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A Walk on the Independent Side

This morning, I will be starting down the road of teaching 5-year-old to walk to school alone. We're starting small. A couple days a week, I'll watch from the top of the street while he makes his way 5 houses down and 2 houses to the right. That's where he'll meet up with another kindergarten boy and his mom so the three of them can walk the remaining two blocks together.

Both boys have loved the early school year novelty of joining up every morning and running ahead to school. So, this seems like a natural transition. I can foresee a time in the not-so-distant future where he'll say 'bye' and be out the door and on his way without a second thought from either of us.

But walking to school without Mom or Dad seems the exception rather than the rule in our neighborhood. The fourth- and fifth-graders definitely walk solo. But as best I can tell, parents of third-graders and younger are accompanying their kids on the short walk.

In September, Living in LoCo blogger Tammi Marcoullier wrote about sending her first-grader off to the bus stop alone for the first time. It was a bit nerve-wracking, but the girl was ready and Tammi prepped another parent who'd be there of the situation, so she got a full report.

While my elementary school was too far to walk, I do recall biking all over our neighborhood alone by the time I was seven. That's just a little more than a year older than my son is now.

When do you think kids are old enough to walk to school or the bus stop alone? Is encouraging the independent walk an act of a good parent or an irresponsible one?

By Stacey Garfinkle |  October 15, 2007; 7:30 AM ET  | Category:  Elementary Schoolers
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Happy Monday!? Hope you are ready for some people ranting about your lack of parenting skills.

On subject though, I don't know. I walked 9/10ths of a mile to school, picking up friends along the way without a parent in sight. It was completely normal. Now I don't let my kids play in the front yard if I am not outside with them. I relished my freedom and feeling of responsibility, I wonder if I am cheating my kids of this.

Posted by: Burke Mom | October 15, 2007 7:39 AM | Report abuse

I think every parent has to figure out their comfort zone on this and do what's right for them. Some kids are more independent than others and some neighborhoods are more conducive to letting kids roam (i.e., sidewalks, not a lot of extraneous traffic, lots of kids out and about). I just confronted this with my daughter (3d grade) and the biking. We are letting her bike alone on the street behind my street because it dead-ends and is not very busy. We have very few sidewalks in our neighborhood and our street is a big thru-street for the neighborhood. We almost didn't buy our house because of this but so loved the lay-out and the location otherwise that we decided to make-do. She walks her bike around the corner and rides up and down this other street and comes home when she is tired. She loves being trusted to do this and I love that she can go off and bike when she wants. My plan is by next year to let her walk to her friend's house to play who lives a few blocks away. It means navigating one busy neighborhood street but there is a sidewalk on part of it. I definitely was on my own more when I was a kid but my neighborhood had sidewalks and the street went around in a big circle - great of bike rides - and, for the most part, the only cars were people who lived on the street or were visiting.

Posted by: PT Fed Mof2 | October 15, 2007 8:27 AM | Report abuse

I don't remember kindergarten well, but I know by first grade I was walking two and from school by myself. Although often, I'd catch a ride with my neighbor who drove her son (the same age as me) the one mile to school. I know this is first grade, b/c he transfered to private school for 2nd grade.

I have a good friend who panicked when her 12-year-old rode her bike to school alone for the first time. 12 years old and had never walked to school along?! There has got to be a happy medium.

Posted by: Rt | October 15, 2007 8:46 AM | Report abuse

Good for you, Stacey! I'm glad you're teaching your child some independence and not becoming one of those freak-out parents who think their child will be kidnapped the moment they step outside the front door.

Posted by: Ryan | October 15, 2007 8:54 AM | Report abuse

I plan to let my DD wait without me (but with 2 other mothers) at the bus stop next year when she starts Kindergarten. We'll see if I manage to do so - I still hold her hand and walk her all the way to the door at her Montessori school!

Posted by: Olney | October 15, 2007 9:11 AM | Report abuse

I walked to school with all the other kids in the neighborhood, but in kindergarten I walked home alone, since all the other kids were older. (Back in the days when kindergarten was a half-day.) They eventually closed my elementary school, and my neighborhood was bussed to the next closest school. I remember being amazed 20+ years ago that first parents walked their children to the bus stop (located a block closer than the school that had closed), then forced the district to move the bus stop closer to home, then forced the district to make the bus drive through the neighborhood, making 2-3 stops along a street less than half a mile long.

In today's world most parents are afraid to let their kids out of sight. I think it's great that you've been able to choose and afford a neighborhood so close to the school, and have other parents who share your desire to let your kids gain a small taste of independence. Everything in life is a calculated risk, but at least your kid won't go to college and expect someone to walk him to classes.

Posted by: jb | October 15, 2007 9:12 AM | Report abuse

Kudoes to you, Stacey. Your children will be much better prepared for the real world than will the children of those nasty helicopter parents who follow three feet behind their little darlings with a purse packed full of snacks and hand sanitizer.

Our kid's school had a policy of asking parents NOT to bring in forgotten homework, lunches, etc. because they wanted kids to experience the consequences of their actions, including forgetfulness. You can imagine how that went over with some of these crazy moms!

Posted by: Hooray for Stacey | October 15, 2007 9:13 AM | Report abuse

My kindergartener isn't ready to walk alone. It's about .8 miles, across busy streets (one with a crossing guard, most without) and she's still too impulsive when excited. 80% of the time she crosses the street correctly, but 20% not is asking for trouble. Plus, she can't walk home alone, it's a hand-off at the end of the day. She can't leave the teacher unless I'm there (or a designated adult, or older child sometimes). The hand-off continues through first grade.

By second, I hope to have her ready to walk with a group of kids, and in fifth, she'll be getting the hand-off for her younger sister and walking her home.

Nah, I don't look ahead. :)

Posted by: inBoston | October 15, 2007 9:19 AM | Report abuse

Two words for you: Etan Patz.

I am not usually an alarmist, but a friend of mine who grew up in NYC told me that poor boy's story over the weekend and it has me completely haunted. Which is not to say that you shouldn't continue to let your child be independent but I can't stop thinking about this child.

Posted by: ohno | October 15, 2007 10:01 AM | Report abuse

I walked to school from kindergarden through high school, where I took a bus (and walked to the bus stop). I used to live in a suburb in Southern MD where I saw mothers drive DOWN THE STREET to pick up their kids and drive them home. And they probably wonder why their kids are fat and lazy. I call is the "legless kids syndrome" - sometimes I swear kids are born without legs these days.

Posted by: Me | October 15, 2007 10:47 AM | Report abuse

I WISH I could let my DD walk to school alone! We're not far from the school and we easily walk it as a family to go to the playground, but to get to school daily she takes a bus. Why? Because the school is on a very busy street and the walk from our house to the school involves crossing numerous busy side streets and parking lots (McDonald's breakfast customers certainly don't watch for people crossing the entrance to the parking lot--I've nearly gotten hit myself twice) so the school put our neighborhood on a bus route to prevent accidents. Unless something changes to make the walk safer, she'll continue to take the bus.

Posted by: Sarah | October 15, 2007 11:11 AM | Report abuse

Good for you, Stacey! I'm glad you're teaching your child some independence and not becoming one of those freak-out parents who think their child will be kidnapped the moment they step outside the front door."

Yes, all the parents of kidnapped children thought it would never happen to them........ So you cross your fingers and pray that nothing happens and I will ENSURE that nothing happens and my kid doesn't end up on a milk carton.

Posted by: pATRICK | October 15, 2007 11:16 AM | Report abuse

I love walking younger DD to school just because it gives us a chance to talk and I get a little bit of fresh air before going to work. She's plenty independent in other areas.

Posted by: anne.saunders | October 15, 2007 11:35 AM | Report abuse

Please elaborate on the story of Etan Petz. It's not a well-known story and not found in a Google search.

Posted by: LH | October 15, 2007 11:55 AM | Report abuse

I started walking to school by myself in the second grade, when we moved to a neighborhood in which the school (Rock Creek Valley Elementary) was a few blocks away from our house. Before that, we lived in a different city and I would have had to cross three busy streets. Parents of several children took turns driving us to school.

Posted by: Kate | October 15, 2007 11:57 AM | Report abuse

Never mind, I found it - Etan Patz, not Petz.

Posted by: LH | October 15, 2007 11:58 AM | Report abuse

LH, I typed "Etan Patz" into Google (without quotes) and the story came up right away. It's a very sad story, but I would hesitate to universalize it.

Posted by: Kate | October 15, 2007 12:01 PM | Report abuse

I agree with you Stacey! We can't shelter them forever. I think some parents don't realize what they are taking from their children when they deny them independence or responsibility. Being able to care for themselves is a gift that we are here to give them. Sure something could happen, but we can't keep them safe from everything. If you wanted to protect them from what is the greatest killer of children, you would never put them in the car. Use your judgement, guide them and give them wings! Sometimes they are so excited and empowered by their success that I swear they are taller!

Posted by: Moxiemom | October 15, 2007 12:38 PM | Report abuse

If their schools were close enough, the boys would be walking. When we're tired of them bickering, or when they've had enough "screen time" we kick them out of the house and tell them to go play at the park. It's about three blocks away.

Of course, they're 15 and 10, but this has been true for a couple of years. Before that, younger son was too timid for sending out alone, and older son wasn't yet responsible enough to be in charge of his little brother.

Older son was never timid. We still remember when Officer Wendy and her partner (whose name escapes me this morning) brought him home. He was playing in the park across the street from the house we lived in at that time, and one of the neighbors must have gotten freaked out by his usual autistic behaviors and called the police.

He told the officers his address, and because the street was one-way, DH watched the patrol car rolling *away* out of sight, after some of the other kids came to our house to tell him our boy was picked up. All the kids knew each other, and were good about looking out for each other. After that day, our neighborhood beat officers also knew our family and our boy's special situation.

If you make the effort to get to know your neighborhood, you can feel comfortable and safe letting your children have some freedom. And this is the prefect time of year with Halloween coming up. While I walk with the trick-or-treat contingent, DH will be sitting in front of our house with the goodies, and playing his guitar for all the visitors, and both of us will have conversations with anyone and everyone.

Posted by: Sue | October 15, 2007 1:53 PM | Report abuse

It definitely depends on what area you live in, the route the kid would take, and how well they get along with other kids.

Certainly by age 9 I think it should be something that COULD be done just fine, even if the actual environment makes it inadvisable to actually do it.

Posted by: Liz D | October 15, 2007 2:06 PM | Report abuse

SHAME on you for caring more about a 5 year old's "independence" and being able to sit and drink your coffee in peace or run off to the gym or make it in to the office 15 minutes earlier than the well being of your CHILD.

I walk my children to school through elementary school, which is a few blocks from our house. Not only for their safety, but because it is one of my jobs to see them safely to school. Could they walk themselves before then? Sure. But do I have some compelling reason that keeps me from doing it (i.e. I can't walk or drive, I absolutely have to be at work, I can't get out of bed without throwing up)? Nope. I shudder to think about how I would feel if something happened - and there is a lot that can happen, both minor and major - because I was too lazy to get off my butt and take them to school.

Parents who actually darken the doorstep of the school are more aware of what's going on at the school. It doesn't make you a helicopter parent to know that this is a positive thing. It's the parents who wave goodbye on the doorstep of the house who end up saying "I had no idea they were studying that" or "I had no idea my child was friends with a child whose morals are vastly different from our family's" or who accuse the school of not paying attention when their child is bullied.

Posted by: Ramona | October 15, 2007 3:03 PM | Report abuse

I live in a safe, upper middle class neighborhood with no real busy streets to cross (although the subdivisions are not gated, there is no reason to be on the road that joins them unless you are going to one of them). The nearest main street is at least a 10 minute walk. Moreover, aout 60% of the residents all go to the same house of worship and are therefore familiar with one another. Nonetheless, it is rare that you will see an unaccompanied child walking to a friend's house. Kids are driven or their parents walk them.

It doesn't matter how safe you believe your neighborhood to be if you can't keep the crazies out. I'm the same age and grew up about 5 minutes away from Adam Walsh -- maybe that heightens my fear on this subject, or maybe it is because we live in Florida, which seems to have its disproportionate share of tragedy with children, but there is no way i would let my 5 year old go to the mailbox herself, let alone to school.

Posted by: ARB | October 15, 2007 3:22 PM | Report abuse

I can't let DD kindgergarten walk because it is over 2 miles and across one major street. In our school only 3rd-5th graders
are allowed to walk by themselves.
public school in Maryland.

Posted by: shdd | October 15, 2007 3:55 PM | Report abuse

"Parents who actually darken the doorstep of the school are more aware of what's going on at the school. It doesn't make you a helicopter parent to know that this is a positive thing. It's the parents who wave goodbye on the doorstep of the house who end up saying "I had no idea they were studying that" or "I had no idea my child was friends with a child whose morals are vastly different from our family's" or who accuse the school of not paying attention when their child is bullied."

But, Ramona, what about parents who wave goodbye AND are involved in their children's education and lives?

Posted by: Kate | October 15, 2007 3:57 PM | Report abuse

I let my kids run with scissors! The whole "not running with scissors" thing is SO overrated!

Posted by: Nancy | October 15, 2007 4:23 PM | Report abuse

Let's see, what bad things can I remember from walking to and from elementary school...

In 1973 my friend and I spied two hippies out of their minds on drugs, babbling incessently, hiding in shrubs in front of a friend's house. Police were called as soon as we ran to a neighbor's house. I remember them, headbands and suede, with handcuffs on, just talking a mile a minute in nonsense syllables.

In 1975 a 6th grader with major problems beat me up after school and I ran home while he sat on the curb and cried. weeeird.

In 1976 I saw a guy scoping out kids coming home from school and ran home to tell my mother who called the police. He looked through a newspaper with binoculars, and as I remember it, drove a green Dodge Dart.

Around 1977 a psychotic kid who lived a block away stole my bike on the way home. he was younger than me, but totally violent, asking to see my bike and then trying to hit me with a brick. I remember my mother talking to his mother while he screamed, "It's MY Bike now, fair and square! He gave it to me!"

In 1980 my sister and a friend were followed home by someone in a car and she and the friend suddenly ran through people's back yards with the car following them down our street. I totally saw the guy scanning the houses with visible sweat as he drove down the block.

In 1981 I was beaten up pretty regularly after the bus dropped us off by a lunatic 14 yr old who lived a block away from us. I didn't get it as badly as a friend of mine though. I just remember running as fast as we could through our suburban development to get home.

I don't know what to do, knowing how I was presented with some harsh events that didn't always turn out great. I mean, I didn't deal well with getting beaten up- never stood up for myself that is. My major concern still is other kids mistreating our kids.

Posted by: DCer | October 15, 2007 4:31 PM | Report abuse

SHAME on you for caring more about a 5 year old's "independence" and being able to sit and drink your coffee in peace or run off to the gym or make it in to the office 15 minutes earlier than the well being of your CHILD.

I call obvious bulloney on this comment. Your statement false presupposes that your child will be more safe without growing via independence.

If you go to the gym every day, one day you can curl, let's say, a 20 lb dumbell, the next month, a 30lb dumbell, the next month a 35 lb dumbell, etc. With practice comes growth. With lack of experience comes entropy.

You're going to have to explain your theory that kids are safer by not learning how to handle situations themselves because I think you're quite wrong.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 15, 2007 4:35 PM | Report abuse

somebody needs to take a chill pill. a lot could happen to my child with me standing right there. a car could jump the curb & run them down. that sort of thing. romona, at what age do you think "nothing" will happen to your child if you aren't there? shoot, things happen to full grown adults.

Posted by: quark | October 15, 2007 4:55 PM | Report abuse

1. It is quite possible for children to gain independence without being left alone on the streets at age 5. Do you think so little of your children that they wouldn't be able to learn how to handle situations themselves if confronted them at age 12 or 13 - when they would be far better equipped than at age 5? My almost-grown children are perfectly able to take care of themselves and are quite independent and know how to handle adverse situations, even though they didn't walk to school by themselves when they were little. Amazing, isn't it?

2. Of course things can happen with adults around. Of course many of us survived childhood walking to school by ourselves. But just because those two things may be true does NOT mean that bad things happen to children when they are not with an adult. Why wouldn't you just give your child the safety precaution of an adult accompanying them to school, just as you give your child the safety precautions of a car seat, a bike helmet, and a crib without slats too far apart? Children can still be killed even in a car seat or wearing a bike helmet or in a up-to-date crib - and we all survived childhood without those things - but you still use them, don't you?

Posted by: Ramona | October 15, 2007 6:41 PM | Report abuse

Correction to above post:

"But just because those two things may be true does NOT negate the fact that sometimes bad things happen to children when they are not with an adult.

Posted by: Ramona | October 15, 2007 6:44 PM | Report abuse

Ramona, your method works for you and your kids (although admittedly we haven't heard from them), and that's great. Might not other methods work for other families? You're the only one who's cast all-caps aspersions on others. Is your method the only method, or might circumstances vary?

Posted by: Kate | October 15, 2007 6:48 PM | Report abuse

"Is your method the only method, or might circumstances vary?"

Well, let's see. Child abductions have happened in every state and probably almost every community in the country. Children have been hit by cars in every date and probably almost every community in the country. Children have been bullied by other kids in every state and probably almost every community in the country. So I'd have to say that my method - that is, seeing your children to school if you are able to - is the best method regardless of circumstances.

If the family's circumstances are such that there is nobody available to walk or drive the child to school, then obviously you should teach your child the safest way to get to school on their own and do whatever you can to make sure that happens, even in your absence. But if someone is available and you choose to use this as an independence building lesson, then you're just giving yourself an out to avoid a parental responsibility.

Posted by: Ramona | October 15, 2007 7:46 PM | Report abuse


I respect your opinion. In your argument, though, you make a great many assumptions on what parents are doing while their kids are heading off to school. In our case I've got two kids who start school at the same time of the morning in completely different parts of town. So, I'm teaming up with another parent to make the logistics work. As a result, I'm also able to let my child gain confidence and independence.

This morning, I watched him race down the side of the street with his friend. The independence of going on his own excited him. And Moxiemom, you're right. They do seem to stand taller after days like today.

Posted by: Stacey Garfinkle | October 15, 2007 8:33 PM | Report abuse

But, Ramona, have the rates of these tragedies increased over the years? Actually, no. And I don't see how walking your child to school prevents bullying at school.

Posted by: Kate | October 16, 2007 12:00 AM | Report abuse

My kids walked to school from kindergarten onward, but that was in the 1960s and a different age. However, statistically there is no more risk of abductions now than there was then. The only trouble they ever had in doing this was from the bullying of other kids. For today's times, though, I LOVE an idea I read about of a "virtual school bus." A route and schedule is worked out among parents and then the one parent who is scheduled walks the route to/from school picking/leaving off children as they go. The kids get the exercise and learn who their neighbors are in the group. It's the best idea I've heard of in a long time.

Posted by: Peggy Lipscomb | October 16, 2007 8:14 AM | Report abuse

Five seems awfully young for this! Especially going "two doors to the right" which I presume means turning a corner and going totally out of your sight.

Posted by: Hudson | October 16, 2007 9:05 AM | Report abuse

My 4th grader walks with a group of neighborhood friennds composed of 1st-5th graders. They meet in front of the neighbors and walk together. There are crossing guards at the bussiest intersection and the big kids look out for the little ones. It has been a great experience for her and I am proud to watch her walk out the front door independently while I drink my coffee! Next year it will be even better when I send my 1st grader out the door with her (I will probably go along the first few weeks until they are comfortable with the routine.)

It is possible to foster independence with out putting your kids at risk. Walking in a group is ideal. Many of the parents at our school give their kids walkie-talkies to bring on the walk. We also have block parents, so that kids can recognize a safe house to run to if there is a problem.

Posted by: Mom of 5 | October 16, 2007 9:33 AM | Report abuse

Come on! Letting your 5 year old walk 2 doors all by himself! And I am sure you are going to let him walk off all by himself to the park at 12, 15 years of age! And drive by 17! And go off by himself to college!!!!!!! That is unbelievably disgusting and irresponsible. According to the latest research, males do not reach mental maturity until age 27 or so, girls a little earlier. Until then they must be firmly chained to their mothers, or if you are too fancy to employ a proper heavy chain with a padlock, have GPS tracer implanted.

Posted by: sofia | October 16, 2007 10:15 AM | Report abuse

We need to prepare our kids to be independent. When I was a kid, we rode our bikes for hours after school and nobody knew where we were as long as we were home for dinner. Were there fewer bad people in the world back then? probably not, we just didn't know any better. So, now you have to keep an eye on your kids everywhere/all the time? John Walsh's son was snatched from the toy department at Sears -- out of sight for a short time.... At what age do we teach our kids independence? Will they know what to do? What about your college aged daughter -- we all know too well what has happened in some "relatively safe" college towns? When do you "let go"?

Posted by: jmom | October 16, 2007 2:31 PM | Report abuse

My son's school made us sign a release before they allowed him to walk to school alone!!

Posted by: dave | October 16, 2007 2:51 PM | Report abuse

One of the considerations parents should take into account is their community's view about leaving children alone. Check with your local Child Protective Services. I don't think any jurisdiction, however, will let a kindergarten-aged child be without adult supervision for any length of time. Until your locality's guidelines approve of the child being on his/her own, use the time with your child. Talk about school, friends, family, and, for the time he/she can walk alone, safety issues. What would you do if...? How would you handle....? Don't scare, but prepare.

Posted by: Alice | October 17, 2007 8:25 AM | Report abuse

Statistically, children are most at risk of being abducted going to and from school. And walking alone is one thing that predators look for. You should always bring a friend.

Parents need to talk with their kids about safety. What to do if someone approaches them looking for a lost puppy - which is STILL used as a ruse by predators. If you haven't had this talk with your child, he should not be walking alone. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children has some great safety tips and information to make this conversations easier - It really helped me.

My 8-year-old has a whole lot more freedom than my 5-year-old. She follows our family safety rules and knows what to do if something makes her feel scared or uncomfortable. She proved it last week when she lost us. Did a great job. My 5-year-old wouldn't have done well in the same situation. He's not ready for it but is getting there.

Children should be made aware of worse-case scenarios without scaring them. It's all about empowerment. But if you send your kid out there with no safety skills, then you're putting them at risk. Those parents who have lost kids and never talked to them about safety would do anything to have that chance again.

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