Editor’s note: This story deals with the practice of giving children the freedom to go out on their own. In some places, parents who allow young children to run errands or go places without adult supervision may be breaking local laws. Parents interested in this topic should make sure they familiarize themselves with the law and rules in their community.
This month, we asked NPR readers to share personal examples of how they taught their kids to run errands on their own. Why did they decide to do it? What were the challenges? Has the community supported you?
Nearly 100 people sent us their answers by e-mail. The caption linked to NPR correspondent Michaeleen Doucleff’s April 20 story, “4-year-old can run errands alone…and not just on reality TV.” Doucleff talks to child development experts about the risks and benefits of allowing very young children to be highly independent – the concept behind a popular Japanese TV show called Old enough! now streaming on Netflix.
A clear theme: it is not so easy to give children the freedom to do simple tasks. In fact, some parents object to this practice. Here is a sample of their responses. Submissions have been edited for length and clarity.
“She goes to the bakery alone”
As an American living in the Netherlands, my 8-year-old daughter was raised in a society that not only expects children to run errands, but sees it as a crucial step in their growth and development. socialization.
We started to build her independence around the age of four with small household chores: setting the table, putting away the dishes, preparing her own lunch for school. She has made her way from doing things on her own inside the house to doing them in the neighborhood: picking up trash in the area with a waste picker, planting flowers in our community garden. Now 8 years old, she goes alone to the bakery while I wait in line at the farmers’ market, bikes to school and watches the younger children as they play outside after school.
At first it was hard to believe that she would be fine without any supervision. I often considered buying him a watch that tracked his position. But I saw that the more experience she gained in dealing with the problems she encountered, the safer she became. For example, when she fell off her bike and scraped her knees, she found the nearest place to rest and lock her bike before walking home. She learns to assess the risks and find solutions in each scenario.
Jessica Smith-Salzinger, Groningen, Netherlands
‘We live in the ‘hood and my kid is brown’
I like the idea of sending my child to our neighborhood carniceria to get tortillas, hominy or whatever we need to cook dinner. But we live in the neighborhood and my child is brown. I fear he will run into local gangs or the police will arrest him on the street because he looks suspicious. He is a tall 11-year-old dark-haired boy with long brown hair.
Many areas lack sidewalks and crosswalks and have more highways and industrial areas, posing walking and safety risks. Convenience stores and liquor stores are often the closest places to walk.
When reporting a practice that may be beneficial, consider the barriers faced by less privileged people.
Xochitl Coronado-Vargas, Tucson, Arizona.
Inspired to send her son on an errand
When I was 3 or 4 years old, my grandmother sent me to buy her soy sauce and cigarettes. It was in China. Both of my parents had moved to the United States by then and I was living with my extended family. I have an explicit memory of this incident. I repeated to myself “soy sauce and a pack of cigarettes” all the way to the corner stand. I couldn’t count the money yet, so I just handed the vendor, who knew I was a neighborhood kid, the bill my grandma gave me – then I got the change he had rendered and I hoped it was correct. I brought the change, the soy sauce and the pack of cigarettes to my grandmother, who didn’t look like she had moved a muscle from her place in the bed. She was happy and laughed.
The store couldn’t be more than a few blocks away, but my younger self had an odyssey, a hero quest complete with magic items, tasks, and characters encountered (really only one). It’s one of my earliest memories, and I have no doubt it’s because of how the freedom and responsibility suddenly thrust upon me was challenging for my developing brain.
Your article reminded me of that. Tomorrow I will send my 3 year old, soon to be 4 year old son to the end of our block in a very suburban and very residential area to pick up the mail.
Wish us luck.
Update: He couldn’t put the key in the lock, so I had to help him. Then he struggled to carry all the mail on his own and spilled letters right and left. So I helped him with that too. Also, he left the mailbox unlocked with the key still in it because he had his little hands full. All in all, I probably did 60% of the task.
But it was a valuable learning experience… for me. I now know what skills he needs to work on (negotiate the key), where he needs advice (how to collect and store the mail – I’ll give him a bag to use next time) and what we can plan ahead to develop their confidence. The article was right: children must have all the skills necessary for the task before they can be released.
James Mo, Irvine, CA.
“Terrified” at the thought
I live in an apartment complex – and just the thought of all the things that could go wrong if I leave my 7-year-old son home alone – for example, while I go to the laundry room – terrifies me. I’m afraid he’s hurting himself, playing with something he’s not supposed to do. The mere thought of him not being in my presence causes me a great deal of anxiety.
Melissa Astudillo, Riverside, CA.
“He wasn’t lost”
I was at the grocery store with my 9 year old son. I was shopping for meals on the weekend and had quite a long list. He was bored and asked if he could go see the Matchbox cars that are often sold at this grocery store. I told him to go alone and get them.
He wandered around the store. A few minutes later, I heard over the store’s intercom: “Lisa Shen, please come to the front desk? Lisa Shen, if you are in the store, please come to the reception. reception.”
An older white woman spotted my son, determined he was lost and looking for his mother, and took him to the front desk for the manager to contact me in the store. I was quite upset. As I walked up to reception to collect my son, I confronted the woman who I believe was expecting me to emotionally hug my child and thank her profusely for helping me. Instead, I turned to her and said, “He wasn’t lost, he was looking for Matchbox cars. He’s 9 and a half. How is he supposed to learn independence if he doesn’t can’t do her shopping on her own?”
She replied, “He looked like he was looking for his mother.” I said, “thank you for your concern, but he was fine.” Afterwards, when I asked my son about it, he said he also told the woman that he was not lost or looking for his mother.
I am convinced that at 9 years old, my son should be able to navigate the grocery store on his own and could easily locate me if he wanted to.
Lisa Shen, Cambridge, Mass.
“Someone called me CPS”
I live in Wisconsin. Before COVID expanded grocery delivery options, I would sometimes send my daughter, who was in 5th grade at the time, alone to the nearest grocery store. It’s half a mile away and she only had to cross the street in front of the apartment we live in. The rest of the walk was on sidewalk.
Someone called CPS [Child Protective Services] on me to say that I “let” her roam the neighborhood alone. the [person who called] tried to make it look like my daughter was doing this because I wasn’t home or able to take care of her.
I grew up in Miami, Florida. I went to the store alone before 5th grade. I even rode my bike home from primary school. Luckily CPS was understanding after speaking with us, but it was scary that someone was calling!
Samantha Wildt, Green Bay, Wis.
“We have developed a whiteboard grid”
I currently live in a large metropolitan suburb where there are no sidewalks or corner markets. The children do not walk to school, even though the primary school is only two blocks away. Nobody plays outside. I’ve never seen a kid walk a dog or mow his neighbor’s lawn.
I was a single mother in the late 1980s. We lived in a trailer park. My children were key children from an early age.
In order to build a relationship of trust and give me peace of mind [about what my children were doing at home] while I was at work, the boys and I devised a schedule of responsibilities that we felt we could manage. We developed a whiteboard chart outlining what was expected of them when they came home from school: sorting and doing the laundry, running the vacuum cleaner, making the beds, cleaning the aquarium and even preparing the having dinner. As each task was completed, they checked it off on the whiteboard. We didn’t have video games, cell phones, or tablets back then, so television (no cable) was their reward once their chores and homework were done. Interestingly, they continue to implement whiteboard practice into their adult lives today.
My now adult children often remark that even though we faced significant struggles, those years were precious times.
Eliza Giufre, Metropolitan of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
They get their own slushies at Circle K
We live in a rural area so my kids – ages 6, 8 and 11 – can’t walk anywhere. So instead, I drive to the store and send them alone. Their favorite errand is getting slushies at the local Circle K as an after school treat on Fridays. I give them my credit card and send them while I wait in the van.
Kimberly Fridy, Montevallo, Ala.
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