When our oldest son was six, I lost him. He ducked into the trees while we were skiing and he didn’t come out. When he didn’t come out, I was torn. Should I leave his three year-old brother on the groomed slope and go into the trees to search for him? Should I stay with his brother and call for my other son at the top of my voice? Or should we keep skiing, confident in his ability, not only to ski, but to have enough sense to wait at the bottom of the mountain?
The latter course was really my only option. I couldn’t leave a three-year-old alone, and I was (mostly) sure my six-year-old knew what he was doing. He did. When we got to the bottom, I asked him what happened. He looked at me with a big smile and said “I was skiing the trees.”
Freedom, Flight Plans and Phones
Looking back, many things could have gone wrong. But nothing did. After we reunited, we set some rules riding back up on the chairlift. We agreed to tell each other where we are going and where we will meet. We also agreed he should not go on his adventures alone.
These are good rules for skiing, and for life. As our children have grown, these rules have become more and more important. When they began mountain biking without us, I called it “filing a flight plan.” Tell us where you’re going, with whom and when you’ll be back. With this information (and cell phones), we’ve granted our boys a lot of freedom: to go camping, hiking, biking, backpacking, skiing and more without adults.
We Still Have Boundaries
This is not to say that I advocate allowing elementary school kids and teenagers to run wild. We have plenty of rules, and we have clear boundaries. Our 16 year-old recently wanted to go camping with friends in Utah. We felt that the plan had some serious flaws: too many cars, driving too late at night, for too many miles.
The risks were big enough that we felt uncomfortable. We told him no and suggested several closer destinations. The other parents agreed, but these boys were having none of it. For them, it was Utah or bust!, so they chose bust.
Our Family Guidelines
Every family is different, so I won’t assume that these guidelines will work for any other family. Still, here are some of the factors we consider when giving our children increased freedom and responsibility.
1. Skills are more important than age. My six year-old skier had many days under his boards before he disappeared into the trees. We let him and his brother ride the lift alone once they were both big enough to get on and off safely and by the time the oldest was 10, they were taking runs without us. If they had less experience, they would have been older before they got these freedoms.
2. Good sense trumps rules. We set a lot of rules. Before our boys go on an expedition, we clearly outline our expectations (i.e. There is a fire ban. There will be no fire). Still, all the rules in the world don’t matter if a child doesn’t use good sense. We try not to give our kids more freedom than they can handle.
3. Cellphones equal peace of mind. I know, we adults were all raised, and somehow managed to survive into adulthood, without a phone. But times have changed. We have no interest in our children calling continuously, but it’s nice to know that they can reach us if something goes wrong, or the flight plan changes. When the boys started skiing without us, we asked them to call once every hour. They did. We continued to let them ski alone.
4. If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody going. Same goes for dad. If either parent has strong reservations about an activity, or the other kids involved, we talk about it. If we’re still not comfortable, the plans must change.
5. Controlled independence equals learned responsibility. One of the reasons we enjoy granting our children independence is so that they can learn to take care of themselves. We don’t want them to grow up timid or fearful (not a chance), nor do we want them to be foolhardy (a greater chance). By limiting some experiences and structuring others for success, we hope that they’ve learned that they can do most anything – if they’re prepared and have the proper experience.
What guidelines do you use for your kids when they want more independence? Are you comfortable letting them explore and adventure alone? Why or why not?
- Climbing, Risk and Motherhood: Guest Post by Cragmama, July 21, 2011.
- Decision Points, May 8, 2012.
- School, Risk and Bravado: Learning to Think Things Through, September 20, 2012.
Portions of this post originally published at Women’s Adventure, as an Adventure Moms column.
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