One Expert Tells All

When Is My Child Ready ... TO WALK TO SCHOOL (OR THE BUS) ALONE?

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What you need to know before you give the big go-ahead

You remember walking to school—uphill both ways, right? But when your kid asks for the same privilege, will you be prepared to give permission? We spoke with Natasha Burgert, M.D., a board-certified pediatrician in Kansas City, MO, and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, for some guidance. Joanne Van Zuidam reports.  

Is there an age at which kids should not walk to school or the bus without a parent’s supervision?

There is not an absolute age, but I do think that education and observation are critical before you send your child out the door and have her assume that responsibility. That said, kindergarten is the year families usually begin to test the waters by exploring the path to school and teaching rules for safety.

If age isn’t an issue, what is important?

You have to know your child. You wouldn’t throw a 15-year-old kid the keys to the car and allow him to start driving. It’s a process, and kids have to learn gradually. First, teach your child how to cross the street safely. Practice together for a while and when your child can abide by the rules and regulations, encourage him to practice looking both ways and crossing while you observe from the sidewalk. Over time, drills like this can help parents feel their child can manage walking to school, or the bus, safely.

OK, once you’re confident your child knows how to get to school, what other rules should she follow?

Stay on the designated path and walk in groups are two of the most important. Also, your child needs to know what to do if a stranger approaches. Most kids today are taught to run or kick anyone who approaches them. Conversations about what you want your child to do if approached by a stranger need to start early and take place often. Other basic rules to put in place are: walk on sidewalks, cross the street at crosswalks or where crossing guard is stationed, don’t play in the road, and be alert to surroundings. If your child prefers to ride a bike or skateboard to school, be sure he wears a helmet and knows he should walk a bike or skateboard across a street—not ride it.

Anything else?

Kids should know their home address and the mobile phone numbers for both parents. You can place this information inside a backpack as well.

What if a child breaks a rule you gave him?

The repercussions should be in the same category as those you impose for not coming home on time or going to a friend’s house without asking. What’s the usual consequence in your home for those infractions? Children need to be accountable and trustworthy.

Should you rescind the privilege of walking to school if a child breaks the rules flat out or obeys them inconsistently?

For some, revoking this privilege is not an option. But you can take away another privilege—for instance, media—until your child obeys the rules and acts responsibly.

What causes parents the most anxiety—and what can they do to reduce it?

There are lots of reasons for parents’ anxiety, including their child getting lost, lacking experience or judgment, and being vulnerable to strangers and injury. Parents can negate that feeling by walking their child to school or the bus, and walking him home again, until they feel that their child is ready to walk to and from school without them. Again, they should have their child walk in groups for safety. If your child has a cell phone, you can ask her to text when she gets to school in the morning and leaves school at the end of the day. GPS watches and other devices may offer additional security for safe arrivals.

Is parents’ anxiety warranted?

Quite honestly, kids may be at greater risk being driven to school in a car than they are walking on a safe pathway. Parenting is about negotiating that risk. If you can find techniques that abate concerns and increase your comfort level when kids try new things—like walking to school—you may be pleasantly surprised by your child's capabilities.