Why these parents encourage their kids to explore Calgary without an adult
It's not for everyone, but they see enormous reward in letting their children take calculated risks
This article was originally published on July 25.
Erin Chrusch has a rule for her kids when they wander into the woods without an adult.
Always travel in a group of at least three.
Her 10-year-old son and daughter, 8, enlist their neighborhood friends for their regular excursions into the nature reserve near the family's suburban Calgary home. The kids don't carry cellphones, so Chrusch can't call them or track their location via GPS. But she's confident sending them out this way, because if one child gets hurt, another can tend to the injured one while the third goes for help.
This approach to raising kids was more common when Chrusch was a child, but it might alarm a lot of parents today.
Over the decades, children's worlds have shrunk, as moms, dads — and society, at large — have insisted on closer supervision. It's a phenomenon that's been observed around the developed world, and Calgary is no exception.
Of course, there's no single, correct way to a raise a kid. Every parent faces daily decisions about how to balance freedom and protection, risk and reward. Their choices will depend on countless factors unique to their own circumstances.
For those who opt to grant their children more independence at a younger age, however, there are particular challenges in this city. Its car-centric design, for instance, creates barriers for citizens too young for a driver's licence.
But it's not just the physical environment. These days, unsupervised children can raise a lot of eyebrows, and even phone calls to child welfare authorities. Chrusch credits her neighbours for being open to kids who roam freely. It could be "very different," she says, if she lived in a different part of the city where the local culture is less accepting of children being out on their own.
Indeed, the data shows kids are venturing out, by themselves, less than they used to in Calgary. A variety of factors are at play here, from parental fears to urban design to the growth in specialized kids' activities that require them to travel to far-away hockey rinks or ballet studios, rather than going to the nearest park. And yet, parents like Chrusch don't just allow their kids to explore their neighbourhoods without an adult, they encourage it.
"I think kids are smarter than we give them credit for," she says. "I really think that's what it boils down to."
Developing confidence and trust
For Chrusch, it's all about being confident as a parent, while instilling that same sense in her children, even if it means disapproving comments from other, more risk-averse parents. She recognizes her style of raising children might not be for everyone, but says it works for her family.
"We end up making too many decisions based on what other people think and how we'll be judged," she says. "Do what works for you, ultimately."
Plus, her kids love it.
Last year, for instance, she gave her son $5 and a mission. She asked him to bike to the store, without an adult, and pick up an ingredient for dinner. He returned, successful and beaming.
"The amount of confidence that it gave him ... he talked about it for weeks and weeks and weeks," Chrusch says.
"He knew we trusted him. And, I think, no matter who you are and no matter how old you are, knowing you have someone else's trust, we inherently want to respect that."
Christie and Aaron Stayner have taken a similar approach with their daughters, aged six and nine.
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It started as early as age five, when — after a month of practice — their eldest first crossed the street without holding mom's hand. Then, when she was eight, she graduated to going to the store, without an adult, to pick up milk.
"We gave her expectations and she rose to the expectations," Christie says.
"She knew she was getting a level of freedom, a level of responsibility and a level of trust," Aaron adds. "She's earned that trust to be able to do this."
The Stayners recognize, however, this wouldn't even be an option if the grocery store wasn't a short walk away.
And in many parts of Calgary, that's the reality that parents — and kids — must face.
The physical environment
Tim Gill has spent a career studying childhood and urban design. He's based in the United Kingdom but spent 10 days in Calgary last year, exploring its neighbourhoods and interviewing its people.
He found particular challenges for parents in this city who want to give young children a greater degree of independence.
Gill, the author of No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk Averse Society, says Calgary is "a perfect example of a highly car-centred city," where most people live in sprawling suburbs, and homes are often located far from amenities, which are usually separated by busy thoroughfares.
"That's a really big kind of geographical barrier — a design barrier — to anyone who wants kids to have some freedom," he says, in a phone interview from London.
So it's perhaps not surprising that the number of kids out and about on their own has diminished as Calgary experienced some of its most rapid growth. From 2001 to 2011, the city's population increased by nearly a quarter-million people, many of them moving into brand new suburbs.
You can see how things changed over that same time in the results of a wide-ranging study the City of Calgary conducts on travel habits once a decade. Thousands of families are surveyed, in detail, about how they get around the city.
The data collected is voluminous and rich, and it strongly suggests that kids these days don't walk nearly as much as they used to.
In the span of the latest decade to be studied, there was a "significant drop" in the number of trips that children and teenagers made on foot. In 2001, for example, it was just as common for kids to walk to school as it was for parents to drop them off. By 2011, car trips outnumbered walking trips by a more than 2-to-1 margin.
In general, the data paints a picture in which more and more young Calgarians are being driven around the city, which means the constant presence of an adult.
And Gill says that's related to a second challenge with this type of suburban design.
"It makes these neighbourhoods feel really quite deserted, if you're out and about on foot or on bikes."
The cultural environment
The Stayners say a big part of their willingness to let their daughters roam around their inner-city neighbourhood is not just how close they live to friends' houses or the park or the store — but also how many familiar faces the kids are likely to encounter along the way.
"If we had just moved into the neighbourhood, no, I wouldn't give the kids that freedom," Christie says. "But, because we're a community ... I feel comfortable. I know everyone and my kids know people and they can go to people for help, should they ever need it."
Like the always-travel-in-threes rule that Chrusch has for her kids when exploring the forest, the Stayners have a similar rule for their daughters. When they walk to the park, they must follow the route that runs along a well-populated street, where they're more likely to run into neighbours who are also out and about.
"When there's lots of people, it's safe," Christie says.
In her own suburban community, Chrusch also credits her level of comfort with the fact that she knows other adults are looking out for her children.
"The cul-de-sac where we're at right now, all of the neighbours have a kind of village idea, where we all look after each other and each other's kids," she says. "Everybody kind of keeps tabs on it."
She counts herself lucky to live on a street with like-minded people, as she's seen how different things can be elsewhere.
She recalls one example, in particular, from that place "where everyone goes for parenting advice" — Facebook.
Chrusch recounts a recent case in which someone on a community Facebook page she follows breathlessly reported seeing a group of children playing by themselves in a park and urgently asked the group for advice on what to do, as if something needed to be done.
This person, she says, hadn't thought to simply inquire with the kids if their parents knew where they were. Her mind had raced to the worst possible assumption as her fingers raced to a keyboard.
"People are too quick to judge," Chrusch says.
"They claim to care about the safety of the kids but it turns into being more about parent shaming."
For Christie Stayner, staying away from social media is often the best way to go, as a mom.
Her husband, Aaron, admits he's "a big social media guy" but sees what it brings out in people.
"It's the worst," he says. "Face to face or even over a phone, suddenly it changes. But there's just that ability to pound out something on a keyboard or a smartphone that you wouldn't say to somebody, face to face."
Still, external judgment isn't strictly found online. And while they say they get far more support than criticism from friends, family and the community, Christie recalls one particular horrified reaction from a peer who discovered she sent her child to the store unsupervised.
"She wanted to tell me it was illegal and super dangerous," Christie says. "She just didn't know. She was scared."
So, what does the law say about all this?
Not a whole heck of a lot, as it turns out.
Safety advice is nuanced
It varies a bit from province to province but, for the most part, there are no real rules that prescribe a particular age at which children are allowed to walk to the park, take the bus or go to the store without adult supervision.
In Alberta, the provincial government says there's no magic number to make that determination. Rather, it's simply up to parents to "ensure the safety and well-being of their child."
"Multiple factors need to be considered, including the age and maturity of the child, the distance and amount of time the child will be alone, and who the child might come into contact with," Zoe Cooper, communications director with Alberta Children's Services, told CBC News in an email.
The Canada Safety Council, which advises governments and provides training courses for both parents and children, recommends age 10 for leaving kids at home alone and age 12 for leaving them in the care of other kids, but stresses that all kids are different and it's up to parents to make their own decisions.
"It depends a lot on where you live, what is the development level of the child, is it a child you can trust?" says Raynald Marchand, the council's general manager of programs.
"And I think that parents are best able to do that."
Julie Freedman Smith echoes that advice.
The co-founder of Parenting Power, a Calgary-based company that offers workshops and coaching, says moms and dads need to do what they believe is right for their own children, and that can even vary from child to child within the same family.
"There is not a best way to parent. In fact, our company's motto is: There's more than one right way to parent," she says.
"Our belief is that parents need to make a decision that's right for their family and not be so overly concerned with what everybody else is thinking."
And that works both ways.
One size doesn't fit all
As much pride as Christie Stayner exudes when she talks about her children and their expanding ability to navigate the world on their own, she was a bit hesitant to be interviewed, at first.
"I'm terrified about the comments on this article," she says.
Her caution is understandable. Parenting is a high-stakes topic, fraught with emotions and expectations and judgment. Not a whole lot of moms would be willing to open up in such a public way about their own parenting style, especially one that involves children taking more risks, albeit calculated ones.
So Christie chooses her words carefully. As much as she fears being judged, she doesn't want to preach or judge others. She recognizes these types of decisions are not a one-size-fits-all situation.
Chrusch feels much the same way. As much as she bristled at the Facebook busybody concerned about the kids playing in the park, she doesn't want to suggest that all parents should raise their kids in the same way she does.
"I think we all have to respect each other's parenting decisions, and there's not enough of that going on."
And, as passionate as she is about how well her approach seems to be working right now, Christie also recognizes that, like any parent, she's still figuring things out as she goes along.
"I'm not going to know for 30 years if I screwed up my kids. I think I'm doing right, but I'm sure they'll tell me, when they're parents, that I did something wrong," she says.
"But all I can do is the best I can do. And that's all we can all do."
Calgary: The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary's special focus on our city as it passes through the crucible of the downturn: the challenges we face, and the possible solutions as we explore what kind of Calgary we want to create. Have an idea? Email us at: email@example.com
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