Editor’s note: This story discusses the practice of giving children the freedom to go out on their own. In some places, parents who allow young children to run errands or go places without adult supervision may violate local laws. Parents interested in this topic should be sure to familiarize themselves with the law and rules in their community.
This month we asked NPR readers to share personal examples of how they taught their children to run errands on their own. Why did they decide to do it? What were the challenges? Was the community supportive?
Nearly 100 people emailed us their responses. The callout was linked to NPR correspondent Michaeleen Doucleff’s story from April 20, “A 4-year-old can run errands alone … and not just on reality TV.” Doucleff talks to child development experts about the risks and benefits of allowing very young kids to be very independent — the concept of a buzzy Japanese TV show called Old Enough! now streaming on Netflix.
One clear theme: It’s not that easy to give kids the freedom to do simple tasks. In fact, some parents are opposed to the practice. Here’s a sampling of their responses. Submissions have been edited for length and clarity.
‘She goes to the bakery on her own’
As an American living in the Netherlands, my 8-year-old daughter has been raised in a society that not only expects children to run errands, but sees it as a crucial step in their growth and socialization.
We started building her independence around age four with small chores at home: setting the table, putting away dishes, making her own lunch for school. She worked her way from doing things on her own inside the house to doing them in the neighborhood: collecting garbage in the area with a trash picker, planting flowers in our community garden. Now age 8, she goes to the bakery on her own while I wait in line at the farmer’s market, rides her bike to school and watches over the younger children as they play outside after school.
At first, it was difficult for me to trust she would be OK without any supervision. I often considered getting her a watch that tracked her location. But I saw that the more experience she gained handling any problems she encountered, the safer she actually became. For example, when she fell off her bike and skinned her knees, she found the nearest place to rest and lock her bike before walking back home. She’s learning to assess risk and find solutions in each scenario.
Jessica Smith-Salzinger, Groningen, Netherlands
‘We live in the ‘hood and my kid is brown’
I love the idea of sending my kid to our neighborhood carnicería to get tortillas, hominy or whatever we need to prepare dinner. But we live in the ‘hood and my kid is brown. I fear he could run into local gangs or the police could stop him on the street because he looks suspicious. He’s a big, brown 11-year-old boy with long brown hair.
Many areas lack sidewalks and crosswalks and have more freeways and industrial zones, which poses risks to walkability and safety. Corner stores and liquor stores are often the closest place one can walk to.
When reporting on a practice that may be beneficial, let’s consider the barriers faced by less-privileged folks.
Xochitl Coronado-Vargas, Tucson, Ariz.
Inspired to send his son on an errand
When I was age 3 or 4 my grandmother sent me out to buy soy sauce and cigarettes for her. This was in China. Both my parents had gone to the U.S. by then and I was living with extended family. I have an explicit memory of this incident. I repeated to myself, “soy sauce and one pack cigarettes” the whole way to the corner stand. I couldn’t count money yet so I just handed the vendor, who knew I was a neighborhood kid, the bill my grandma gave me — then received whatever change he gave back and hoped it was correct. I brought the change, the soy sauce and the pack of cigarettes back to my grandma, who hadn’t seemed to have moved a muscle from her spot in bed. She was pleased and laughed.
The store couldn’t have been more than a couple blocks away, but my young self experienced an odyssey, a hero’s quest complete with magical items, tasks and encountered characters (really just one). This is among my earliest memories, and I have no doubt it is because of how stimulating the freedom and responsibility suddenly thrust upon me was to my developing brain.
Your article reminded me of this. Tomorrow I will send my 3-year-old son, soon to be 4, down the end of our block in a very suburban, very residential neighborhood to retrieve the mail.
Wish us luck.
Update: He couldn’t quite get the key into the lock so I had to help him. Then he had trouble carrying all the mail by himself and spilled letters left and right. So I helped him with that too. Also he left the mailbox unlocked with the key still in it as he had his little hands full. All told, I probably did 60% of the task.
But it was a valuable learning experience … for me. I now know what skills he needs to work on (negotiating the key), where he needs guidance (how to gather and keep mail together — I’ll give him a bag to use next time), and what we can game plan in advance to build up his confidence. The article was right: kids need to possess all necessary skills for the task before they can be turned loose.
James Mo, Irvine, Calif.
‘Terrified’ at the thought
I live in an apartment complex — and just the thought of all the things that could go wrong if I leave my 7-year-old son alone at home — for example, while I go to the laundry room — terrifies me. I am scared that he might get hurt, play with something he’s not supposed to. Just the mere thought of him not being in my presence creates a lot of anxiety for me.
Melissa Astudillo, Riverside, Calif.
‘He wasn’t lost’
I was at the grocery store with my 9-year-old. I was shopping for weekend meals and had a pretty long list. He was bored and asked if he could go look at the Matchbox cars that are often sold at this grocery store. I told him to go by himself and look for them.
He went off to wander the store. A few minutes later I heard over the store intercom: “Will Lisa Shen please come to the front desk? Lisa Shen, if you are in the store, please come to the front desk.”
An older white woman spotted my son, determined he was lost and looking for his mother, and took him to the front desk to have the manager page me in the store. I was pretty annoyed. As I went up to the front desk to pick up my son, I confronted the woman who, I believe, expected me to emotionally embrace my child and thank her profusely for helping me. Instead, I turned to her and said, “He wasn’t lost, he was looking for Matchbox cars. He is 9 and a half. How is he supposed to learn independence if he can’t go shopping on his own?”
She replied, “he looked like he was looking for his mother.” I said, “thank you for your concern, but he was fine.” Afterward, when I asked my son about it, he said he also told the woman he wasn’t lost or looking for his mother.
I feel confident that at age 9, my son should be able to navigate the grocery store on his own and that he could easily locate me if he wanted to.
Lisa Shen, Cambridge, Mass.
‘Someone called CPS on me’
I live in Wisconsin. Before COVID expanded grocery delivery options, I sometimes sent my daughter, who was in 5th grade at the time, on her own to the nearest grocery store. It’s half a mile away and she only needed to cross the street in front of the apartment we live in. The rest of the walk was on a sidewalk.
Somebody called CPS [Child Protective Services] on me to say that I was “letting” her wander the neighborhood by herself. The [person who called] tried to make it seem like my daughter was doing this because I wasn’t home or capable of taking care of her.
I grew up in Miami, Fla. I was going to the store on my own before 5th grade. I even rode my bike home from elementary school. Thankfully, CPS was understanding after talking with us, but it was frightening that someone called!
Samantha Wildt, Green Bay, Wis.
‘We worked out a whiteboard grid’
I currently live in a large metropolitan city suburb where there are no sidewalks or corner markets. Kids do not walk to school even though the elementary school is just two blocks away. No one plays outside. I have never seen a young person walking a dog or mowing their neighbor’s lawn.
I was a single parent back in the late 1980s. We lived in a mobile home park. My children were latchkey kids from a very young age.
In order to build a trusting relationship and give me peace of mind [about what my children were doing at home] while I was at work, the boys and I devised a schedule of responsibilities we felt they could manage. We worked out a whiteboard grid outlining what was expected of them when they got home from school: sort and do the laundry, run the vacuum, make beds, clean the fish tank and even prepare dinner. As each task was completed, they would tick it off the whiteboard. We did not have video games or cell phones or tablets back then, so television (no cable) was their reward once their chores and homework were done. Interestingly, they continue to implement the whiteboard practice in their adult lives today.
My now-adult children often remark that while we faced significant struggles, those years hold treasured moments.
Eliza Giufre, Metropolitan Pittsburgh, Penn.
They get their own slushies at the Circle K
We live in a rural area so my kids — ages 6, 8 and 11 — can’t actually walk anywhere. So instead I drive to the store and send them in alone. Their favorite errand is getting slushies at the local Circle K as their after school treat on Fridays. I give them my credit card and send them in while I wait in the van.
Kimberly Fridy, Montevallo, Ala.
Thank you to everyone who submitted a response to this call out! Don’t miss our next one. Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
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