Keeping them close, letting them roam: what to do when children start to push geo-boundaries

Latino Children Play Swing

Each year as they’ve grown out of the sling-and-stroller phase, and particularly after hitting age five, my children have moved to enlarge their physical world. Their physical boundaries.

In a word, they’ve started to roam. Further and further away from my watchful, paranoid eyes.

And letting them do this has… sometimes been easy and natural, an obvious evolution. And sometimes, the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.

I believe that if our relationships with our children are anchored in co-respect and co-trust, and that if a core practice of our parenting is listening to our children and being attuned to their needs, wants, challenges and all that as they grown—and, by extension, by talking to our children about our needs, wants, challenges and concerns and expecting them to listen to us with as much care and attention as we listen to them—then this is an easier field to navigate.

Easier. But not easy.

Cinder and Flora are in the process of expanding the scope of their ranges quite a bit this summer (2009)—not just in terms of the “territory” of the neighbourhood that they feel comfortable in roaming, but in the sorts of things they want to do, the people they want to spend time with.

An example of something easy: Cinder rides his bike in loops around the Common area, and we’re all cool with that, no major discussions of any sort necessary. (Last year, he wasn’t interested in doing that, and if he had, I would have had palpitations!)

An example of something harder: he’s also wandering off the Common and onto the wild hill that abuts it—and his little sister wants to be in tow. That’s pushing a boundary that I’m not comfortable with. I’m not sure if I’d be okay if it was just the seven year old wandering off—the five year old definitely cannot, so neither may. And so we talk about it, and find compromises and solutions:

I’ll sit at the playground bench and watch them—or be within ear shot of them.

Or, they go with a group of kids that includes at least one or two much older kids with a brain and a credit of trust with me…

Or, I put away the computer, the laundry and the supper preparations, and go with them, perhaps hand in hand, perhaps some distance away.

The mid-way point between constant hovering / the type of over-protectiveness that essentially impedes the experience of life and the full development of independent personality and hands-off parenting that borders on (or is) neglect is a type of indirect or unobtrusive oversight. I don’t feel comfortable in letting my children walk the four city blocks to the nearest off-Common playground–because they would be walking a totally empty street, with no one walking down it, no one peeking out a window, no one to hear or see anything if they got hurt or spooked.

But, I feel comfortable having them play on the Common for hours on end, because at any given time, there is a parent, older sibling or cranky octogenerian either passing by, peeking out a window, hanging out on the balcony—and always within the distance of a holler away!

We live in a very community-minded, “we live here because we want to live in a real community” kind of place, and I know that affects my thinking and practices in this area hugely. Would I leave my children alone and unsupervised in a suburban six-foot fenced backyard? I dunno… probably less likely to feel comfortable doing that than letting them roam the unfenced, abutting on a public bike path, Common area.

Another factor that affects my level of comfort with how far they roam is that I know the parents of the children my children are hanging out with. In some cases, the parents are close friends and I trust their children almost as fully as I trust my own. In other cases, I may not know the parents that well—or particularly like them or their parenting!—but I still have a community relationship with them that ensures that 1) if I speak to their children about their behaviour—or their responsibility towards the other children in the community—they will listen to me, at least in the moment and 2) if I have a larger concern, I have an existing relationship with the parents so it’s quite easy to raise the concern with them and with other parents and to address it as a community. Ditto if my children are not behaving responsibility: there are adults around who will call them on it—and who will appraise me of the situation.

What’s your level of comfort? How do you deal with your children’s boundaries? How do you keep them close… and how far do you let them roam… and what factors are critical in determining that for you?

Adapted from May 19, 2009, Unschooling Canada

One thought on “Keeping them close, letting them roam: what to do when children start to push geo-boundaries

  1. Great article Jane and will say this my kids are still on the young side, but a sure in a few short years I will be here and to think this through. Thanks for giving me some much needed food for thought here on this topic though.

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