I come from a family of paranoid people. It’s not so much that the glass is half empty; it’s that you should really put a napkin over that glass in case a fly accidentally drowns in it. Fireworks are loud with a chance of starting on fire, and driving in the rain is a hasty break away from hydroplaning to your doom. Dancing while pregnant is ill advised because… wait, I don’t think a reason was given when I was yelled at across a reception hall to, “Save the baby and sit down!” Cars crash, planes explode and lawnmowers shoot dangerous shrapnel right into your eyes..
This would eventually effect how I was parented. But as it was also the early 80s, it became a strange tapestry of anxiety meets early “free-range” parenting (back then, it was just called “parenting.”) I was free to go wherever I pleased, but never forget the ALL ENCOMPASSING DANGER every car, stranger, and dark cloud contained. So imagine me at 7, gangly with poorly cut bangs, hyper aware of every crack in the sidewalk while I walked myself to school. I was free! Though, certainly not stress free.
Now I am a mother with children of my own, trying to navigate my feelings on what my children should be able to do independently and when, with news reports and my inherited fear whispering “never!” I do consider myself to be more reasonable about potential dangers, because I am aware statistics are actually in my children’s favor when it comes to safety. Also, my husband is one of those “Come on! We did X,Y or Z and lived and they will too!” guys, so he is a good balance. So it is interesting to that neither of us seem entirely confident about whether our 8 year old can walk home from school alone.
She began to ask to walk home alone in the fall of this school year. In kindergarten and first grade, this was not an option. Every child must be handed to their designated adult at the door, no exceptions. In second grade and beyond, however; kids are released without teachers, and the protocol for how you get home is more open ended. However, to my knowledge, no one in second grade walks themselves. In fact, it appears that very few kids in the older grades do either. The parking lot is often filled beyond capacity, despite the fact that many children live in the immediate area. I pass moms packed down like camels in multiple backpacks and lunchboxes, because no only can’t our kids walk, they also can’t apparently carry anything. It looks a little crazy, but that’s coming from the mom who wakes up her 1 year old to go pick up her child from a school four blocks away.
Yes, I live four blocks away. Yes, I can hear the kids playing at recesses from my front yard. So can all of the other moms in the neighboring streets, and yet there we all are, rushing to get to pick-up at our designated times. For those keeping track at home, I have to do drop off / pick up three times a day, because we have half day kindergarten. My baby rarely naps- no wonder he doesn’t sleep. Every time I wake my toddler up, I think that this is crazy and my oldest is responsible and safety minded enough to make the “long” journey without me. But then someone robs our CVS (I live in the suburbs of Philadelphia), or I dwell on the social pressure, and I put it off for a month, a season or a year. She’s confident and brave; I am the one who is unsure.
And I am not alone. If you Google “When can my child walk to school alone?” there are 48 million results. The first page of results varies from a very direct recommendation of 10 years old and fifth grade from the American Academy of Pediatrics, to a score of much more open ended recommendations that come down to: know your child and know your neighborhood. Though even then, 10 continues to pop up as the magic number to cross the street alone.
The most helpful advice I found came from excerpts of Gavin de Becker‘s book, Protecting the Gift. In it, he lists 12 questions to ask your children when determining if they are mature enough to handle being alone in your neighborhood or home. They involve assessing your child’s ability to honor their feelings when someone or some situation makes them uncomfortable. It also encourages some “real talk” with your kid about whether they know that it’s ok to defy adults, especially those trying to lead them away. Furthermore, your child should be able to verbalize that if they feel they are in danger, screaming and striking out is ok, and they should know you would support their actions that they made while afraid. (The list in its entirety is here.) The list may not be something you are excited to talk to your child about, but it encourages a dialog about safety in a way that is more helpful than the “Danger everywhere!” conversations of my youth.
So according to this list, we are almost there. I think a few conversations with her, paired with a few conversations with neighborhood moms about possibly putting together a group of kids to walk together would do a lot to put my mind at ease. In the meantime, I will keep waking up babies and chasing kindergartners down the street every afternoon at 3:30 under the guise that I have to. But really, it’s because I am still a little afraid to let go.
You can reach this post’s author, Jessica Nayor, on twitter.