Teaching Kids How to be Independent and Safe

In our overly-fearful society, we have come to encounter the problem of “helicopter” parents.  These are the parents that closely guard their children from the outside world, following them everywhere, refusing to relinquish any reign over them for fear that something bad will happen.  It’s not too surprising given the stories we hear on the news these days, the judgement of everyone when they see you doing anything they wouldn’t with children, and just our own parental instincts to try and keep our children as safe as possible.

The question is: How can our children learn independence if they are never given the opportunity?  Are we doing our children a disservice by keeping them so close?  Obviously there’s a medium-ground in which children can be independent (age-appropriately) and safe, but how do we get there?  For those parents looking to loosen the reigns a little, summer is the perfect time to focus on teaching our kids how to keep themselves safe in the situations they should be able to handle.

Step One: Geography Lessons

For the area you are comfortable with your child roaming on his/her own, you have to make sure your child knows the geography well enough to be able to roam it without getting lost and panicked.  For a younger child it may simply be a few door down (where you can still watch from the porch but your child gets a sense of independence and capability) whereas for your older children it may be a ten-block radius or larger.  One of the easiest ways to help your child learn the geography is to map it him/herself and with the free days in summer, there’s ample time to do that.  You can go with your child to create the map, but physically being there and mapping it can be one of the best ways to retain the information for a child.  Also, if the map is in a small book, your child can have it with him/her wherever s/he goes.

Step Two: Discriminating Between Strangers

Just because a child generally knows where s/he is going does not mean s/he won’t get lost ever, and getting lost is the thing most parents fear; what if our child asks the wrong person for directions?  What if the absolute worst happens?  This is where teaching your child how to safely ask directions is key.  In larger cities and urban areas, one of the things often lost is the sense of “stranger danger” that many of us have innately.  There are just so many strangers that we learn to override our sense of fear with some individuals and in turn learn to accept everyone.  It enables society to function but it’s not very helpful when it comes to our children asking for help.  Teaching children about “tricky people” instead of strangers is far more appropriate and can serve our kids better in the long-run.  This includes knowing who to go to (e.g., police in a station or car, firefighters, restaurant servers in a busy restaurant, a mom with kids) when you need to ask for help.

Step Three: Practice

I started walking to school by myself in Grade Two.  I was six and I thought it was wonderful.  I lived about a km from my school in urban Toronto and most of my friends go to school themselves.  I remember the feeling of being “older” and more independent when I started walking to school myself, but what I didn’t know until years later was that my mom was far more careful than I would have thought.  A neighbour also walked her child to the same school and so each morning (at least for the first few months) on my way out, my mom would call her and they would leave behind me.  I was being watched by a neighbour but without my knowing it.  This kind of surreptitious watching is exactly what I plan to do with my child.  Letting our kids practice is critical to them feeling safe and secure in what they do and at some point they will need to practice “without you” because they need to practice without their safety net, but it doesn’t mean you can’t find ways to watch them as they practice.  After a period of practice, you’ll all feel more secure in your child’s growing independence.

By Tracy Cassels

July 21, 2014