As a three-year old child in the mid-1970s, I was allowed to play outside on our street by myself. It was taught that I should "never talk to strangers" and "never go with strangers". Only one year later, I was granted even more freedom, and was allowed to roam freely throughout our entire neighbourhood -- as long as my mom knew where I was, and who I was with. The same rules applied, plus a few extras: no crossing the main street, and I had to come in for dinner. How did I know when it was time to come in? Once the street lights turned on, of course! It seemed so simple and natural.
Similarly, in 1928 Toronto my grandmother roamed the streets at two-years old, and was allowed to take a city bus alone at the age of three. What I describe of both our childhoods was what was common in the day. The fear of abduction and harm to a child was just not top of mind. The worry of "never taking candy from a stranger" was more the fear of encountering an adult male who wanted to engage in inappropriate touching; this fear has now shifted to homicide.
Now with the warmer weather here, I feel confused by how much freedom to grant my five young children (ages five- to ten-years old). We definitely don't live in the same carefree society of yesteryear, in which front doors were only locked overnight -- and parents were more concerned of kids being hit by a car or drowning, then abduction.
In our neighbourhood, a man driving a car with a taped over licence plate approached a grade eight boy -- and asked him if he wished to perform an indecent act on this same man. Another grade seven boy was approached by a different man in this same neighbourhood, and tried to lure the boy to his car with the promise of showing him a sports jersey. There was yet a different man in our neighbourhood, forcefully knocking down girls and women, and inappropriately touching the victims. Of course the police were called in all scenarios, but as a parent I am horrified and sickened. The danger is faced by both our daughters and sons.
This week some local children knocked at our door as a group, and asked if my kids wanted to join in a game of "Manhunt" (kind of like Hide-and-Go-Seek). The hiding area was to be the entire street, and the object of the game was to hide from and not get caught by the one who was "it". I agreed to let my kids go: on condition that I accompanied them during the game. I wanted to see if they would stick together as a team, and if this would be a "safe" game. Naturally, the group of eight boys did not stick together, and hid in separate hiding places. Some boys also decided to go home during the game, thus leaving the other boys alone and unaware. The game seemed harmless enough, but I did not like the boys hiding by themselves across such a large playing area... and being left alone as others inevitably went home.
This same week, my eldest son's friends also showed up at our home and asked him to join their "biking gang". No, they weren't talking Harley Davidsons; just bike riding around the neighbourhood. My son desperately wanted to join, but I wasn't ready to let him go without an adult yet. I just didn't think he pays enough attention to the traffic around him and doesn't properly obey the rules of the road. I asked myself if my son were to get better with obeying the traffic, would I still keep him from going? He so desperately wants to bike independently with his friends, but can I let my fears stand in the way of his freedom? All of his friends are doing it, but I don't want him to be "the one" -- the predator bait.
Now, back to the original question: Is it safe for our kids to play outside? If yes, what is the right age for kids to roam freely -- and how often should they check in? Also, do you/would you let your children roam freely by themselves, or must they be accompanied by friends? Is the location important at all (i.e. playground, park, etc.)? Lastly, does gender factor into the equation... and maturity? Please weigh in in the comments below!
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