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GoTo Mom: When to Let Kids Walk to School On Their Own

Our neighborhood seems safe, and my second grader is dying to walk to school on her own. But no one around me allows their kids to walk to school unattended. When should parents let go and allow children to walk around on their own?

I've been toying with the idea of letting my eight-year-old walk to school on her own.

Given that we live just under a mile away from our local elementary school, she is defined as a walker, according to the Montgomery County school bus system. Not that I'm complaining, though since every other family on our street has a student going there as well and we can all walk together. Yet no one apart from me has suggested that we allow the kids simply to walk together on their own, without parental supervision.

After all, when six or seven second- to fifth-graders get together, they hardly walk with their parents. Instead, they like to clump together by themselves, and chatter or run ahead without any adult intervention. In short, my daughter hardly pays any attention to me as she walks on ahead, and I’m pleased that she is so engrossed in conversation with her friends.

So why not eliminate the adult supervision altogether and let them go off on their own?

After all, our walk to school is actually a beautiful one that cuts across a lake, currently occupied by goslings and their doting parents, and for the most part, the route is car-free to boot. When I think about the tedious road I walked on my own in southern California (think Rockville Pike with half the traffic and shops) to get to Woodrow Wilson Elementary School, this commute is positively bucolic.

Better still, it would add about 40 minutes to my daily schedule that could be used to research on my latest freelance writing assignments. Or to run errands. Or to work out at the gym. Anything, in fact, but simply trailing behind a handful of kids who are happy with their own company, and seemingly don’t’ require adult supervision.

Or do they?

With the weather turning as perfect as it can in the Washington suburbs in springtime, I had been rehearsing my speech to fellow parents on my street about why I was letting my only daughter walk to school on her own, and how that wasn’t synonymous to child neglect. For her part, my daughter had been insisting for months that any adult accompaniment to and from school was simply unnecessary.

But then it happened.

Reports of Etan Patz, the boy who went missing in 1979 after he went to the school bus stop for the first time, made national headlines once again as the New York city police began looking for his remains in a Greenwich Village townhouse. Never mind that nothing was found, and authorities still remain as clueless as they were over three decades ago about whatever happened to the five-year-old.

What is frightening is that he went missing in the first place, and whoever abducted him has never been caught.

Statistically, the odds are that my kids will be hit by a car or be scalded by boiling water before they are kidnapped by strangers, never to be seen again. Yet it is fear of the unknown, and fear of the possibilities of dangers that prevents the parents on my street from letting children who can read and write from walking 15 minutes on their own in what appears to be perfectly safe streets.

It’s probably not a healthy attitude to have, but I’m too chicken to be the first to break the mould, at least for now. Still, there will have to come a time when kids simply will insist themselves that Mom and Dad can’t tag along. Stay tune for when that time actually comes. 

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