We live in a suburban town with a central downtown area full of shops and restaurants. It’s a nice area that attracts couples, groups of friends, families, and parents with strollers, having coffee, enjoying a meal, shopping or seeing a movie.
Except on Friday afternoons, when downtown is overrun with middle school students. Every town has its rites of passage, and this is one of ours.
Kids usually begin testing the waters toward the end of 5th grade. My 5th grade son Michael has recently started going into town with his friends, and as annoying as a pack of adolescents can be, I realize that there can be a lot of good lessons they learn from this particular rite of passage:
Negotiation: There are a handful of places these kids tend to eat (and therefore, places most adults learn to avoid when they are overtaken by smaller individuals who punctuate their sentences with “oh, man” and “like.”). They need to figure out how to decide where they’re going when there’s dissention in the group between pizza and Mexican food.
Money management: Kids develop an appreciation for how much things cost when they’re paying for it themselves. Ours have learned to manage their allowance and any other money they have so they can spend it how they like. They can also learn smaller lessons about counting their change, tipping and using coupons.
Generosity: For whatever reason, one of the usual stops for these kids is the old independent drugstore in town, where they have an unusually large candy selection. Both of my kids have occasionally come home with candy for their brother, just because they saw something they knew the other would like. I also know that Michael was pretty excited that he picked out and purchased his own Mother’s Day card for me this year.
Following the rules: We hope that by now our kids are following the general rules we’ve been teaching them for the last decade — ‘look both ways,’ ‘don’t talk to strangers,’ and ‘wash your hands,’ especially when they’re away from us. But sometimes there are more subtle rules that they can only learn through experience. The first time Michael went into town with a friend, they saw an older teen trying to not be seen taking pictures of a store employee. The teen was caught and reprimanded, and it definitely freaked Michael out. It was probably a good lesson.
Responsibility. Going into town with friends is a privilege. My kids know they’re supposed to respond to my check-in texts, and be where they’re supposed to be when they’re being picked up.
Sometimes there are lessons that kids can only learn from being out in the world on their own.