Kids in the City: When Is It OK to Go Out on Their Own?

Families make tough decisions on how much independence to give their kids.

Parker Barry

Much like the debates surrounding sleep and infant feeding, the opinions on how much independence to give kids can spark heated debate.

When is a child old enough to stay in the car while you run in to the post office? When can you let kids play outside alone in a fenced-in area? What about roaming the neighborhood? What age is OK for kids to stay home alone for an hour? Or be dropped off at the skating rink or movie theater with their friends? What about riding public transportation on their own or hanging out alone in the city?

On one end of the spectrum you have free-range parents who believe that kids need to experience life to learn how to be independent, while on the other you have helicopter parents who want to protect kids from the dangers around them by sheltering them. But most parents don’t necessarily identify squarely with either. They’re just parenting — loving and protecting their kids and helping them live happily in their communities.

When is a child old enough to be dropped off at the skating rink or movie theater with their friends?

Legal woes for some families

Unlike the sleep training debates, varying opinions on how much freedom to allow kids vs. kids’ safety has led to legal battles, including investigations by child protective services. An 11-year-old in Florida was removed from his home after playing outside alone with no parent at home. A Chicago mom is now on a child abuse registry after letting her children, ages 11, 9 and 5, play at a park across the street from their home, with her peeking out the window to check on them periodically.

And a Maryland family has been in the news repeatedly this year after two separate incidents. The family, card-carrying free rangers, let the kids, at 6 and 10 years old, walk home from a neighborhood park. The first time they were “caught,” in December 2014, they were charged with unsubstantiated neglect. That charge was overturned, and Maryland officials now say that kids walking home alone is not neglect, but not before the parents were charged a second time in April of this year for the exact same thing — letting the kids walk home from the park alone. Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids, pioneered the same-named movement when she wrote about letting her 9-year-old son ride the subway alone in New York City.

Parents must decide what’s best

The tricky truth is that there are no clear “right” ages, at least in legal terms, for most of these milestones of independence. Five states do have specific ages listed in laws about when kids can be at home alone, and several specify a minimum age for leaving kids alone in a parked car. From there, it’s up to parents to decide what is best for their kids.

Mary Satoro of Huntsville, Alabama, mother of girls ages 13 and 9, is well aware of the dangers of the world and believes it is her responsibility to protect her kids. For example, she would not let her kids navigate the city alone. “My duty as a parent is to protect my kids spiritually, physically and mentally,” she said. “I don’t want them exposed to situations that would endanger them.”

Mary Epperson, an Austin mother of a 13-year-old girl, gives her young teen some freedoms to help her slowly gain independence. She’s now allowed to visit downtown hot spots with her friends, staying in touch with her parents via her phone. She’s either dropped off by a parent or rides the bus. “The experiences and the confidence she gains will help her to make good decisions later in life,” Epperson said. “To know that her parents trust her to take care of herself and to be responsible, I think, actually makes her more responsible.”

My duty as a parent is to protect my kids spiritually, physically and mentally.

Public transportation’s benefits

The decision can be even more complicated when it comes to kids navigating the city on their own via public transportation. According to the Federal Transit Authority, setting a minimum age for kids to ride public transportation alone is a local decision. Neither Cap Metro in Austin or BART in the Bay Area — where we interviewed families — specify minimum ages for unaccompanied kids. The choice is left to parents.

Some families have found navigating public transportation to be convenient for their family and empowering for their kids. Allison Baker’s teenage son and daughter have been taking public transportation in Austin since they were 11 and 12.

“Both kids were encouraged to do this primarily due to our schedules and the inability for us to actually pick them up right after school,” she said “But, it is also a grand way of encouraging independence and giving them a broader perspective of public transportation.” Her now 17-year-old son is in no hurry to get his driver’s license since he can get wherever he needs on the bus — a transportation method much safer than teen drivers.

Kids can gain an appreciation for their community, too. Catherine Payne’s 12-year-old son rides public transportation in Oakland, California, with a group of kids from his school to a city-sponsored program after school once a week. “I see taking public transit and generally participating in your community as a necessity to being a functional, contributing member,” she said. “It’s part of identifying as part of the community rather than living in fear of it.”

I see taking public transit and generally participating in your community as a necessity to being a functional, contributing member.

Allowing kids to think for themselves

Ultimately, teaching kids to think for themselves may truly keep them safer. Anitra Clark was a bit reluctant about letting her daughter ride public transportation as a sixth-grader in Oakland, but after riding with her a few times and then letting her daughter make the decisions herself about connections, they both gained confidence and she is glad they made the leap.

“I know it’s scary to send your kid out into the world because there are so many things that could happen — in fact, so many things do happen,” she said. “However, I am more concerned about what will happen if I do not teach her how to navigate the world: to be independent, think on her own, problem solve and pay attention to her instincts and intuition. As long as we continue to hold our child’s hand while crossing the street, they’ll never learn how to look both ways.”

What’s your family’s approach to letting the kids get around your city independently? Let us know in the comments.


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