Last summer we were hanging out at the park when this four or five year old kid came up out of nowhere, shirtless, shoeless and ready to play. He asked me some questions, I answered and he went off to play with Olivia and the couple of boys we were there with.
Wondering whether his parent was going to come wandering behind him, as I often do behind the kids as they run up the path to the park shouting to their friends, I glanced at the path coming into the park. No parent. Caught a bit off guard, a friend and I exchanged sideways glances and caught ourselves wondering aloud whether he was there alone.
He was engaging and talkative, you could tell that he was young, and willing to talk, ask questions and be instant friends. I asked him if he lived close by and he gestured down to the end of the block on the other side of the park. He went on to play with Olivia and her friends, joking and playing for about forty-five minutes, until he left, knowing where he lived, where he was going, seeming fine.
His parents didn’t show up. He came alone. And me? I judged the crap out of parents that would let their kid come to the park, without shoes, alone. I judged for a good hour, until I started to think about it more.
When did we stop raising our kids to let them know it was okay to explore? to go to the park alone? to play in the woods? There’s an urban forest in our neighborhood, about a seven minute walk, or four minute bike ride. When I was a child, we had the same type of forest in the community that I was living in. We spent hours in this forest through the summer, building forts and playing with sticks, bringing saws along with some rope to make epic forts that would last through the entire season. Would I allow Olivia to roam the urban forest alone in third grade, as we did? Maybe. I’m honestly not sure.
Would I let her go to the park at the age of five, alone? Probably not. Could she handle it? Probably. We’ve only gone as far as allowing her to cross the road alone to fetch the mail, and I’m always watching from the Porch in case she suddenly forgets to look for cars before crossing the road.
Would I let her go to the park with a friend? Sure. How old does that friend have to be? She’s got a few 8 year old friends she plays with regularly, would I let them go to the park together, without parents. Yes.
Does my kid play in the front yard, alone? Yes. Has she done this (rode her bike/scooter to the yellow hydrant since she was four)? Yes.
My judgement was checked when I realized that I was trying to create this same freedom to explore.
Kids in the same situation, a six year old and an older child, have been one of the many cases where parents have been reported to the police, calling 911 to report children unattended, at the park, walking home, or in other situations.
We live in a community with a violent crime rate of nearly zero. If I thought my child capable, I may be tempted to let them go to the park alone. I value independence and teach my child to cross the road and think objectively. I would let her go to the park, without parents, and an older friend.
The next time we go to the “Forest” I am going to hold back. I am going to let them run on the paths out of my sight and ensure that they know they’re not to leave. I’m going to make sure they’re within shouting distance. I’ll let her bike ahead, and consider letting her bike down the length of our block, cross the road and ride her bike up the other side. And I definitely won’t be calling 911 for a parent that’s encouraging freedom and allowing their child to come to the park – but I will offer him some sunscreen, because that’s the parent-like thing to do.