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Maybe you don’t allow your tween to walk to the corner store or bike to a friend’s house alone. But letting kids roam a little freer, with a bit less supervision, is not only fun for them—it helps make them strong in unique and important ways.
The stars have started to pop through the sky on a warm evening in Minneapolis, and almost everyone on our residential street has either gone inside or retreated to the mosquito-free comfort of their screened-in porches. That is, everyone except my kids, Peter, 12, Henrik, 10, and Luisa, 7, who are dashing down the sidewalks with flashlights. Or at least that’s what I imagine they’re doing. Because I’m not with them, I can’t say for certain if they are spraying water into a mud pit, or building a fort, or even pounding each other with water balloons.
That my children are outside by themselves isn’t some isolated kids-gone-rogue event. My family operates on a sliding scale of independence pegged to each child’s confidence and common sense. As long as Peter can find a friend to tag along, he’s allowed to explore the lakeshore a few blocks away or bike to the convenience store. Henrik can wander anywhere on our block and cross the two streets that don’t have a lot of traffic. Luisa walks to her friend’s house two doors down. All three get home from the bus stop together without me there to meet them. My husband, Walter, and I moved here precisely because it is safe enough for them to enjoy these solo forays, which we believe are good for them.
We’re in a tiny minority, though. Today most kids’ lives are monitored 24/7, and independent wanderings exist only in the pages of Little House on the Prairie. Nearly a third of San Francisco Bay Area parents cite safety as the reason they drive their 10- to 14-year-old children to school rather than let them walk or bike unsupervised, according to one survey. When a Mississippi 10-year-old was seen making his way alone to soccer practice a few years back, anxious moms called 911. Other hallmarks of relaxed childhood are also disappearing. Paper routes? Many news companies demand that you be at least 18.