Stranger danger vs Kids having freedom – Is there a happy medium?
This proud kid just went to the shops, by himself!
We were packing up and getting ready to leave Monto and in the interests of not making a pile of dishes doing our normal cooked breakfast, I suggested maybe Jaiden have something easy for breakfast. He opted for some GF weet-bix but upon opening the fridge he discovered there was not enough milk as we usually use less than 1L a week. I said to him “Maybe you can walk up to the shop and grab some whilst I keep packing up. “Wait, walk to the shop by myself?!”, I said “Yeah mate, it’s only a few hundred metres up the road, I can give you some money, you just need to find the milk, pay for it and bring it back”, he replied “Uh, okay, I guess!” in a somewhat unsure tone.
Over the years Jaiden has gone from refusing to engage shop keepers to doing it quite confidently. Recently, he’s started asking me “How old do I need to be to do xxxx without an adult”, so I figured a short walk to the shop would be a good place to start. Given the life we live we often talk about how to deal with strangers, what to do should a bad situation arise, and have used examples like the Daniel Morcombe Foundation case to explain the reasons to be vigilant. Of late I have been explaining the importance of road safety and how to assess different situations to ensure he can cross the road safely, each and every time explaining that if he is going to go off by himself, he needs to show me that he can make the right decisions when it comes to road safety.
Whilst I packed up, Jaiden walked up the street with $5 in his hand destined for the shop. 10 minutes later he walked back into the campsite armed with some milk, and a smile he could barely contain. He hands me the milk and says “I even asked for the receipt to put in the box”, the camp we were at asks that travellers keep their receipts to gauge how much money they are spending in the area. For what it’s worth, we spent $113 in 3 days, at a place that we would not have stopped otherwise. Shout out to North Burnett Regional Council for providing so many great free and cheap camping options to encourage travellers like myself to stay in the area and spend some money, but I digress.
Jaiden is at an age where I feel it’s important for him to have some independence. He has a lot of freedom compared to most kids, and has done for quite some years. Whilst there is no denying there are some unsavoury people in this world, this does not stop me from allowing him his freedom and independence. Through my years working with kids, I have come across kids who have been mistreated, as well as having friends who went through abuse themselves, so why would I let my son have this level of freedom in this scary world filled with horrible people? I don’t actually believe that the world is all that scary, yes horrible people do exist, but this has always been the case. I feel that a lot of the fear us parents feel is not due to any increased risk, but rather the fact that we hear about these horrible situations through social media and the mainstream media.
The cases of children being mistreated that we hear about make us more fearful. When I was 10, I was free to ride my bike with my friends, we’d go off exploring, having fun, and sometimes creating mischief. It was like a right of passage. As we became more fearful and protective of our kids, many kids lost this freedom and were instead ordered to remain within their parents sight. I don’t want Jaiden to first experience freedom when he turns 18. Rather, I want him to slowly learn how to navigate the risks in the world, how to deal with potentially dangerous situations and how to make good decisions to ensure his safety. We have a safe word, he knows it well and should anybody approach him without this safe word, he knows to run, scream, or do anything necessary to escape the situation.
When we project our fear of the “what ifs” onto our children, it creates a sense of fear within them, a fear that often sticks with them. I don’t want Jaiden to be fearful of the world, or the people in it. I think that is just as, if not more dangerous long term than protecting him from it. The truth is that 99.99% of people on this planet are loving, caring, compassionate and respectful. I focus on that part, whilst ensuring he is prepared should he encounter the .01% whom are otherwise. Jaiden is a child who used to be fearful of all people and it took years for me to get him comfortable with meeting strangers. I feel I would be doing him a disservice to now create fear around people he did not know.
I want Jaiden to learn the skills necessary to deal with each and every situation based on the circumstances. I don’t want him to be scared, I want him to grow up and be confident, not fearful. I want him to understand that not everybody is ‘out to get him’, but at the same time be aware that there are horrible people out there. The truth is, there’s more risk of a child being harmed at home, school, church or a local sporting group than there is when walking to the shop to grab some milk. I want him to understand the risks, whilst still being confident navigating the world.
One of the keys to real lasting happiness is human connection. When we make kids fearful of new people, it’s more likely to result in adults who are reclusive, fearful, and scared of the people who surround them. People are the thing that makes us happiest; They give us different perspectives, experiences and that’s the thing that allows us to grow.
To some, sending a 10 year old to the shops by himself is an unimaginable risk. For me, sending him to the shop shows him I am trusting of his abilities as the young man he is becoming and creates a level of independence and confidence within him that makes him realise he can navigate this world. That means a lot to me, I started this adventure 7 years ago with only one goal, to help Jaiden integrate into society happily, and confidently. I feel like he’s well on the way to doing just that.