Ask Dad: Can I Let My Kid Wander Off Alone?

Andrew Dalton

School has started for most of the world's big kids, leaving parents free to catch up on the Real Housewives variations on their DVR, or to keep on cleaning the house and going to work like they have been all damn summer. But you've still got the troublemakers for a few hours a day. That's why Ask Dad -- your personal guidance counselor -- is in his office now.

At what age is it okay to let loose and allow a kid like my son to go off on his own a bit ... say to go to a different part of the library or grocery store without your eyes and ears on him?

This is a hot topic in the Ask Dad house right now, as my child goes from kindergarten baby to the Abby Sunderland adventure of the first grade.

The girl has been holding me hostage at (almost) gunpoint and forcing me to read Beverly Cleary's entire Ramona series before we can move on to anything else (yeah, I had to go to the mediocre movie too. At least Bridget Moynihan looked pretty. Though Josh Duhamel looked prettier.)

Some of the books have been interesting for the way they show acceptable kid and parent behavior in the seventies. They led me to this conclusion:

Ramona's mother is history's greatest monster. Worse than Hitler and Stalin combined.

Okay, that may be a bit of a stretch, but she definitely lets Ramona do things that would get the cops called today. One week into kindergarten, Ramona has to walk several blocks to school with only the company of a fellow five-year-old, and at times even alone. Actually I remember doing even crazier things myself in the wild disco days of '77. 

Can you imagine the outcry from your neighbors seeing a girl that young crossing major streets and roaming blocks from home solo? And it's not because our world's more dangerous now. In many ways it's safer. Media and our national worry culture just make it feel scarier.

But we don't live in Ramona's World -- and trust me, that's a good thing.

So when you decide to let your kid wander off solo to the bulk bins at Whole Foods, you need to think about the social side, not just safety and independence. You don't want your friends shunning you, or the cops or some maverick Paul Blart: Mall Cop showing up and putting the cuffs on.

Here's the general rule I go by, though many of my relatives and friends feel different:

With a kindergarten age kid, I think it's OK to let them leave your sight, but not your earshot. And it's essential that you know exactly where they are.

Our Trader Joe's has a kids' coloring table, and I'll let my daughter sit there while I wander other aisles. We take a similar approach at the park and the mall, but we're a little more cautious in those bigger spaces. 

It's essential that you develop some go-it-alone skills for your boy. The time is coming quick when he'll need to go solo into men's rooms and locker rooms. You should fear this -- not for his safety, but for the terrible sloppy-peeing habits he's sure to pick up. Those places are disgusting. I wish I could use the ladies' room without consequences.

Do you let your kids wander? How old are they?


Image via Flickr/ShannonKringen

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