“Shelby wants to walk to school on her own,” a client said to me recently, twisting the scarf she wore until I feared she might choke herself. “I don’t know what to do—tell me what I should do.”
Often, the choice of whether or not to allow a child to walk to school unaccompanied is fraught with fears of injury or worse. When our generation was school aged, many of us journeyed to school on our own; the roads didn’t seem as busy, stranger danger wasn’t broadcast all over the news and our parents didn’t seem to worry about our physical safety as much as we worry about our kids’ today. Children who crave and are ready to experience independence need to be supported by the adults in their lives. Independence builds confidence, problem-solving skills and world awareness, all beneficial qualities. Being told, “no” repeatedly to requests for independence can be harmful, resulting in clingy, uncertain, immature behaviour that may continue for decades.
When is a child ready to walk to school unaccompanied? Safe Kids Canada recommends age nine. This is based on studies which show that developmentally, the level of thinking and physical coordination displayed by the average nine year-old prepares him to transition to a higher level of independent “self-transportation.” Generally, nine year-olds aren’t as impulsive as their younger counterparts. They are more aware of their own vulnerability and able to process multiple pieces of information quickly, resulting in better judgment.
However, like potato chips, no two children are the same. Nine-year-olds are still physically small, not necessarily imposing enough to be assuredly seen by preoccupied drivers. Some kids retain their impulsivity. Some kids are easily distracted. All kids are precious to their families, which is why I recommend that age nine be the earliest point at which a parent considers whether or not to allow their child to walk to school alone.
Ultimately, each of us must decide when our sons and daughters are ready. Certainly, the decision should not be made on the spur of the moment. Hopefully, you have discussed walking safety with your kids during all the trips you’ve already made together. If you don’t feel you’ve yet covered all the bases, start now—there are many good websites available for you and for your children to review safe pedestrian travel. You should also consider your particular child’s personality and maturity—err on the side of realism.
Walking to school alone isn’t just about crossing roads carefully. It’s also about personal safety and while there is nothing to be gained by teaching children to be frightened of every unknown adult they meet, they do need to be taught awareness and how to react if they encounter a threatening stranger. One of the best ways to calm your own fears while still allowing kids to experience the joyful independence of walking to school on their own is to introduce a buddy rule. Walking with one friend or more, children are more visible to drivers and less likely to be approached by ill-meaning strangers.