What to do when you see unsupervised children– Part 1

by Ginny Trierweiler, Ph.D., Author, Speaker, and Parent Coach

I speak with parents and other adults about raising toddlers to be compassionate, thinking, self-reliant individuals.

The other day, I was speaking with such a group and the topic came up– what to do when you see unsupervised children. A parent had seen a couple of school-age children, about 8 and 10 years old, walking together in her neighborhood without an adult.  She was surprised and worried because she feels the “world is such a dangerous place these days and children aren’t safe without an adult.”

First, research shows that we perceive the world to be much more dangerous than it is, greatly overestimating the risk of things like stranger kidnapping. But, whether we’re right to fear this like we do, having a scary idea in our head can lead us to do weird things, things we can regret, things that can hurt people– like calling the police to report unsupervised children when it’s going to do much more harm than good.

So, what should we do as responsible adults, when we see unsupervised children and feel concerned?  We explored at least 4 options:

  1. Trust that all is well and go on our way.  When I was a young child walking to school with my brothers, most adults who saw us walking without an adult took this approach.  If someone saw one of us causing mischief, they came out and said something to us but, otherwise, it just didn’t worry people like it does these days.  If you are truly worried based on things you’ve seen or heard, it may not feel responsible or appropriate to do this.
  2. Call the police to report unsupervised children.  My training as a child psychologist tended to guide me to this approach– call the authorities and let them sort it out.
  3. Observe for awhile with an open mind.  This means we must set aside our imagined fears and judgments and just observe.  Notice whether the children seem fine or seem in need of help.
  4. We can offer assistance to the children.  I’m Mrs. Sanders and I live nearby.  I saw you children walking by yourselves and wanted to ask if you need any help. 

Here’s why I think calling the police is often the wrong thing to do, even though my training led me in this direction.

There are major health benefits for children to have the opportunity to play at the park or walk to and from places they want to go.  Children benefit from the exercise and from spending time outdoors.  And the problems associated with a sedentary lifestyle, while perhaps not creating as a compelling an image in our minds, are a much more likely and serious threat than that of stranger abduction.

There are many developmental benefits for children to have the opportunity to come and go without constant supervision. Children develop problem-solving skills and social skills from having to figure things out without constant adult direction.  Even skills such as patience, empathy, and courteousness develop better when children are allowed to do more on their own.

If we understood that there is a very low likelihood of a child being snatched by a stranger, while there is a very high likelihood that preventing children from unsupervised outdoor play would condemn them to having unhealthy bodies and brains, obesity, hyperactivity, and difficulty concentrating, maybe we would be more supportive of more unsupervised play.

The next post addresses the social and community benefits of allowing children more opportunities to do things on their own.

Have you ever worried about an unsupervised child?  What did you do?


I love to speak to groups about parenting toddlers or teens.  Get in touch!  drginny@bornforbrilliance.com

gt headshot pretty smile 2013


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2 Responses to What to do when you see unsupervised children– Part 1

  1. URSULA SALAS says:

    Ginny! I’m so happy to see this post. We were having a discussion in my house about this just this week – and the insane number of parents who are being threatened with neglect charges because their children were out alone. There is so much evidence to argue that children are no more at risk to play or walk alone today than they were many years ago – the difference is an over-policed society, and a social media driven world. I agree we must be diligent, but our neighbors were diligent when I was small too – calling my mother to ask if it was ok that we were out at a particular park when they drove by. I know most people believe they are acting in a child’s best interest when they report this as neglect, but I don’t agree with that at all. We will succeed in creating a paranoid, fearful world if that is the way we wish to see it every day.

    • admin says:

      Ursula! Thanks for your message. I so agree with you! I feel like, in my early years as a psychologist, I went along with this idea that children need a massive amount of supervision. Over time, I saw that the children with more opportunity to take action for themselves were the most intelligent, capable, and even the more courteous children. I am atoning for my part in it now!

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