Our family just returned from an amazing week at Camp Mather — San Francisco’s Recreation and Park Department’s family camp located near Yosemite. There are hundreds of activities for all ages, including a ropes course, hikes, archery, dodgeball, and bingo. This was our first summer going, and besides the bugs and bees, one of the things I was most anxious about was no cell or Internet service anywhere nearby, but it actually turned out to be one of the best parts of the week.
The other highlight of the week was seeing my children thrive, given the independence and freedom the camp allowed. The campsite is large but is full of families and totally safe, so our children were free to roam to activities on their own, to meet us at meal times and meet new friends on the soccer field or for a bike ride.
It reminded me so much of how I grew up. From a young age, I walked to the bus stop with neighbors and rode my bike to swim practice every morning. We also spent summer nights playing kickball or riding bikes on the greenbelt until dark. This got me thinking about how we can give our children a similar feeling of independence and freedom while living in a large urban city such as San Francisco. Here are some tips I hope will help me learn to let go a bit so our children can feel safe and secure on their own.
One of the biggest challenges in a large city is traffic, so part of feeling safe is teaching our children to be alert and aware pedestrians. For me, the biggest fear in letting them walk or ride somewhere alone is not being abducted but rather distracted drivers. So often drivers are either on a cell phone or are just aggressive and careless. For our young children, we can teach them to always hold a grownup’s hand when crossing the street. I have my 3-year-old look both ways and then ask him to tell me when it is safe to cross. This gives him some control and independence and is an early lesson in being aware of cars coming in all directions. It is also never too early to teach them to wait for the walk sign and always use a crosswalk. Once they are older, we can teach them to make eye contact with the driver before crossing. Knowing they have mastered these skills gives us as parents peace of mind when they ask to walk to a nearby friend’s house or even school.
The actual chances of being abducted may be relatively low, but we all watch the news and read the horrible stories on the Internet, so the possibility of this happening can cause us to overprotect. From a young age, we can teach our children what to do if they get lost and what to do if someone tries to lure them away in a car. By the age of 4 or 5, children are capable of learning their address and at least one parent’s cell phone number. This is also the time to teach them to dial 9-1-1 for an emergency.
As children get older and are ready to stay home alone, it is important they understand not to answer the phone or door and never to tell anyone their parents are not home. Leaving our children home alone is a big milestone, but when they appear ready it can give your child and even us as parents a new sense of freedom.
There is definitely something to be said for the idea of safety in numbers. I know I always feel better having my older children do something knowing they are together and will keep an eye out for one another. Recently, I have begun letting my older two ride their bikes around the block. This does not entail crossing any streets, but it does require paying attention to people pulling in and out of driveways. I have done this with them thousands of times and now feel they are ready to do it by themselves. This will hopefully lead to being able to walk to a nearby friend’s house or even grabbing a last-minute item from the corner store for mom.
We can also teach early on the importance of checking in. When we are at a park, especially one we haven’t been to before, I always ask them to let me know where they will be playing and making sure they always have a buddy when going to the restroom. As they get older, cell phones make it easier to always know where they are, whom they are with, and when they will be back.
We will never be able to replicate our Camp Mather experience here in San Francisco, but that is part of what makes that week so special and an experience I know they will continue to look forward to every year. However, I think one of the best gifts we can give to our children is to equip them with the tools to make smart decisions even when we are not with them.