Some of you might consider theme parks to be ideal places to allow children to learn to exercise their independence. A theme park is a contained environment with a staff of hundreds, if not thousands, of employees looking out for visitors' safety. They're fun to explore and offer relatively few opportunities to get into any real trouble.
Others might think the opposite. Theme parks are packed with thousands of visitors, crowding walkways and making it even more difficult for smaller children to see where they are. Attractions often involve complex machinery that can be dangerous to anyone without experience heeding safety instructions.
But, at some point, kids grow up. And as children approach their teenage years, their parents might find that agreeing to let the kids go off by themselves is the only way to get them to agree to a visit a theme park (or anywhere else, frankly) without protest.
My daughter was running around Disneyland with her friends, with no parents in sight, back in elementary school. She and her brother also took the train from our home down to L.A.'s Chinatown when they were in middle school. My freshman son often takes the train home from high school, or over to Universal CityWalk to meet his friends for movies. So, obviously, we're okay with sending them off into the world.
But our kids have been going to theme parks since before they can remember, so these are familiar places to them. They started going on L.A. Metro trains with their classmates for field trips in elementary school. It's not as if we just showed up in an unfamiliar place one day and said 'you're on your own!' We, and their teachers, worked to prepare them for independence.
Still, parents have to make the call: At what age do you let them have a little free time out of the nest? For broader social context here, I think that some people giving advice on this issue talk like ill-informed nuts. I wandered off by myself in public all the time when I was a kid, and crime rates today are much, much lower than back in the 1970s. The biggest danger facing kids today is from automobile accidents -- but many parents don't see the car trip as the most dangerous part of a theme park visit. Stranger danger? The people most likely to kidnap or abuse children are their own family members. Heck, maybe sending kids away from their family, on public transit, might be the safest thing to do for them after all. ;^)
Anyway, what's the age where you, as a parent, feel comfortable letting the kids go off by themselves in a park, with no adults present? And if you're not a parent, why not just look back on your own experience and tell us at what age you would have felt comfortable and confident going off on your own?
We will start the options at age 7, as that was the age a child needed to be to ride unaccompanied at Disney back when I worked there. (What's the minimum now? My children have been older than that for so long that I'm afraid I've stopped paying attention to such things.) Of course, when kids hit 16 they can get a driver's license and go to work in some parks, so that's our upper limit. (Update: Let's clarify that we're talking about letting them go off in the park when you are visiting the park, too, as opposed to just dropping them at the front gate.)
What are your rules for letting kids go in a park? And, when you do, what do you do while they're away? Let's get a conversation going in the comments.
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