Kids between the ages of 11 and 14 have a growing urge to navigate a wider world -- ride a bike, take the bus, hang out at a mall -- by themselves or with friends. Even if they push for the freedom, and even if they don't admit they're scared, for most kids this feels like stepping onto the high wire. How can we as parents weave a safety net that protects our daring young acrobats?
Detective Gary Felt of the Bellevue Police Department recommends that parents strongly consider their own child's judgment and decision-making capabilities. He feels that 12 is the absolute minimum age for starting to explore the community without adults in tow. "They should be in the company of a buddy or two. They should keep away from people they do not know, no matter how friendly they may appear to be. And they should always know how to contact parents or guardians in an uncomfortable or emergency situation," Felt advises. Kids out alone should carry an I.D. card, some money, parental contact information and a cell phone if possible. "Be honest with kids about true dangers, even if frightening. Make yourself available to them: they need to know they can count on you 24/7 to come rescue them if needed."
Many parents find that the local mall becomes an important "third place" for older kids and young teens. Felt recommends that parents remind their kids that they should be "helping, not hindering, the purpose of a mall: for shoppers. Don't block areas that shoppers travel, such as aisles, doorways or around informational signboards. Wherever you see security officers 'hanging out' is likely to be a trouble spot where they are trying to deter trouble, so leave that area right away."
Some parents find that allowing kids to walk or bike to a nearby cafe, video store or bookstore is a good way to help kids start building confidence and skills. Parents should know the exact route the child will follow. Children should call home when they get to their destination and again before they leave.
After they've mastered walking adventures in their own neighborhoods, kids can learn to use the public bus system. Colene Baker, training and project specialist for King County Metro Transit, says planning ahead is the secret to safe bus use.
She suggests that parents and kids discuss the following bus safety rules:
- Pick up a bus schedule at any library and practice reading it at home.
- Plan your route with Metro's Tripfinder program http://tripplanner.metrokc.gov (This site also includes information on Snohomish and Pierce County bus routes.)
- Get to the bus stop five minutes before your bus is due.
- Never run after a moving bus. Drivers can't see you in their mirrors and are not allowed to stop the bus once they've pulled away from the curb.
- If they are standing in a bus shelter, kids should step out of it when they see their bus coming.
- There is no bathroom on the bus.
- Bus drivers can't make change, so carry exact fare. For kids under 18, the fare is 50 cents. Keep bus fare in a separate pocket from spending money.
- Ask for a transfer when you board the bus.
- Sit as close to the driver as possible, on the right-hand side of the bus so the driver can see you. If anything makes you feel uncomfortable or you need any help at all, talk to the driver at once.
- If riding with friends, use good bus etiquette. Don't be loud or rowdy.
- Pull the cord to let the driver know you'd like to get off several blocks before your stop. Cross at a marked crosswalk, not in front of the bus.
Baker also suggests that kids wear light-colored clothing for added visibility at bus stops. Like the other good habits we encourage in our kids, moving safely through the community takes planning and practice. Rehearsing possibilities and knowing that parents are just a phone call away will help kids step out the door with confidence, competence -- and a safety net to catch them if they fall.
Paula Becker is a Seattle-based writer and mother of three.
Hints for exploring the wider world
- Watch Metro's "How To Ride The Bus" 16-minute clip http://transit.metrokc.gov/tops/bus/howride.html
- Do an activity with your child first, e.g. ride the bus explaining what to do, then ride the bus letting your child make the decisions, then give him the chance to ride without you.
- At the mall, start small. Go together; synchronize watches, separate for an hour and then meet up as planned.
- Be clear with kids about places they can't hang out (e.g., the food court or certain bus stops).
- If your child uses an MP3 player, consider whether she should wear the headset during these outings. How alert to her surroundings is she when listening to music?
- Teach your child whom to ask for help. Security staff? Merchant? A mom with kids? Clue kids in to the fact that many merchants have (sadly) learned to be suspicious of teens with backpacks or large bags. Encourage them to check bags (and remember to reclaim them), or at least not reach in and out of bags in stores, so as not to be suspected of shoplifting.
- Train kids to call when they arrive, agree to how long they'll stay and call when they depart. Explain that for their safety they must call you if anything changes. Express your willingness to help them at any point and be available by phone.