Walking to school on their own is not only a big step for children, it’s a momentous test of confidence for parents, too.
“Just as exciting as your kid going to first grade is your kid walking to first grade: It’s only in this moment in time that we are paralyzed with fear about what’s normally a lovely part of childhood,” says Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids, who shot to notoriety for letting her then-nine-year-old son ride the New York subway solo.
To a generation known for hyper-parenting, sending children to school unaccompanied, whether on foot or via public transportation, is not seen as the safest choice.
Students are the most vulnerable road users according to a 2012 report on road-related injuries from the Public Health Agency of Canada. And it’s not vehicles running red lights or jumping curb, but simply crossing a street that accounted for 48.6 per cent of all pedestrian injuries in 2008-09, the latest statistics available.
Skenazy stresses that letting children get to school on their own can be confidence-boosting and freeing: The trick is that both children and parents need to be prepared.
“Get up the guts to let your kids try it once, after you’ve trained them, and after, you see that it’s not that big a deal and that your kids are proud and ready,” Skenazy advises. “That’s what gives parents the confidence.”
So what age is the right age to let your kid strut out on their own?
A quick quizzing of parents in downtown Toronto revealed opinions ranging from “high school,” to “nine years old.” “Thirteen years old,” was a typical response.
“Thirteen seems old,” says Skenazy. “The rest of the world sends their kids walking off to school, or even taking public transportation, starting at age seven … because seven is considered the age of reason. It’s when formal schooling often starts.”
In general, safety experts such as the American Academy of Pediatrics say that kids are not ready to handle traffic situations, such as crossing a street alone until age 10 or Grade 5.
Parents can begin practising with younger children to get them on the path to eventually travelling unaccompanied.
Ultimately, it doesn’t come down to a magical, one-size-fits-all age for all families. “I’d say the age is probably whatever you think is right,” says Skenazy, “Knowing your kid and knowing your neighbourhood.”
Here are Skenazy’s three tips for training children:
1. Teach them to cross the street. Above and beyond the look-both-ways mantra, Skenazy advised her own sons to make eye contact with drivers when possible at intersections, telling her children that while drivers don’t have the right of way, they often take it.
2. Never multitask while crossing the street. No headphones, music, calling or texting at an intersection.
3. Speaking to strangers can be okay, but never follow one. On public transit, such as with her son’s infamous first solo subway ride, children may want to ask for help with directions, which Skenazy encourages. “You can always talk to a stranger, you cannot go off with a stranger,” she says. And teaching children to only speak to mothers with children or police officers is unnecessary, Skenazy says. “The odds that the person you ask for help is a murderous stranger is very small,” she says. “And most people like to help each other.”