I would not let J, at this point, go to the park by himself (which I can see from the upstairs bedrooms) not only for his safety from older people, but from older kids as well. I do believe it is a different world than the 1970’s and although it is a shame, it is what it is so we work with it.

  17. Oh, that’s tough. I can say that for my 4.5 yr old, no way, no how right now. He’s nowhere near ‘there’ yet. Perhaps with an older sibling, a responsible model, maybe… for very, very short periods of time. He’s still way to impulsive on his own right now.

    BeachMama – I have a greater fear of older kids, than older people, when it comes to my son. You’re the first to mention it, I’m glad I’m not totally alone!

  18. This is something that has sprung up in conversations around here recently – not in this exact context, but in the context of Julia (who is 5) playing outside in our front yard/driveway without me sitting out there with her. Julia is very trustworthy and she plays by the rules, and I have no problems with her playing out front if I am in the house and can see what she’s doing.

    Now with Oliver it’s a different story, because of his age (he’s almost 4) and because of who he is. He doesn’t play by the rules and is curious. I worry that he would be easily distracted; easily lured.

    To even consider allowing them to walk around the block, like you asked, Julia would have to be 7 and Oliver would have to be 5. I think I would, though, because our area is very close-knit and “sleepy”, but if I didn’t trust Oliver to stay with his sister and not run ahead/get lost, I wouldn’t do it.

  19. My kids are 8 and almost 10 and we’ve allowed them freedoms like this for the past couple of years. First of all they HAVE to tell me where they are going to be. And if they change locations (i.e. different kids’ backyard on the street) they are to stop in and tell me. In this case, I would start by doing the walk with them at first. Tell them they are not allowed to leave their backyard and maybe even to give a yell over (if you are in your backyard at the same time–but the first time you probably will be…) when they are on their way back. You have to allow some freedoms with them when they’re little so that they can learn to be trustworthy. If they don’t follow the rules, those freedoms will be taken away and they won’t want that. Good luck and let us know what you end up doing.

  20. I usually hate adding to the fear factor parenting thing but since I am in your neighbourhood Dani I thought you should know that there was an attempted abduction on Crestway Drive of a 7 or 8 year-old girl..I have no details other than an e-mail form the parent council of the school and a reminder of the buddy system from the school…

  21. I let our 7 year old walk to her friends’ house unsupervised and it really makes her proud. She has to walk down a small path to get there. The friends’ mother allows the same of her daughter, we just call each other to let each other know kids have arrived safe and sound. If the 4 year old is tagging along, I follow from safe distance.
    The thing that worries me are the wing-nut drivers in hood – mostly teenage boys who can’t seem to drive appropriately for a quiet street. I get so scared my girls will get hit by one of them.
    It amazes me that in my youth my parents sent me out in the morning, and expected me back at dinner-time. No questions asked. It was awesome.

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