By Allison Amy Wedell
I don’t know about you, but to me it feels like about a third of my life as a parent has been spent thinking about all the awful things that could happen to my child. If I really allow my imagination to run wild, I get to the point where I want to envelop her in bubble wrap and store her in a closet. But not only would that be impractical (seriously, who has that kind of closet space to spare?!), it would of course be wildly unhealthy. She needs to experience things for herself and make mistakes in order to learn. Which means I need to walk the line between keeping her safe and letting her have some independence.
For many parents, a microcosm of this issue is the trip to and from school. There are a lot of factors that go into the decision of school transportation: timing, convenience, and distance being among the top considerations. But safety is also a factor.
We lived in Seattle until my daughter was in third grade. She went to a Catholic school that was two blocks from our house, but her dad and I never allowed her to walk there by herself. There was a moderately busy street to cross, but it was also hilly, which meant that people often drove over the speed limit and sometimes ignored the well-marked crosswalk. Because it wasn’t a public school, we couldn’t use crossing guards. So rather than put my daughter at risk of being squashed like a bug twice a day, we walked her to and from school (or I would occasionally drive her there if I was leaving for work at the same time).
I wondered if other parents shared similar fears for their kiddos’ daily school journeys, so I conducted a (very informal) poll on social media. I asked parents how their kids get to and from school, why they chose that option, and how their child’s safety and independence fit into the picture.
Many respondents mentioned the expected ways a child might get to school: being driven or riding the school bus or a city bus. But some parents mentioned hiring a car service or riding the subway. What I found especially interesting, though, were people’s reasonings for letting or not letting their kids walk alone.
Carrie, the mom of two elementary-age daughters in Seattle, walks them the one block to school because “They have to cross one busy intersection and I don’t trust the drivers to see them.” Todd from Cheyenne, Wyoming, provides a variation on the theme for his fourth grader: she can get “oblivious when walking, and that could cause problems.”
Bridget is from Fort Worth, Texas, where her son would have been able to walk to her parents’ house from his elementary school at the end of the day. She would not let him because of problems with her ex, though. And Beth from rural Roseau, Minnesota, had concerns about her four-year-old walking to the bus stop at the end of their road, none of which included the skunk they encountered the first time they made the trek.
Many other parents prefer to accompany their kids on the walk to or from school because it provides a rare opportunity to talk without screens, homework, or other activities getting in the way.
What interested me about these responses was that not a single parent—from the rural west to the heart of New York City—listed “stranger danger” as a reason not to let their kids walk to school. They had worries about their children’s safety, of course, but those worries had more to do with traffic than with shadowy men luring children into vans.
I also realized it was the same with my daughter. She started middle school last year at a school three blocks from my office, both of which are in the downtown area of our city. Because it gets very cold in the winter where we live, our buildings are connected by skyways—tunnels that run above the city streets. Not long after she started sixth grade, I showed my daughter how to get from her school to my office through the skyways, and now she can practically do it with her eyes closed. She brings along allowance to get snacks at the convenience store in my building, then does her homework while she waits for me to finish my workday.
I won’t lie: I was nervous about her running around in the skyways by herself. But there’s no traffic up there, and the worst that can happen is that she gets lost. She never has. Plus, she loves the freedom of coming to find me after school, and I appreciate not having to leave work to pick her up. For now, we have managed to strike a balance between safety and independence.
Allison Amy Wedell is a writer, editor, and mom whose diverse work focuses on sexual abuse prevention, bullying prevention, social and emotional learning, public safety, and theater/acting. She is the author of Shaking Hands with Shakespeare: A Teenager’s Guide to Reading and Performing the Bard (Simon & Schuster, 2004), and her work has been featured here and at babycenter.com, MomsRising.org, and Committee for Children. You can find her on LinkedIn.
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