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Guidelines for turning kids loose: On snow and in life

When my oldest son was six, I lost him. We were skiing together with his younger brother when he ducked into the trees. 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 my younger boy and call for my other son at the top of my lungs? Or should we ski down to the base, confident in his ability to ski and to have enough sense to wait for us at the bottom?

Skiing down was really my only option. I couldn’t leave a three-year-old alone, and I was fairly confident my six-year-old would show up. He did. At the bottom of the run, I asked him what happened. With a big smile he replied, “I was skiing the trees.”

Flight Plans Aren’t Just for Pilots

Looking back, this could have been a disastrous scenario. Lots of bad things could have happened. But nothing did. Riding up the chairlift for our next run, we set some rules. We agreed to tell each other where we are going and where we will meet. We also agreed that he should not go on his adventures alone.

These rules have served us well, and not just for skiing. When the boys began mountain biking without us, I asked them to “file a flight plan.” Like a pilot, tell me where you’re going, with whom and when you’ll be back. With this information, we’ve granted our sons the freedom to go camping, hiking, biking, backpacking, skiing and more sans adults.

Boundaries Are Important

 This is not to say that I advocate allowing kids to run wild. We have lots of rules and clear boundaries. This fall, our 16 year-old and his friends wanted to go camping. We felt that the plan had some serious flaws.

We were uncomfortable with their plan, so we suggested some options. The other parents agreed, but the boys were having none of it. For them, it was go camping or bust!, so they chose bust.

Rules for Freedom

 Every family is different, and what works for us might not work for any other family. Still, here are some of the factors we consider when giving our children increased freedom and responsibility.

  1. Experience is more important than age. My little boy had many days on snow when he took off 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. When they were 10 and 8, they were skiing without us. Because they had so much experience, we knew they had the skills. Less experience would have meant waiting until they were older for these freedoms.
  2. Good sense trumps rules. Before our boys go off alone, we outline our rules and 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 sons more freedom than they can handle sensibly.
  3. If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody going. Same goes for papa. 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.
  4. Cell phones equal peace of mind. I love cell phones. While I don’t always appreciate being plugged in and connected to the larger world, it’s nice to know that our sons can reach us if something goes wrong, or if their 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 together.
  5. Structured freedom equals learned responsibility. One of the reasons we grant 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, nor do we want them to be foolhardy. By limiting some experiences and structuring others for success, we hope that they grow up confident that they can do most anything – if they’re prepared and have the proper experience.

What guidelines do you use? How do you know when your kids are ready for more independence? Are you comfortable letting them explore and adventure alone? Why or why not?

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Kristen Lummis

Kristen Lummis is the owner, writer and head ski tech at www.BraveSkiMom.com. The mom of two boys in a busy outdoor family, Kristen writes about skiing all year round, tossing in some biking, hiking, parenting and even a bit of reflection during the off-season. While her recreational passion is for all things snow, her real passion is for her family.


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