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3 rules to let kids explore on their own

3 Rules for Staying Sane when Releasing Kids into the Wild

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Where are they?

The kids have now been gone for 20 minutes. Surely they should be back by now. How long can it take to buy some popcorn? Or were they buying a hot dog? Soda? Those would have been good questions to ask.

I pull out my phone and stare at it like it’s my Magic 8 Ball. I know all three kids have cell phones and I have each of their phone numbers. I also know that one got her phone taken away for talking back to her mother, one brought it but ran the battery down taking selfies on the drive to the stadium, and the other? In my coat pocket.

Forty-five minutes later, the three girls come strolling back to our seats, oblivious to the level of anxiety they’ve generated. None are related to me and there’s part of the problem. Over the years, my own children have built up a level of trust and understanding with me so that I don’t really have to run through our rules. They have a pretty well-developed sense of what’s going to push me over the edge.

My rules are for the benefit of everyone: they keep the kid safe, keep me on the right side of crazy, and preserve our good times. Nothing ruins a trip faster than angry, worried parents and sullen, defensive kids.

I’ve developed my three rules over the years and have allowed my two children to explore further and longer as they’ve gotten older. I started small, allowing them to wander within my eye sight when they were young, basically at an age when they could walk without falling over. They’ve graduated to navigating amusement parks and other sites on their own. These three rules have kept us safe, sane and happy.

1. Agree on the itinerary

We always walk through where they want to go and what they want to do. If they’re new to exploring on their own, this may need to be quite prescriptive: “I’m going to the second food stand on the right and I will not make any other stops.”

Loosen up as you see they have the level of maturity to make good decisions. Always agree on a specific meeting point and time, whether that’s “back at the hotel room and no longer than 30 minutes,” or “meet right back here at 4 pm.”

2. Open the lines of communication

I have never been one that believes kids need their own cell phones, but the farther they’re going on their own, the nicer it is. If the kids don’t have their own phones, give them yours if you’ll be somewhere reachable by phone, such as the hotel room. No cell phone? Ideally, they need to be able to check in somehow, whether it’s swinging back to your location periodically or calling from a landline at agreed-upon intervals.

3. Review Plan B

You can’t plan for every situation, but a brief walk-through is helpful. For example, at amusement parks, we agree on a meeting place. However, if they don’t see me, they’re to wait at that spot, not start wandering to try to find me. If I’ve sent them off to the concession stand and the line is moving way to slowly, I need to hear from them. And please, don’t talk to the overly loud man in the crowd. That’s a good rule for anywhere.

It’s been incredibly rewarding to watch my kids’ confidence and independence soar over the years. We still love hanging out together, but I can see they love their time to explore on their own too. Don’t we all?

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Andrea is a single mom in Arlington, Virginia with a 15-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter. Her children took their first trips when they were just four…

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