The Conversation by Nikki Martyn 28 October 2019
Parenting today can be fraught with anxiety. With the rise in technology and social media, stories seem to abound about dangers, but the prevalence of crime and its severity is lower today than it was a decade or so ago in Canada. But this doesn’t necessarily stop parents from feeling scared and vulnerable.
Societal norms around child safety have changed and children’s unstructured time and time outdoors has declined. Children yearn for freedom, but it’s not the 1980s anymore. Children today experience the difference in norms when they watch shows like Stranger Things, where the kids pick up their bikes and ride through the streets unsupervised. My own child asked me: “Was this real? Did you just ride around and no one knew where you were?” This was real. It was awesome.
Perhaps this nostalgic world our children are experiencing through media is just that. But are there ways that parents can and should let go a little?
Our children need to learn independence and resilience. Some reasonable risk is important for development.
Children learn from being independent
The right age for an unsupervised Halloween is highly debatable, but it’s a matter for parents to carefully consider.
Allowing your age-appropriate child to experience freedom and independence provides them with opportunities to develop confidence. New stages bring new challenges and new fears.
Trust your children’s instincts, judgments and abilities to learn from their mistakes.
Reasonable risks can increase problem solving, listening skills, decision-making skills and compassion.
Children may be faced with challenges, and being without adults allows them to learn how to negotiate group dynamics. They might have to decide what houses to avoid, or what to do if members of their group want to take different routes.
Children also find opportunities to learn how to express their needs and decide what to do, if they don’t agree with the group. And they may find some fun and fantasy. Maybe they’ll create stories about spooky houses.
Children who learn to explore and master new situations or conquer fears through play may fare better later in life. Some research links the decline of free play, and the developmental benefits it affords, with a rise in anxiety and depression.
When is your child ready?
They walk to school on their own, know the neighbourhood, streets and community.
The community feels safe for you.
You can trust families or neighbours to help your child if required.
Your child can understand and follow rules.
They can understand the consequences of breaking those rules.
You are able to follow through on the agreement of the consequences.
You can discuss and implement your rules (such as when they must return).
If you or your child isn’t ready, give them small developmentally appropriate levels of freedom. Maybe they’re ready to run up to the door on their own and you hang back and watch.
Parenting tips for your child
Make sure you talk with your child first about rules, expectations and even your fears.
If you are scared about something specific such as eating candy without looking at it first, explain this to them. It’s important they don’t think you fear they’re incompetent, or worse, that you don’t trust them.
Let them know you trust and believe in them. It’s exciting and scary for them also.
Talk to them about what to do if something happens, such as getting separated from the group.
Sometimes it’s helpful to suggest what they can say to their friends or to other parents if they need help.
Let them have fun. If there are neighbours’ places where you know the candy is safe, you could make a special plan for children to eat it there.
… And for you
Know that letting your child go and not being able to protect them at all times is scary for most parents, especially at first.
Think about how you’re going to deal with your own anxiety.
There are controversies about parents tracking their children with GPS. Your child could carry a phone, and you could look at the GPS every once and awhile — but if you do this, make sure the child knows you have GPS and you can see them, because trust is important.
A range of views exist about the role of phones and whether they’re barriers or bridges for children’s outdoor free play and activity. Maybe you’d like them to text or call at a certain time or to borrow a phone at a known home (remember they may forget when they’re caught up in the excitement).
Maybe, instead, you have friends or neighbours who can call when they see your child.
Talk with your child and let them be part of decisions and conversation. Trust your child and yourself. You have put plans in place and you’re available if needed.
When your child runs in with a full bag of candy at the end of the night with a huge smile, brimming with confidence, you can be proud you are raising someone who is learning to manage life.
Allowing our children to take calculated risks, whether on Halloween or the playground as developmentally appropriate, supports their growth. That’s a parenting win.
Nikki Martyn is the program head of Early Childhood Studies at the University of Guelph Humber.