Free range kids: Let them explore on their own these holidays

By Gill South

Sensible parents know how important it is to to give their kids some independence. Gill South looks at the art of letting go.

Free range kids Caitlin Neuwelt Kearns (14) left and Jade Paynter (15) are happy getting about town by themselves. Photo / Richard Robinson
Free range kids Caitlin Neuwelt Kearns (14) left and Jade Paynter (15) are happy getting about town by themselves. Photo / Richard Robinson

Mum, I'm booooored, there's NOTHING to do."

"Go outside and play. Be creative."

Yes, it's nearly the school holidays. Again.

Let's put a positive spin on it. For those of us with kids in their tweenie years,10 to 13, or any age really, the school holidays are a useful time to give your children some more independence.

My 11 year old son is going to be taking the train - just two stops - to his intermediate school next year so I thought we'd do more public transport trips around the city over the holidays. After I've done it with him a few times, I'll allow him to take some mini-trips with a (sensible) friend or two in tow.

It's not an original thought. A mum whose son started at the same intermediate school this year, and is catching the train, remembers taking the journey with her son a couple of weeks before school started.

She bumped into lots of other mothers and sons and daughters with exactly the same idea.

It's important to appreciate the fact that we live in a pretty safe place. It's unlikely that there will be a huge media furore if you put your child on a train at age 9 as happened to the author of the book Free Range Kids, Lenore Skenazy, in New York City. She sent her son to take the subway home, which he was well used to, giving him his train ticket, coins for the phone and $20 in case of an emergency, and she was utterly harangued for her so-called "bad parenting". America is something else these days - schools are stopping activities like tag because "accidents" can happen.

Back in the real world, Mt Albert teen and Marist student, Caitlin Neuwelt Kearns has been walking with a friend to St Lukes' shopping centre, a 20-minute walk from home, since the age of 11. She has been taking the train with girlfriends to Newmarket since she was 12, as long as her mother knew what train she was leaving and arriving home on.

Now she is 14, she's going further afield - catching the train into Britomart and then the bus to Mission Bay. She will catch two trains to get out to Sylvia Park to see a movie and shop or to Dressmart in Onehunga.

Both of her parents use public transport regularly. "It's important for parents to push public transport to their kids," says Caitlin. "It teaches them independence."

She has friends who are driven everywhere and feels sorry that they don't have as much freedom as she and others have.

Her mother, Pat Neuwelt, is comfortable about the Mission Bay trip because there are plenty of people around. "They are mapping the city," she says proudly.

In this case, Caitlin is a smart, articulate girl who is unafraid to ask questions if something goes wrong. Each child is different, says parenting counsellor, Anne Kemps.

"It's so much about the children and what the parents have done prior."

For parents wanting to give their children more freedom in their neighbourhood, she suggests parents in the community getting together more so they know the kids their children are spending time with. Go through scenarios with your children before they go off to do something, she says. But don't put the fear of God into them.

"I think most things with our kids, you've got to do it with them the first time. The fact is the first time they do it on their own, it is always scary but that's part of growing up," she says. "We are wanting to boost that confidence rather than undermine it."

The kids can be given more leeway at the beach during the school holidays, says the counsellor. Kemps' children, now grown up, would go off bike riding or for picnics. What parents are saying with these new freedoms is, "we trust you", she says.

The Children's Commissioner, Dr Russell Wills - who has two boys aged 12 and 14 - says children must be given reasonable opportunities to make mistakes. "It's important children have the opportunity to have short bursts of independence and to increase this as they get older. Children learn from these experiences; the more opportunities they have to be independent safely, then the better they will be at it when they are ready to leave home," he says.

Talk to your child, before they go off and make it clear what your expectations are, he says. "Make the boundaries and consequences clear, for example: 'We must always know where you are. If you change your plan you must call; if the parent is not there, no, you may not change your plan. If you break that rule then you are grounded."'

Another of his pointers is that when your children are taking a train journey that they'll later take by themselves, put them in charge. They buy the train tickets, figure out the route and the timetable.

If you live somewhere with a good local community, parents can feel more relaxed about their children not being under their eye every waking moment. Glendowie mum Orly Jacobson, who has three children aged 5, 7 and 9, says of her area: "The problem around here is everybody is so protective, that there are no kids on the street."

Jacobson, a Londoner, who has seen how protective her British friends are of their children in public places, feels grateful she is bringing up her kids in New Zealand.

She remembers her two boys going to the local skatepark by themselves and one of them getting hurt. Her eldest, Nelson, borrowed a phone from someone at the park and asked her to come and get them. "I was so proud of him," she says. "If you don't let them do it, when are you going to let them do it?" For many parents, the existence of the cellphone helps them let their children go.

Jenny Hale, senior family coach at the Parenting Place, is not so sure. "Some of these things meant to create freedom, create anxiety."

Hale advises taking incremental steps.

"Children love knowing there is more coming," she says.

"At the 11, 12, 13 mark, I do think parents should look at other areas that build some trust for this child - create levels of independence in our children." She suggests having chats with kids along the lines of: what would you do if... ?

"Kids get into trouble when they don't have a plan," says Hale.

Hale has prepared a Fridge List for parents, for that time at the beginning of the holidays when children are at a loose end. Parents will usually need to kick start something off with them. Good luck with that.

Child-friendly public transport trips

* Take the train, ferry or bus into Britomart, then a waterfront bus to Mission Bay beach, Kelly Tarlton's or Lilliput mini-golf.

* Take the train to Newmarket, then to the end of the Onehunga line to Dressmart.

* Take the Waitakere train to Swanson to the cafe and playground.

* Take a tour of the Outer Link Bus route for $1.80 to $3.40. It runs from Wellesley St, past the universities, through Parnell, Newmarket, Epsom, Balmoral, Mt Eden, St Lukes, Mt Albert, out to the Meola Rd entrance to Motat, through Westmere, Herne Bay and then back to Wellesley St. The amber buses operate on a frequent basis, so there are no timetables.

* Bring your bikes on the train or the ferry to the CBD and ride along Wynyard Quarter to the playground.

* Take the ferry or bus to Devonport and walk around to the naval museum, or up to North Head.

Things to do at home

* Paint or draw

* Play a board game

* Play hide and seek

* Ride your bike

* Make a birthday card for someone

* Play knuckle bones

* Get out a pack of cards and play a game

* Bake some biscuits

* Go to the library

* Take some photos

* Make some homemade iceblocks

* Make a smoothie

* Invent a menu for a meal you could help make

* Play chess

* Learn a magic trick

* Have an outside water balloon fight

* Throw a bean bag into a bucket and count your score out of 20 throws

* Draw a mural with big chalk on a paved area

* Making up questions for quiz night such as "What would you do if you found $1000?"

* Play basketball, soccer or rugby

* Bike or walk to the dairy to buy a treat

Self-directed adventures

When kids are older you can get them to do a self-directed adventure. Get your kids and their friends to choose a destination, and then map the route, right down the names of the roads to follow. Help them pack their bags and set them on their way.

Dare to explore

Fancy reading a book up a tree this summer? Or visiting the library in your togs? Auckland Libraries is challenging children to take an adventurous approach to reading this summer, with cute challenges that can be done at home, on holiday, in the library, at the beach or online; find an international cookbook to cook from or design a sports outfit for a book character. Free registration for a passport, calendar of activities and an adventure guidebook opens to library card holders on December 12 and goes until January 27. Go to or participating libraries.

- NZ Herald

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