My 10-y.o. Wants to Walk to School, But…

Dear Free-Range Kids: I am a professional woman who became a stay at home mother to a 10-year-old boy. I would describe him as very bright, highly energetic and reasonable. Here is my dilemma: We live in a city of about 50,000 in North NJ.  He has recently made it very clear that he wants to walk home from school by himself across a number of streets (about 1+ mile).

It has now started to impact his mood and I am worried. I want to give him independence and see him succeed.  Having done it myself (in Brooklyn) when I was his age, I know how exciting it can be to have that adventure, but I am admittedly very anxious and not sure how to take that first step of feeling comfortable enough to let him try.  I honestly need a guide.  I just bought your book and hope to learn what you  have so obviously perfected with your own child.  While I am waiting for it to arrive, what would you say is  the most important thing to think about [other than statistics for non-death are on my side :) ]  as I seek to simultaneously let him grow up and let go.

Thanks for any advice, D.

To which I replied:

Dear D. — It is cool that you are considering both his desires/readiness AND the real stats about safety. Our job as parents is to try to prepare kids for the world (as opposed to trying to childproof the world), so I’m sure you know you have to teach him how to cross the street safely (no texting while on the street!), and not to get into a car with anyone, and the basics like that.

Then I’d do the walk with him once or twice to make sure he knows the route and there’s nothing egregious along the way, like train tracks with a malfunctioning warning light. And then, one nice afternoon, let him do it.

At least, that’s what I’d suggest. Because it will be SO COOL when he comes home. That’s just about the only thing I’ve seen break any parent’s fear/terror/worry — seeing their kid happy and confident after doing something on their own. Then suddenly what was so scary becomes normal.

Better still, your kid sees something really crucial: That you believe in him. That’s the wind beneath ALL our wings — knowing that someone we love thinks we are ready to take on some independence.

I actually have started a biz where I come to people’s homes to help them as they “let go” — freerangehousecalls.com. But it’s costs a fair bit and you really don’t need me. You can do it on your own. Anyone can. The business is just for folks who’d like some hand-holding. (Of the adult — not the kid!)

Just remember two things: 1 – Risk is inherent in ALL life. No activity is completely risk-free, whether it’s being driven somewhere, walking somewhere, or even going down the steps to the basement. Trying to eliminate all risk is impossible.

2 – Until this modern era of 24-hour news, no one thought walking to school was a horribly dangerous undertaking. Most kids in the rest of the world still do begin at age 7. And still in much of the world a 10-year-old child would be tasked with getting water from the well, shepherding the family’s flock, taking care of three or four younger siblings, walking 5 miles to school, defending the family against intruders…all sorts of stuff. So try to keep some perspective. And let me know how it goes!!!

Good luck to you both! — Lenore (who, alas, has not “perfected” anything. But that’s ok. Kids don’t need perfection!)

A 10-year-old delivery boy from another era.

A 10-year-old delivery boy from another era.

 

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40 Responses to My 10-y.o. Wants to Walk to School, But…

  1. SKL March 24, 2014 at 3:54 pm #

    I agree with walking with him a couple times (or more if necessary). Let him walk a little ahead so you can observe how well he knows the ropes. Let him tell you when to cross the street etc.

    Since a city mile is a bit long for a first solo walk, I might plan to meet him at some point along the way as an intermediate step. Maybe strategically choose a spot where you can observe him crossing a busy street alone or something.

  2. QuicoT March 24, 2014 at 4:00 pm #

    Give that kid a cel phone

  3. forsythia March 24, 2014 at 4:03 pm #

    When I wasn’t sure if my kids were up to doing something or not for the first time, I would shadow them.

    They were usually fine – and weren’t embarrassed because they didn’t know I was there. But I was okay, too.

  4. LisaS March 24, 2014 at 4:10 pm #

    Mine walk/ride bikes about 2 miles in a urban neighborhood – As SKL suggests, I went with them at first – meeting along the way a few times, teaching different routes so they don’t have to be predictable – and they have cell phones because they prefer not to travel together. Also, every once in a while I’ll take the route myself, just to make sure nothing has changed. Be brave! it’s not too long till he’ll be driving, and this is a logical first step for his age! :)

  5. Lola March 24, 2014 at 4:18 pm #

    I usually start “street training” at about age 2, asking them to lead me to familiar places, reminding them how to cross a street, pointing milestones along the way, making a point of saying hello to friendly shopkeepers, reciting the names of people living in the houses along the way…
    Gradually they start walking in front of me. Soon I lose sight of them.
    At age 10, we’re in the “if you’re going there, run this errand for me, will you?” stage.

  6. Hels March 24, 2014 at 4:19 pm #

    I had a long conversation with a fearful father of three kids last week at the company dinner… and a couple days later he approached me saying that he has thought about it and he is going to start letting his 10-year very bright son to do some things on his own. I am really hoping that boy can have a great childhood. :)

  7. Anne March 24, 2014 at 4:31 pm #

    Thank you for this!

    Don’t shadow him. And don’t give him a cellphone. Both defeat the purpose of letting him walk “alone.” Just let him walk.

    A mile walk takes a kid about 15-20 minutes, thinking of the walk in terms of time instead of distance puts it in perspective. And a 10 year old is definitely capable of 15 minutes alone in his neighborhood!

    This article about kindergartners walking to school in Japan has been widely shared over the years. http://bit.ly/1gv2r8e

    I love this quote, “…there were no adults watching out for them”. He is a little taken back. ”What do you mean, no adults? There were the car drivers, the shopkeepers, the other pedestrians. The city is full of adults who are taking care of them!” On average, 80 per cent of primary age Japanese children walk to school.”

  8. Renee March 24, 2014 at 4:40 pm #

    I agree that the ONLY thing that kills the fear is seeing the kid get through what made you fearful – and seeing the shot of confidence it gives them. As someone who HAD to put her kid on flights at age 6 to go visit her dad, I can tell you that when they come back from something that scares you OR them, it’s an amazing high. They are more self-assured, and you reap benefits beyond just a kid who can walk home from school alone.

  9. Uly March 24, 2014 at 4:47 pm #

    One note the writer should be aware of: the first few times he really travels alone, he will be all responsible and show up on time. Once he is comfortable, he will stop to play, to climb on a wall, to drag home a really awesome piece of furniture somebody’s throwing out, to pick up a bag of chips from the store….

    Try not to panic. You did the same at that age, and you probably cut through a few yards as well!

  10. SOA March 24, 2014 at 4:59 pm #

    Good advice from Lenore. Walk it with him a couple times to make sure he knows the way and look out for potential dangers. I also second giving him a cell phone just in case something happens which will at least reassure you and make you feel less nervous. Plus it can help if just one day he does not feel like walking he can call you to come get him or let you know he is stopping to get a drink at the store so he will be late, or whatever.

  11. Karen March 24, 2014 at 5:02 pm #

    I like Uly’s comment. As he gains more confidence he will explore and be more aware of his surroundings. His first time solo, maybe do it on a weekend when there aren’t any set times he HAS to be at school. Can meet him there if you like as in a weekend no one is at the school. He will be proud and your mind will be at ease. Best wishes.

  12. Papilio March 24, 2014 at 5:04 pm #

    At least this parent of a 10yo boy living ‘over a mile’ from his school is aware of the option “walk”. That’s more than can be said of this letter writer:
    http://aseasyasridingabike.wordpress.com/2014/01/08/the-natural-impulse-to-protect-and-what-it-means-for-the-school-run/

  13. Samantha March 24, 2014 at 5:04 pm #

    I did something very similar when my daughter wanted to walk to her ballet class after school in first grade. It is only 3 residential blocks from her school so I met her after school and had her walk me there as if I was her child. I saw how careful she was and it totally eased my nerves about letting a six year old do it on her own. And you know what? So many parents thought what she was doing was awesome! Now in second grade, she walks to her ballet class and her sisters’ school (about 6 blocks). Next year, she’ll graduate to walking the half mile home which involves crossing a busy street. Like Lenore said, seeing your child confident and proud of their independence is a wonderful thing and I think it breeds even more independence!

  14. Kathy March 24, 2014 at 5:35 pm #

    When my son was 10, he decided he wanted to bike to school. In lobbying me, he even went on Mapquest to measure the route – 1.61 miles – and show me the path he would take. Since he had to cross a major street (with stoplights but no crossing guard), what I did was ride my bike with him the first week, to make sure that he was indeed paying attention to traffic and crossing with the light (he has ADHD/borderline ASD, so impulse control was a concern), then let him go to it. There were a few times the crossing guard at the school had words with him because he kept “forgetting” to get off and walk his bike once he was on school property, but losing his biking privileges a couple times got the message across.

    Benefits – not only did he get extra exercise twice a day, but he also ended up making friends with other walkers/bikers. For a kid who struggled to connect with other kids, this was huge. The glow on his face when he’d come home and tell me how he and his friends had stopped at the local deli to buy lemonade and cookies on the way home was priceless. And even better, when I would pick up lunch at that same deli, the workers would compliment his behavior and tell me how polite he was. (All this, while the school considered him a behavior problem in the classroom for not being able to sit still and work quietly.)

    Three years later, he’s still walking or biking when the weather is good, classroom problems have nearly disappeared (in a new school that understands active boys much better), and still glows when he talks about stopping for a snack at local businesses with his friends. :)

  15. Jennifer Hendricks March 24, 2014 at 5:42 pm #

    To D —

    You can do it! My son is 11, and for at least two years he has been walking and riding his bike to school, soccer practice, and downtown to the library, toy store, and candy store. (no cell phone)

    We are lucky to live in a town that is bike-and-pedestrian friendly. In most other places I have lived, I probably wouldn’t let him bike nearly as much or as far as he does. But I’d be comfortable with him going almost anywhere on foot.

  16. catherine March 24, 2014 at 5:56 pm #

    Please don’t shadow, and PLEASE don’t give him a cell phone! The next time you drive him, have him describe out loud where you are driving: turn at the Lutheran Church, go up the hill instead of down, you can see the park from here, etc. If he isn’t too good at it, do it a few more times.

    Then have him verbally explain the route to you at home. Look at google maps if that helps. Then just let the kid walk.

    My 9 year old son has been walking home from school this year, almost every day. In the rain, in the cold (many days below zero!), at first with a friend and then often by himself. At first they followed the route that we drive, then they started exploring their own routes. It has been an awesome experience for him and for me both.

    Don’t wait! Do it! :)

  17. lollipoplover March 24, 2014 at 6:36 pm #

    I could have written this letter 4 years ago. We lost our bus service and most parents opted to drive their kids to school but a small group of students (my son was one) wanted to bike to school. So I let him.

    We did practice runs before school started and had lots of conversations about “what ifs”. Learning together the route and where safe places to go along the way helped a lot. His circle of friends expanded to include his commuting friends. They are a close knit bunch and great kids. I bet your 10 year-old knows others who walk to school and that’s why he is asking for this independence. Maybe you can have him meet up with friends(strength in numbers!)to help you with giving him freedom.

    The responsibility of biking to school transfered into other areas of his life. His grades improved (he was always the first one in class each morning) from B’s to A’s. He is more confident and independent- he can get his baseball gear together and ready for practice without being asked. He gets odd jobs (dog walking, shoveling snow,watering plants, babysitting) because neighbors recognize him and know he is a responsible kid and trustworthy. He biked 5 younger kids(3 1st graders) last year to school and won a citizenship award for community service. He was beaming.

    As for cell phones, we didn’t get one until he turned 12 and needed it for middle school. They can be more of a distraction and crutch for parents. Most of the problems that came up were handled without any adults needed. Busted bike? He just ran the bike home. Wipeout and shredded knees? Bandaids and encouraging words from friends got them home to get cleaned up by a parent. Kids this age have the capacity to solve most problems without needing to call an adult for every glitch. So go for it! He sounds like a great kid.

  18. Cassie March 24, 2014 at 6:53 pm #

    My advice… just let him go.

    Don’t walk with him a couple of times, don’t shadow him. Just let him go.

    He is 10 years old !!!!! He will figure it out and I bet he will be happier for having figured it out, then for having been shadowed.

    One of my happiest childhood memories is constantly modifying my route to school… always trying to find the shortest way. (I went to a new school every 6 months, so it was a constant challenge). I still rememember the day I discovered two massive shortcuts that saved 5 minutes off my daily walk…. let him experience it.

  19. SOA March 24, 2014 at 6:56 pm #

    What is wrong with giving him a cell phone if you want to? Most kids that age I know have them at that age anyway since most homes don’t have home phones anymore so unless the parent wants to have their kid borrowing their phone all the time, the kid needs their own. I use my laptop to get online most of the time but if I did it through my phone as most of my friends do then yeah, not cool with my kid hogging it up to make phone calls.

  20. Bose in St. Peter MN March 24, 2014 at 7:15 pm #

    Given that kids learn from story telling, I encourage D to invest confidence in her son by explaining that his instincts are both traditional — stuff his parents and grandparents did — as well as innovative today. The kid’s grandparents survived as children by figuring out that no one was going to keep them as safe as they would themselves, and it was eminently doable.

    In this case, though, it seems the 10-y/o already gets it.

  21. JP March 24, 2014 at 9:42 pm #

    Dear D –

    I can offer up a little perspective…I was a 10 year old boy once upon a time. Living in a city about the size of yours.
    What did independent mobility mean to me then? Adventure. The day-to-day natural growth of an inherent self-confidence. The ability to exercise skills integral to all my senses. Eyes and ears open to what was going on all around me. Moving through the world at a speed slow enough to take it all in. Any real or apparent danger sensed, analyzed, and dealt with according to my know-how (which grew exponentially, the more I learned about the world I was moving through.)
    What came from this was an easy self-confidence, earned and learned, shared and stored within the memory banks.
    And most important: I learned how to enjoy the natural world I moved through. With all my senses. The sight, sound and smell of things. To a 10 year-old kid, this can be magic. Not cartoon or 3-D or virtual magic – but the real thing (which is a gazzillion times more powerful.)
    What I learned way back then, is that is where it grows (and it is with me still.)
    And am I still young at heart enough to let that 10 year-old out to play once in awhile, now?
    You betcha!

    Potential danger exists in this world for even the most cautious (no foolhardy behavior attracts it, always….sometimes it’s just the roll of the dice.)

    But a 10 year-old who naturally yearns for that little bit of freedom – obviously is motivated to acquire the skill-set that earns it.

    Good luck!
    jp

  22. Warren March 24, 2014 at 9:57 pm #

    Take him out for breakfast Sunday, and drop him off a school. Tell him, “Deal is, you do a good job today, and we can start tomorrow.”

    The Sunday allows for less traffic and action. That is more for mom’s peace of mind.

  23. Warren March 24, 2014 at 10:01 pm #

    Please do not shadow him. Because you would not be shadowing him for his good, you would only be doing it for yourself.

    And no to the cellphone. You get him the cell now, and it tells him you are expecting problems. Again the cell would only really be for your peace of mind. Kids have been walking to school for….well ever, and they handled it just fine.

  24. Reziac March 24, 2014 at 10:12 pm #

    Geez. When I walked to grade school, no one came with me. My mom gave me the address and off I went. I knew how to read street signs by the time I was 6 or 7, and could count blocks before that.

    It just occurred to me that this constant ferrying kids around may be a good deal of why so many modern kids cannot read maps, and can barely follow basic directions to find a location — the concepts don’t mean anything because they’ve never had to use them for themselves.

  25. Sherri March 24, 2014 at 10:55 pm #

    I would say walk with him until you are both confident that he can do it himself.

    I would say no to the cell phone.

  26. J.T. Wenting March 25, 2014 at 1:24 am #

    “Give that kid a cel phone”

    why? So he can call home if he gets stalked by some “scary old man in a white van”?
    Of so you can track him 24/7 using some “app” and worry your heart out if you see him standing still for a minute (which will most likely be because he’s waiting to cross a road or at the candy store)?
    The main danger walking home for a child in a modern city isn’t anything like that, it’s being run over by a truck or speeding car. And that danger isn’t particularly high, if you teach the child how to safely cross roads.
    If he does get run over, he’ll not be in any shape to call home.
    Far better to give him a wallet or other container with a note stating his name and address and your own mobile phone number so paramedics (or helpful bystanders) can call you if needed.

  27. Tsu Dho Nimh March 25, 2014 at 7:11 am #

    Just remember two things: 1 – Risk is inherent in ALL life. No activity is completely risk-free, whether it’s being driven somewhere, walking somewhere, or even going down the steps to the basement. Trying to eliminate all risk is impossible.

    Yup, you can be sitting there in your couch and BAM it’s a meteor in your living room!

    http://www.universetoday.com/101654/meteorite-crashes-through-roof-of-a-house-in-connecticut/

  28. BL March 25, 2014 at 7:30 am #

    “Yup, you can be sitting there in your couch and BAM it’s a meteor in your living room!”

    I hate it when that happens.

  29. Beth March 25, 2014 at 8:17 am #

    “teaching different routes so they don’t have to be predictable ”

    I disagree with this statement, because it seems like playing into the fear of a pedophile/kidnapper behind every bush – though in this case it’s one memorizing your child’s route home. Thus it’s necessary to vary the route so that Mr Kidnapper is confused. Seriously, this is the very last thing you need to worry about.

  30. Guacamole March 25, 2014 at 8:23 am #

    I agree with those who’ve said don’t shadow and don’t give him a cell phone. I mean, when to give a kid a cell phone is a whole other topic of discussion, but I mean to say that I don’t think one is warranted all of sudden just for this occasion. I know a parent who still makes her 13-year-old call her from a cell phone every five minutes when walking home a short distance in a safe neighbourhood, and I think that’s beyond ridiculous. It’s a slippery slope.

    I would do two things. 1) Run a few scenarios by him that you could see arising and ask how he would handle them (being followed, being approached by a stranger, etc.). Tell him it’s unlikely this would ever happen but that it’s best if he’s given it some thought in advance and knows how he would respond. 2) This was the thing I found most helpful of all when my kids starting walking by themselves in grades 3 and 5 (same distance, also in an urban area): At all street corners, stop signs, lights, etc., MAKE EYE CONTACT with the driver of any stopped car that’s waiting to turn or go ahead. That way you know if the driver sees you and you can figure out what they’re going to do next. The point to drive home is that it’s not just about watching out for cars — it’s about making sure they’re watching out for you too.

    Then just do it.

  31. Neil M March 25, 2014 at 11:04 am #

    Good luck to this parent! Although it’s interesting to note that motor vehicle accidents, and not stranger abduction, are the leading cause of death amongst children, so by not driving this boy, D may be doing him a favor!

  32. SKL March 25, 2014 at 12:13 pm #

    We live too far for my kids to walk to or from school, but I am hoping to come up with a compromise. Usually we are running so late (my fault, I hate waking up) that I have to drop them right off at the door. But today the drop-off line was so long, I decided to park in the lot and let the kids walk from there. They had to cross the line of drop-off traffic, which, if you think about it, is about as hairy as it gets in a suburban setting. :P I watched and confirmed that yes, they both seem to have enough brains (and will to survive) to pay attention to what the distracted drivers are doing and make it across in one piece. It may not sound like much, but for us it was a step in the right direction. Next step is to drop them off on the street, but that will require me to get my butt out of bed even earlier, so it may never happen….

  33. BeccaK March 25, 2014 at 12:39 pm #

    My youngest began cycling to school when she was ten: just over a mile, couple of roads to cross, and I told her to stick to the pavement (aka sidewalk) since I know perfectly well that our local bobbies don’t make a fuss about young kids cycle on the pavement. I went with her to begin with, because I liked the exercise. Then she made it politely plain she wanted to go alone, and alone she went.

    All in all, it was very good for her. She now has to get the train to school, but she’s often out on her bike at weekends. The other day she cycled the whole ‘school’ circuit for old time’s sake. I think it was good for her self-confidence and sense of direction, never mind her physical fitness.

  34. Stacey March 25, 2014 at 2:02 pm #

    10 years old? Can’t walk a mile by himself and know how to cross a street? Kid’s already crippled/damaged.

  35. SKL March 25, 2014 at 2:56 pm #

    Why do some people have to put down someone who is trying to make a move in the right direction?

    There are plenty of 10yos who have not walked a mile in the city alone. And plenty of them will grow up just fine.

    Learning to be kind and encouraging or at least shut up when you can’t is also a life skill.

  36. anonymous this time March 25, 2014 at 3:34 pm #

    Hm. I’d say if the boy is campaigning for this opportunity to the point of being sullen about being denied, then I’d ask HIM what he needs to try this out.

    “Okay, so if you were to start this, would you want any support from me? Would you like me to come along the first time or two?”

    And if the answer is a resounding NO, then back the heck off and let him walk!

    My son would have been able to get himself home from his daycare when he was 3. I know it. He just had such a good sense of where he is spatially in relation to other things. The joke in our family is that I have NO IDEA where I am most of the time, and have such a terrible sense of direction, it’s ridiculous. So my child surpassed me when he was a toddler, and I knew enough to allow him some freedom to move about.

    The only thing that got in his way was my ex-husband’s acute paranoia about abduction, and his threats to call CPS on me if I let my son walk anywhere.

    Celebrate the fact that your son WANTS to do this healthy thing! My heart aches for him that he has been denied at all. Celebrate!!!! Yay for this boy!!!!

  37. SOA March 25, 2014 at 6:57 pm #

    I agree SKL. that was rude

  38. Lin March 26, 2014 at 12:37 am #

    Can I tell you the story of how my daughter started walking home alone, please? (Ok, I will anyway!)

    I will start by saying that I invested lots of time and effort in teaching my daughter how to cross streets safely, starting from when she was only about 3. Because if you read the stats, you will know that that is the biggest risk factor. But the good news is that you can totally prepare your child for that and hopefully you have already started doing that. It’s a bit of a bug bear of mine and I can give you more information on this if you want it.

    Sooo, my daughter was pretty confident with crossing streets by the time she had turned 7. She used to go to after school care 3 times a week. And one day, I was called into the manager’s office and told that my daughter and 3 of her friends had run away from the after school care program (which is in the school hall) and apparently walked over to our house and back before anyone had noticed they were gone! Then it came out they had actually done this twice in a week.

    Now the next part of the story probably comes across as a bit of a parenting fail. My daughter was actually not that keen on independence and liked to be near me as much as possible. So I actually made her walk home from after school care as a punishment! I will never forget that moment. I drove off, leaving her standing on the footpath, crying under her umbrella. Yes, I even let her walk in the rain – bad, bad parent I am!

    I drove home and made myself a cuppa while I waited. I got nervous after about 10 minutes, thinking that she was taking longer than she should have and seriously starting to doubt my rash decision. I walked onto the front porch to look for her just as she came skipping onto the driveway. And she looked so happy and confident! And she said: “I felt so sad when I started walking. I was still crying as I started walking across the oval. And then I thought to myself, ‘Hey, I could climb that tree if I wanted! Or look for acorns! Or go on the slide in the park!’ and I started feeling really happy.”

    From then on she walked home by herself once a week. She is 9 now and since we moved further away from the school she twice weekly takes the bus from school to the library (only about a 5 min bus ride), by herself. She calls me when she gets there, from her mobile if she remembered to charge it or from the public phone box. Then she looks up books on the library catalogue computer and finds them on the shelves and reads until I get there about an hour later. And I feel so very proud of her!

  39. NicoleK March 26, 2014 at 10:59 am #

    Why not start small and have him walk to something a little closer?

  40. Elina Hale March 31, 2014 at 3:53 am #

    All I can say is that 10 seems a little late. Starting in 2nd grade (I was 6 at the time) I walked to school. Here’s a map. We lived at the corner of Moore & Cornish (top right), and I would walk down Inglewood, across St.Clair (the bridge was fun; it was a long way down!), and to Deer Park public school (lower left).

    The next year, I went to a private school. That involved walking to the subway station, changing trains once, and another walk at the far end.

    My mom came with me the first few days to be sure I knew my way around the subway, after which it was routine. (Most of my classmates also took the subway.)