Letting them go, keeping them safe


I live in an urban area that can be dangerous and am struggling between the desire to allow my children independence and my worries for their safety. I have a 9-year-old girl and an 8-year-old boy. How old should they be before they ride a mile on their bikes to the store?

Rosemarie Rowell

Reseda, Calif.

Children don't become ready for independence overnight. It's a process made up of small, calculated steps.

In today's world, it's easy to let fears for our children's safety get the best of us. If our goal is to end up with strong, independent, self-reliant adults, then common sense dictates that we can't wait until they're 21 to start letting go.

Using the example of riding bikes to the store, experts and parents who called Child Life point out that only parents can decide when a child is ready. Think about the challenges and skills required in riding to the store, then think through all of the worst-case scenarios. Ask yourself what concrete things you can do to prepare a child and then break the process down into small steps.

Several readers, such as Mary Humphrey of Charlotte, N.C., suggested that a parent should bike with the children to the store until the children are competent to go alone.

The sorts of things the parent might assess, says Vanessa L. Ochs of Morristown, N.J., are the safety of the route, the traffic congestion and how well the child uses hand signals and crosses intersections.

While the children are working toward a trip to the store, reader Angela Crowell of Huntersfield, N.C., suggests letting them take smaller trips alone within your neighborhood.

"I started my kids out on short trips," Crowell says. "I'd say it's 4 o'clock now, and if you're back by 4: 15, the next time I'll let you go a little farther. Mine were probably about 11 and 12 before they went to the store on their own."

Practice in parks

Stacy Batchelder of Millersville, Md., takes her 8-year-old to parks that have bike trails so she will have a sense of freedom and be able to practice safety skills without the dangers of traffic.

Parents should also make sure their children are trained to be "street smart," says Louis R. Mizell Jr. of Bethesda, author of "Street Sense for Parents: Keeping Your Child Safe in a Dangerous World" (Berkley, $4.99).

"What most parents are worried about is abduction," Mizell says. "You can dramatically reduce the chance of your children being victimized if they are armed with knowledge."

When talking about strangers, Mizell says it's important to tell children the kinds of tricks that could be used to lure them close enough to an abductor to be grabbed. One common ruse criminals use is to drive up to a mailbox that the person can't quite reach, hold out a letter and ask a child to help put the letter into the box, Mizell says.

Other common abduction lures Mizell has discovered in his research are inviting the child to come to a car to look at puppies, asking a child (by name) to deliver a lost toy to another child in the neighborhood and feigning car trouble and asking a child to turn the key while the person looks under the hood.

Mizell believes going over these specific tricks and talking about how to handle them empowers children rather than scaring them. Children who are taught any deceptive criminal techniques are less likely to fall for new tricks, he says.

Pub Date: 12/08/96

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