When Kids Go Out Alone

Child with dog

I usually keep my posts fairy light and amusing (they are fairly light and amusing, right?!), but today I want to tackle a more serious issue. The issue of kids traveling around without adults.

Recently, my 10 year old son took his first bus trip without an adult. It was just a 20 minute trip, he was with a friend, and they were put on the bus at one end, and met off the bus at the other end, so it was all very controlled, but I still felt a bit anxious. What if the bus broke down on route? What if a stranger tried to lure them off at an earlier stop? Over the last few months, he has been going out and about in our village with friends and no adults, and I still feel a bit anxious about that, but I allow it because I do believe it’s necessary for kids to be allowed some freedom in order to develop independence and general survival skills. When I was his age I was already confidently zipping around London on buses and underground trains on my own. People say that it was safer back then, but I’m not sure whether it actually was, or if it’s just that we are more aware of the risks these days. One thing is for sure, kids were much more streetwise back in the 70s and 80s when I was growing up. They were out there without adults and they learned to be resourceful and figure things out if something went wrong.

When I was five, my Mum moved to France and my Dad stayed in England. From the age of five, I started regularly traveling between England and France on my own. Of course I wasn’t just left to my own devices, I was put in the care of the airline staff and handed over from parent to parent. Most of the time it went smoothly, but sometimes it didn’t. There was one occasion when I was six, I had to take two flights, changing at a Paris airport. Something went wrong at the changeover airport and I was left wandering around the airport on my own. I remember feeling quite scared and alone, trying to figure out where I should go for my connecting flight. Eventually I approached a member of staff at one of the desks and they sorted me out.

There was another occasion when I was seven. Rather than fly, I was to travel from England to France by ferry. I was put in the care of the coach driver who would look after me on and off the ferry and get me back on the coach in France, to travel across country some way. All was fine on the ferry and getting on to the coach, but then the coach broke down. We were apparently told we would have to find our own way of making the rest of the journey, as the coach driver had to stay with the coach. A couple of adults took it upon themselves to take me the rest of the way, and so they took me to a train station and we caught a train. This was mid 70s, so it was pre-mobile phones. Waiting at the coach station, my Mum was told that the coach had broken down and that passengers were having to make their own arrangements for the rest of the journey, but nobody was able to tell her anything about me. All she could do was wait at the coach station, and hope that I eventually turned up, which I did. As a parent, that just makes me feel sick imagining what she must have gone through waiting there!

I think it’s a really tricky balance for us parents, protecting our kids, but not over-protecting them so much that they never learn how to manage on their own. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to what age children should be allowed out on their own, each child is different, and parents have to make decisions based on their own children’s maturity, and other factors such the area in which they live.

I’m interested in any thoughts, from parents or non-parents? Or if you don’t like me tackling serious subjects on my blog, then lighten it up yourself and tell me a joke, and make it a good’un.

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63 responses to “When Kids Go Out Alone

  1. A horse walks into a bar and the bartender says, “Why the long face?”
    Sorry, that’s all I’ve got. I had to take my sweater off as I was reading this because I was getting so hot and nervous! Ach! How scary for little you and for your mom. And being a little GIRL no less. I would be less worried for your son, but still worried. I have no answers. I have all girls and they will not leave my sight!

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    • Actually I do like that horse joke, I’ve heard it before, but I’d forgotten it, so you gave me a smile!

      Yes, my daughter was older than him when I first let her out alone, partly I think it’s a girl/boy thing, but I think we’re also usually more cautious with the first child. Now that she’s a teenager, I have a harder job keeping track of her, it’s scary!

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  2. I shudder to think of the things my parent let me do when I was 6 or 7 that I would NEVER let my kids do . . . like riding my bike miles on a busy road. Taking a 4 hour bus ride alone to visit my sister in college. Riding the city bus downtown to my weekly piano lesson. Yikes! I guess it was a different time, but what the heck were they thinking!?

    You brave girl doing all that traveling alone.

    I’m not a helicopter mom and I gave the kids freedoms when I knew they were ready to handle it. But they had to prove they could handle them in baby steps.

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    • Hey Robin! Good to see you around these parts again!

      Yes, when I was visiting my Mum in France, aged 5, 6, 7, I was off out all over on my bike with the local kids, gone for hours we were!

      You’re right about allowing them things a bit at a time, and seeing how they handle it, that’s what I’ve tended to do as well.

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  3. It’s the scariest thing to let our children go. Mine grew up in rural Wales, and by time they were 7, I let them go on their bikes to their Grans, 5 minutes away. They always rang me when they got there. I’d sit by the phone worrying. Times are different now as you say. Here’s a joke. A man walked into a bar with a budgie on his shoulder. The bar man said, ‘he’s a pretty boy’ the budgie answered, ‘no he’s not my type, but he’s yours if you want him. (groan, I know it’s bad, I made it up)

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  4. Wow. We talk about this a lot… other parents and I. I don’t think things were any safer when I was a kid, and my parents were pretty overprotective… and yet, they still let me do things I have a hard time imagining letting my kids do. I try to let them do small things, which lead to bigger things, just like you’re describing. But man… so tough! When they get new, extended boundaries, they often want more freedom, even. And sometimes, I have to say no (busy street, more stressful time of day, too much independence for the age…). Ergh. That’s why I try never to judge other parents for what they let their kids do or not do. It’s a balancing act.

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    • Me too about not judging other parents either, on being over or under protective, I mean sometimes I might start to judge them, but then I stop myself because I remember that I’m not the governing authority on these things! There is no right or wrong way for everybody, sometimes as parents we all might make what turns out to be the wrong decision, but at the time we feel we’re doing the right thing.

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  5. This certainly isn’t a one-size-fits-all issue. The maturity level of the child and his/her background situation, the nature and necessity of the travel, the destination, and so many other factors come into play. When I was a child, you could put a kid on a bus and feel pretty confident that all would be well. I wouldn’t dare do anything other than what my mom told me to do. It’snot that bad things didn’t happen to kids back then, it just wasn’t so prevalent (or maybe we weren’t so aware unless it was a famous kidnapping). I don’t know.

    I don’t think that’s true today because we live in a different world and kids are different, too. More independent, shall I say? I know some twenty year old who shouldn’t go anywhere without adult supervision, so this issue can get muddy real fast!

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  6. That’s an interesting point you bring up about the societal change – or not – from when we were children, to now. I had a fair amount of freedom as a child, myself…but I grew up in a suburban town, and I was the youngest of two (four, if you count my cousins, who lived close by and were basically surrogate big sisters to me, as well).

    Parents are much more aware, these days, I think. There are so many horror stories about predators and the like, though, that we’ve become hyper-aware of how dangerous the world can be. And that’s can be, not necessarily is, depending on our native environment. I know someone who is so over-protective of her children, they can barely function without her, and they’re almost in middle school! That’s not good, for the parent or the kid.

    I think it’s important, as you say, Vanessa, to allow our children to have freedom, to develop a sense of autonomy and independence. Working at a university, I see helicopter parents a lot, and they definitely don’t help establish a young person as an adult.

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    • I work at a university too, but not directly with the students there, so I’m not so aware of how they are in that way.

      I’m quite glad that my children seem to be developing those independence skills. I’m pretty sure if I left them alone for a week they would manage, they can cook, they can do laundry, they can manage money and they know where they have to go each day and how to get there and back – not that I would leave them for a week of course! I wouldn’t leave them even for one night yet, but at least I feel they have the skills to deal with things if they needed to.

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  7. Wow, your mum must have been going mental. Not being a mum myself, I’m not sure how I would feel. One thing I notice here in Oxford are the amount of kids walking to and from school without adults. Some of them are pretty young, but often they can be quite intimidating with their almost adult swaggers and ‘hate the world’ expressions, so I rarely stop to think whether they will be okay. The other kids are usually coming out of the little corner shops, stuffing themselves with sweets and crisps without their parents to remind them about dinner. The sad thing about this world though, is that if you take two children and put them both on a bus on their own, one will make it home and one won’t, but there is nothing to differentiate the situation other than rotten luck. This makes it hard to have a set rule about such things.
    Phew – enough about seriousness already.
    (Great post!)

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    • Yes, I think when you get groups of older kids together, it can feel like it is those around them who are more at risk than the kids!

      It’s like you say, it’s often luck, we can try and prepare our kids for everything we can think of, but often when something goes wrong it’s something we’d never considered. That’s why I think it’s good to let them figure things out for themselves sometimes without always rushing to help them or tell them what to do. That’s what survival skills are all about really, the ability to figure things out when they happen, not necessarily the individual knowledge of what to do for each specific thing!

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  8. Yeah, me too. I grew up mostly unsupervised in our neighborhood. I guess I was 11 or 12 when I started taking buses and trains. It really was safer back then. It’s terribly sad that our society has largely lost one of its greatest freedoms: Safety. Freedom from fear. It’s sad. My kids grew up in LA and there was always worrying about their safety. I still worry.
    To continue. (Sorry) What is also maddening is the culture of violence and cruelty that is marketed daily to children. On TV, Video games, this internet. Terror, suspense, shocking, frightening things of all sorts are on parade daily. And then the streets are unsafe, and people get used to it……..

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    • A lot of it definitely depends on where you live. Of course things can happen anywhere, but some places are more prone to things happening than others!

      I think you’re right about the culture of violence etc too. I’m truly shocked when I see some of the levels of violence on video games. And on films. It normalises acts of violence which is scary. When people stop being shocked by extreme violence then there’s a problem.

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  9. At least where I grew up, it really was safer than today. We learned about “stranger danger” in school, but I can only remember one incident around 3rd grade when someone tried to get one of the girls into his car. Still, my mother was very protective—not even wanting me riding my bike on a busy street when I was in high school.

    It really does depend on so many factors, and parents have to figure out what is right for their family. And what’s right for one child might not work for his sibling.

    Sorry, no jokes are coming to mind!

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    • Obviously I can’t speak for the area you grew up in, but in general I’m still not convinced about whether it was safer back then. It depends what we mean by safer of course. I’m sure there was as much, if not more, child abuse years ago, but it wasn’t spoken about, people were less likely to report it, so it wasn’t recorded. But then things like street gang crimes are presumably higher now. I studied criminology at university a few years ago, and they taught us that these days, fear of crime is hugely disproportionate to the chance of it actually happening – we’re so much more aware these days, not only about the general risks, but also the actual incidents that get widely reported.

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  10. Finding that balance between fostering independence and protecting our kids from the spoils of this world is a challenge. I think the looseness of the reins depends on both the child’s abilities and temperament as well as the parent’s comfort level. And I’ve learned that the worrying doesn’t end just because the kids get older. It just gets different.

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    • I know, as with every other aspect of parenting, we always think ‘It will be so much easier once…’ and then we find that when one challenge passes another pops up! People still worry about their kids even when they’ve grown up and moved out don’t they – it’s a lifelong commitment to worry!

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  11. Pythagoras walks into a bar muttering, ‘If a right-angled triangle has a short side, X, a long side, Y, and hypotenuse, Z, then the square of Z must be equal to the sum of the square of X and the square of, erm… uh…’

    The barman says, ‘Y, the long face?’

    Maybe I’m not the only one but I felt a bit heartbroken at the thought of a five year old you walking around an airport on your own. Just seemed kind of sad.

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    • Ooh, look who it is!

      That’s quite a good joke, off the back of ParentingIsFunny’s joke!

      Thank you for feeling sad at the thought of little me wondering around the airport lost and alone! I think you are indeed the only one though…

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  12. Being a teacher, it’s amazing how we have over -protected our kids….granted there are bad people out there….but the result of our constant worry is we have kids who can’t do anything on their own. Life is full of risks….we have to take them to become who we are suppose to be…..

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  13. I think you’re right that kids need to learn how to be independent, but I could only part with my son in a controlled environment. My son traveled all over the US country, and Canada with the All American Boys Chorus from 11 to 13 years old. I wasn’t with him, and he became very independent during these years, but it was still pretty controlled. Thank goodness for cell phones, but kids still need to be very mature to handle this. Sometimes I think parents allow their kids to go anywhere now and think that they’re safe based on the fact that they have a cell phone. That’s a very misleading assumption. Thanks for your post.

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    • Thank you. It’s a constant wrestle isn’t it, wanting them to become independent, but still keeping some control. And you’re right about possibly getting a false sense of security with the cell phones – they’re a security feature (like car air-bags!), but not a substitute for making proper judgments about the risks!

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  14. The overwhelming responses to your post along the lines of don’t let kids out of your sight (sorry for the lack of subtlety) completely threw me. I am convinced kids have more fun if they have a bit less supervision, and I know this from my own experience as a child. I’m now 48. The mums and dads who are bringing up their kids now, might remember a bit of freedom (or the start of learning about being responsible as they travel as you outline in your post) and you’d think they’d try to replicate that. Yes traffic is a hideous problem for us all, safety wise. That inspires me to (1) drive less, and to drive slower (especially on rural roads), see my book The Estate We’re In for a bit more about who’s driving car culture… It also inspires me – (2) as I know I’m safe around children – to make the effort to keep an eye out for kids. For example: to say hello, to not be frightened of stopping one from running into the road, or whatever circumstance comes up. We are all so much more as a society if we can be willing to keep an eye out for everyone’s child, rather than just our own kids & their special friends. Nicola http://homemadekids.wordpress.com (and boy am I jealous – in a good way – of your amazing amount of comment on this post, well done!!)

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    • Thanks Nicola. Yes, as I mentioned, I had a lot of freedom as a child, and whilst my children have less freedom than I do, I definitely try and give them as much as I can, without exposing them to unnecessary risks. But I’m sure there are some areas where some parents might feel I am over-protective, and some under, we all have to find what works for us and our family circumstances.

      One of the unfortunate consequences of greater awareness of child abuse etc these days is that adults are often afraid to interact with kids, like you say, stepping in to help another child sometimes is important, and yet people are afraid to.

      I don’t want to make you more jealous, but if you look back on my recent posts you’ll see that I always get this amout of comments on my posts these days, often more! I invest quite a lot of time in reading and commenting on other blogs, so gradually I’ve built up the amount of comments I get on mine. Speaking of which, I haven’t commented on your one about saving money yet! I did read it, but didn’t have time to comment at the time, but I will soon 🙂

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  15. I think diversity is important in a blog, so I welcome the lighthearted and the more serious issues, that’s what life’s all about. I was wrapped in cotton wool as a child. Thankfully not literally. My mum remained over protective even when I was in my early twenties. Now she looks at me as if I’m a total idiot any time I ask if I can do something/use/eat something… she tells me I’m an adult. I don’t know when the turn around came.

    Anxiety is totally understandable as a parent. I commend you for braving this out and letting your son gain more independence and you’re doing it in such a great way. The France story is awful. It’s amazing your mum didn’t lose it! You’re right, there’s been a change in people’s attitudes. I think you’re right, people are more aware of the risks now, but wouldn’t you agree that people are often less willing to help others? I think we live in a culture of fear – not just about the potential dangers to our kids’ and to our own safety but also of public perception. People are worried to help in case they get in trouble!

    I think that the many (and lengthy, clearly well thought out) comments on your post should indicate that your readers always engage with what you have to say, Ms Chapman. 🙂

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    • Yes, Nicola (homemadekids) above also commented about people not wanting to help others for fear, it’s true. It’s even harder for men isn’t it, if a man sees a small child alone and thinks they might be lost, it must be scary for him to approach the child because of how it might look. That’s one of the very sad consequences of having greater awareness of these issues.

      Yes, some mothers never stop mothering, however old their kids are, and some kids never stop expecting to be mothered, even when they’re in their thirties (I say ‘mothered’ because I’m pretty sure it’s more a mothering trait than a fathering one!).

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      • I think you’re right, it is more a mothering thing than a fathering… I realise that’s a generalisation. I think it’s terrible that people feel wary about helping out in case it’s misconstrued. But that’s how it is. You’ve raised some really important issues. 🙂

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  16. My little guy is six, so he hasn’t had too many opportunities to fend for himself. I vow to not be One of Those Overprotective Parents, but I admit I’m not looking forward to the big day I send him out to travel on his own.

    I think this is a fine post, by the way, even if it is more serious than usual. That said, I do believe you still owe me a post about any animal that isn’t a seagull.

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    • The first time they do anything without you is always the scariest, and once that has gone by, and everything was ok, they it’s easier the next time. Even with controlled things, the first time they go off on a school day trip somewhere, the first time they sleepover at a friends house, the first time you let them walk alone a few doors down to a neighbour’s house. The firsts are hard!

      And you’re right, I do still owe you an animal post! I must do that. It probably won’t be in November because I need to get a bit creative on that one, and as I’m currently doing NaNoWriMo, that’s pretty much taking all my creativity at the moment. But you never know, we’ll see!

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  17. Hi Vanessa. Great post! As a father-to-be (five months left!), I’m dreading messing something up either in letting my child be exposed to risky situations or in keeping him or her too close and not allowing him or her to develop freely.

    In my work, I get involved a lot with the police (no, I don’t rob banks!), mainly in the field of missing people. I’ve been to numerous conferences in the last few years that discuss statistics and strategy around missing and vulnerable children and adults and some of the stories I’ve heard, both from police and charity representatives have been really horrific.

    From what I’ve seen, and with the work I’m involved in, the UK has some of the best and most dedicated people in the world to help protect vulnerable children, both in the police and in charities.

    I hope I never have to use them myself, but it’s kind-of reassuring to know that the police are there to help and that charities such as Missing People (http://missingpeople.org.uk/) offer ongoing support to the families of missing people as well. In the case of your mother, waiting at the coach station, you can imagine that she could have been going through much more severe emotional turmoil than even you were at the time!

    I’m afraid I don’t know any good jokes, but this might help: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YeMnPyusuBE

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    • Ooh! Congrats on the impending fatherhood! Having been involved in missing persons type work will probably make you more worried about the risks I would imagine. Sometimes a certain amount of ignorance is bliss!

      I remember the train journey I had while my Mum was waiting at the coach station. Looking back, they were definitely very young adults, possibly university students, or young backpackers. My Dad had stocked my bag with loads of snacks – crisps and penguin bars and suchlike, and those people who were looking after me kept tricking me into giving them some by doing things like pretending they had to test them to make sure they were safe for me to eat! So I was much more concerned about them eating my snacks than anything else!

      Ahh, good old Monty Python! Haha 🙂

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  18. Vanessa, I have missed you. I apologize, but I’ve been consumed for the past month with the U.S. Presidential election which fortunately ended up the right way as far as I’m concerned.
    Now then, I will be your non-parent commenter. I never had children, which is a long story, and I read many, though not all of the comments. First I would say that the world has indeed changed, and it isn’t as safe as it was when you were flying between England and France as a child. That said, you still have to let children learn to negotiate this new world on their own, to an extent. The alternative is ending up with a dependent, resentful, mewling 30-year old child. You want them to have a life and happiness. And our reality is not the same as their reality…however safe it was “back then”, children now grow up with their own awareness of the present reality.
    I’m glad I never had children now, because I realize it would cause me great anguish. When is the right time to let go? Sooner or later? It really is a fine line, and I don’t know that anyone ever gets it perfectly right.

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    • No need to apologise! I haven’t commented on any of your posts lately, although I have read them, when I’m very busy, I still try and read everyone’s posts, I just don’t comment as much!

      I’m still not totally convinced that it was safer back then, I think the nature of crimes have changed, and our awareness and fear levels definitely have. I don’t know all the facts though, it’s just my perception, and through things I learned when I was studying criminology a few years ago. If you look at the crime stats, off the top of my head, I think I’m right in saying that violent crime for instance is at around the same levels now as it was in the 70s. Also, child abductions aren’t any higher now than when I was a child (I believe!). This is making me want to research all this more.

      But knowing the stats doesn’t make it any easier as a parent!

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  19. Personally I think some parents give kids too much freedom these days. I feel bad for my kids sometimes because the neighbors “can do whatever they want” and we have rules. It’s hard to explain that it’s because we love them.

    We just came back from vacation and each of my kids age 6, 9, and 11 had keys to the room and the oldest had a personal charge account. We were inside a resort and I let them go as long as they checked in and told us where they were going to be. There was also a secret emergency password and if a stranger or hotel worker didn’t know the password they were not to be trusted. It worked swimmingly. Now I would not do this at Disney world but in an enclosed resort it worked great.

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    • Yes, I think I allow quite a bit of freedom and yet I’m regularly told by my kids about how much others are allowed to do, of course I’m not always sure they’re telling me the truth!

      The secret password is quite a good one, although my friend was telling me that when she was a child it worked a little too well with her and her sister because when their grandmother (who regularly looked after them) came to pick them up from school one day, they refused to go with her because she couldn’t remember the password! Still, better over-cautious than under-cautious on that one!

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  20. “As a kid I was made to walk the plank. We couldn’t afford a dog.“ – Gary Delaney

    My son (12 next week) and I were just talking about this today and our conversation wasn’t even him traveling anywhere, he merely has to sit at an outdoor cafe that is hidden in the corner of a stripmall with his sister (8) and his little cousin (almost 2) and eat a muffin and drink chocolate milk or juice or something while my sister (little cousin’s mommy) is in a meeting but can see them in the courtyard while she sits inside for under 1 hour. He was more worried about stranger danger and actually wanted to bring a knife for protection. I’m more concerned about the 2 year old wandering off, but with two older ones and a tasty treat, hopefully they can corral her. I do have friends who let their kids ride bikes everywhere and I used to do that when I was young too, but my kids aren’t savvy enough to navigate streets with intersections and too many distracted drivers. If it doesn’t go well, you know what my post will be about tomorrow. Glad you brought it up!

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    • Walk the plank, teehee!

      Yes, we all have to take little steps and see what works for everyone. Kind of scary that he felt he might need a knife for protection! I too would be more worried about the 2 year old being kept happy and not wondering off for that time than anything, but obviously with cousin’s mommy nearby, all would be ok! Hope it went well.

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  21. I think they were different times. I never journeyed into other countries on my own, but I was allowed (perhaps encouraged!) out of the house and to explore. I was often gone for hours from a young age and it never seemed wrong.

    We don’t have kids so not sure what I’d do if I did. I do worry when my cat’s been out a long time, so that maybe says enough 🙂

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    • They were different times, but I’d like to know whether they were actually safer, or just that the types of risks were different.

      Cats are indeed a worry too!

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      • Probably not any safer, just less info on all the horrors that happened.

        You can’t give a cat a mobile phone and ask them to let you know if they’ll be late home. Well you can, but they’d probably lose it or sell it for snacks 😉

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        • That cracks me up Pete. You could in fact give a cat a mobile phone but as soon as it quit moving, buzzing, and ringing, it would be “dead”. I once had a dog who destroyed a pager,best my friends and I could tell, it annoyed him.

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  22. Your blog is fun and amusing, but this serious point you present was worth the read.

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  23. You’re right. Each child is different so different rules apply to each child. The problem is we aren’t givena decoder ring to know exactly what lesson each child needs, so we do the best and hope from there.

    As for the joke: A guy walks into a bar. Rubbing his nose and cursing, he ducks underneath it. (I didn’t say it was a pub.)

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  24. My daughter asked me when she would be allowed to go out of the house by herself. I said, “I don’t know. 11? 12?” She replied, “How old were you?” “I don’t know. 3? Yeah. 3.”

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  25. I grew up in a similar environment as you and had a lot of freedom to travel by rail and by plane, though I was not alone and had my two sisters with me. I’m not sure if that was easier or harder (traveling in a group) on those who were asked to oversee us throughout the journey.

    When my daughter grew up in what turned out to be the same general area as I had, I was not willing to have her go off alone. But when she was about ten her school situation changed and she no longer had transportation to and from school. Necessity kicked in and I had to teach her how to get to school on her own. Though I tried to be brave on the outside, I was terrified on the inside. We rode the route several weeks together and then I had her ride the route a block or two ahead of me until she could do it on her own. Thankfully, she only had to do it for a short time and later, when she was older she told me that the first couple of days she walked the bike most of the way because she was nervous about riding it. Then she got tired of walking and decided to start riding.

    Letting your children go is a hard thing to do and as some posters mentioned, each child is different and the time to take the first step would depend on the child and the situation.

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