Thanks to better medicine, lower crime rates, and increased injury awareness, American kids are safer than ever. But you'd never know it from the news headlines, which reveal that we're raising kids on short electronic tethers and micromanaging their lives. Experts say this comes at a price: "Hovering creates a kind of codependency," says Timothy Johanson, M.D., a pediatrician and co-author of Gist: The Essence of Raising Life-Ready Kids. "It sends the message that the world is dangerous, and that kids are ill-equipped to navigate it."
So how's a parent to know when a child is poised to take on life's next big challenge, whether biking around the block or driving on the interstate? "Communicate well, set expectations, and practice," Johanson says. "You'll know your child is ready when you see him act responsibly, over and over." Here, five great opportunities for letting kids learn valuable life lessons.
What you might think: She could be kidnapped. There might be perverts. And the germs!
Real-world strategy: "We were in our favorite frozen yogurt shop when my 6-year-old daughter, Addy, announced that she wanted to go to the bathroom by herself," says Rachel Olsen, a mom in San Diego. "I had to talk myself through it -- there's one stall, and I was right outside the door. Somehow, I knew this was a watershed moment, so I said, 'Sure. I'll wait right here.' "
Olsen, who says she isn't quite ready to let her daughter try this in larger venues like department stores or airports, asked Addy a few questions afterward, like Were you able to lock the door? Were you nervous? "When she said yes, and no, respectively, I knew she was ready to try it in other small stores," Olsen says. "I still hang close to the entrance, but I do let her go in by herself. My daughter really appreciated the independence, and I saw it build her confidence to handle other tasks without my help."
Make it safe: Many kids are ready for this milestone at age 6, says Rachelle Theise, Psy.D., a psychologist at New York University's Child Study Center. "Start with baby steps," she advises. "You can say, 'I'll wait right outside, so you can yell if you need me.' " And remind yourself that it's unlikely a creep is lurking: 90 percent of sex crimes against children are committed by people they know, not strangers.
What you might think: Never. Concussions are too big a risk.
Real-world strategy: When his son, Zian, first wanted to play tackle football, Mark Thrun, M.D., admits it scared him. "I'm a public health doctor, so I knew all the risks," he says. "But as I looked into it more, I educated myself about the risks that exist in all sports." That was five years ago, and Zian, now 13, plays in two leagues.
"We feel the good he gets from football -- positive, careful coaching; teamwork; physical exercise -- makes it worth it," says Thrun, who lives in Denver. But he pulled Zian out of one league: "We felt there wasn't a culture of safety among the coaches and parents. He played flag football that season instead, and while he was annoyed, he came to respect our decision."
Still, Thrun worries just about every Saturday. "Football is the leading cause of concussion in Zian's age group," he says. "But I won't stop him from playing. It's his passion, and for us, the benefits outweigh the risks."
Make it safe: With concussions occurring in about 40,000 high school athletes each year, some experts suggest that tackle football shouldn't be allowed until age 10. "There's no hard science yet to prove that is the best age," says Paul Stricker, M.D., a sports pediatrician in San Diego. "But since we're learning it's the cumulative damage that's most worrisome, there's no reason to start contact before 10. Kids can learn important skills without the tackle element."
Programs are also responding to new concerns: Pop Warner, the largest youth football program, now restricts head-to-head contact. USA Football offers an online checklist for parents to ask coaches about their training, tips for fitting a helmet, and spotting signs of a concussion. Still others form leagues based on size and maturity, as well as age.
It's scary stuff, Stricker says, but he urges parents to keep the pigskin in perspective: "Youth football actually produces fewer emergency room visits than recess and jungle gyms, and kids learn valuable lessons and athletic skills," he says.
If your child is eager to play, Stricker says, "Educate yourself, watch a coach in action before letting your kid join the team, and make sure the league follows the latest safety precautions."
What you might think: Without supervision, kids are likely to misbehave. And they could be abducted.
Real-world strategy: "We have a downtown area where tons of kids shop, and one store even has a sign about not allowing unaccompanied tweens in, because of shoplifting," says Shannan Younger, a mom in Naperville, Illinois. "At first, I let my 11-year-old, Megan, shop with a friend on their own for about 15 minutes when I was at a store nearby. And we've worked our way up, also letting her walk around at an enclosed mall with a friend for up to an hour while the friend's mom was also shopping there. She is getting to the age where there is a strong urge for freedom, and I want her to know I believe in her. If I am always hovering, I am giving her the message that I don't think she can handle things capably."
Make it safe: Many kids are ready for this by 11 or 12, Johanson says. Start small, and let kids shop on their own for an hour. "If they meet you at the appointed place and on time four or five times in a row, you can go a little further," he says. "You might say, 'You can shop for a few hours while I go to lunch nearby.' Safety issues come down to trust, which a child must earn before you can give them more responsibility." Of course, also make the point that while the world is full of kind, trustworthy people, there are bad apples, too. "Let kids know that they need to keep their eyes open for anyone acting suspicious, and not get too engrossed in their phones," says Jennifer Shu, M.D., a pediatrician in Atlanta. Tell children to always stay with a buddy and to find a security guard or other mall employee if someone makes them feel nervous.
What you might think: Cyberbullying is epidemic, and kids are vulnerable to online predators.
Real-world strategy: While most social networks require that children be 13 or older to have an account, it's probably the least-respected rule in middle school history. Case in point: An estimated 7.5 million kids under 13 are on Facebook, many with their parents' consent. Still, Shu, the pediatrician, held firm and made her son wait until he was 13 to open his own Instagram account. "Rules are in place for a reason, so when parents bend or break them, I think it sends the wrong message," she says. "It's important for me to show him that I'm following the rules."
Whatever parents decide, "the big issue is that there has to be some monitoring," Shu says. "My son understands that from time to time, I will check his phone and recent posts. And I do it about every two weeks."
Make it safe: The American Academy of Pediatrics points out that social media provides plenty of benefits, including community-building opportunities and homework help.
To protect kids, parents need to "supervise online activities via active participation and communication, including regular family discussions about online topics, checks of privacy settings, and monitoring of online profiles for inappropriate posts," Shu says -- especially if you decide to let your child open an account before age 13. "The emphasis should be on citizenship and healthy behavior."
What you might think: Who knows what she could buy -- especially online.
Real-world strategy: Bank accounts for Erin Constantine's teens, now 18 and 21, were a given -- she's an executive vice president at Wells Fargo, and the teen checking account that the bank offers was an obvious fit. "We thought of it as a sort of learner's permit for banking," she says. "Teens don't have very complex needs, and the type of accounts we opened up supplied plenty of guardrails."
For her family, the decision about whether each child was ready was individual, with her younger daughter clamoring for a card at 13 and her older daughter still blase about the idea at 14. Erin kept an eye on organizational skills as a sign of readiness, too. (If your child keeps losing house keys, he'll probably lose a debit card.) "We controlled the risk by limiting the number and amount of transactions, and since we had access to the account, we could see where the money was going," Constantine says. Still, it was a challenge to keep her distance. "If I got a low-balance warning, I'd transfer money, giving them an advance on their allowance," she says. "But overall, it was a real opportunity to start talking about handling money in a more adult way. They're both in college now -- and very responsible financially."
Make it safe: Many kids are ready by 13, and often banks have accounts geared toward teens, which might have low service fees and give you oversight, allowing you to set withdrawal and charging limits. You can also consider a joint account. "Kids will overspend and make mistakes," says J. Michael Collins, a family finance expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "But that's part of the learning process, and it's better that happens while they are still at home."