We are fortunate enough to live within walking distance of my daughters’ school and there are so many great things about this. Most days, my husband enjoys walking the kiddos down the hill, while I have the pleasure of picking them up at the end of the day for the walk back up the hill to our home. We like getting a little family exercise, chatting about our day, seeing some friends, and watching the changing of the seasons in our town. But last year, when Nell turned 9 and Libby was 6, I was offered a job that meant I wouldn’t be able to make these daily pick-ups.
When I struggled to find mid-year afterschool childcare for them, I had to carefully weigh their ability to make this 15 minute walk home alone and my own ability to let them. Would it be ok too to leave them home alone for a half hour in the afternoons? Were my kiddos ready for such independence?
The first thought many of us have about letting our kids venture into the world alone is, what if they’re kidnapped?! Remember, stranger danger?! My own father reinforced this fear one day when he was visiting because Libby ran ahead of us. “You better watch her,” he said, holding out a hand in warning. “It wouldn’t take but a second for someone to grab her,” he added, and my stomach clenched. But Dad, (and everyone else!) our fears are misguided: according to a report on data from the Pew Research Center, only 332 stranger abductions were reported last year. The chances of a stranger grabbing Libby are extremely small, and we have definitely agreed as a family that were a stranger to touch her, it’s an acceptable time to yell and kick and scream and curse. (FYI: Offer to let your kids practice this one at home if they need to blow off some steam!)
My next fear was wondering if I was being a terrible mother for letting my children walk down the street alone because of the chance a car might hit them. Right?! Actually, here too, kids are safer than they used to be. Between 1993 and 2013, the Washington Post tells us that the number of children struck and killed by cars fell by more than two-thirds. Add to this, the fact that my family literally practices crossing the street together 7 days of the week, and my fear seems a little silly. While accidents do happen, my children are actually at a far greater risk being driven in the car by me than they are walking on the sidewalk without me.
Then I thought, “Will my children become scarred latchkey kids if I’m not home to greet them with milk and cookies?” Never mind the fact that I rarely actually give my kids milk and cookies at the end of the day because they get plenty of desserts already. Won’t they feel abandoned by their mother if I’m not always around? Fortunately, I only suffered this thought for the approximate minute it took my husband to remind me that for years I’d worked late into the evening with no ill-effect to the kids. Sure, Libby was a bit clingy when I did get home, but there’s plenty of evidence that suggests it’s quality of time over quantity that makes a difference for kids. I knew that I also should pay attention to the studies that show the value of letting kids have time on their own.
Most of my fears were entirely irrational. Fears that I really shouldn’t spend any time worrying about because literally “(t)here has never been a safer time to be a kid in America.” Let me repeat that headline because, if you’re like me, you can’t quite believe it: There has never been a safer time to be a kid in America. As the Washington Post article highlights, the child mortality rate has never been lower. Most Americans, however, believe that violent crime has gone up in recent years though the data just doesn’t support this perception.
Studies indicate that we judge parents, and ourselves, based more on perceived risks than any actual risks.
Once I worked my way through what the perceived risks to my kids were, and talked myself out of my irrational fears, my husband and I brainstormed a list of questions that we wanted to answer before making the final decision to let them walk alone.
Were they legally old enough to walk home alone?
A quick search online, told us that Vermont doesn’t actually define a legal age for when kids can be left alone. Many states don’t designate an age when kids can legally be left alone at home, and my guess is that that’s because every kid’s maturity level is different. I did find a chart that offered guidelines for leaving kids home alone that was a pretty useful starting point for our conversation.
A second online search though led me to countless news articles that detailed kids being picked up by the police for walking or playing alone. Do you ever feel like the world is out to get you as a mom?! I’m purposefully not including links to any of these articles here because they only heightened my sense of fear again without offering me any guidance as to how to best make the right decision for my children. The burden for determining whether or not my children could be left alone, I learned, ultimately rested on us as parents.
For additional help, I did consult with my girls’ teachers. I learned that a number of other families allowed their children to walk to our school. Happily, both Nell’s 3rd-grade teacher and Libby’s 1st-grade teacher fully endorsed the idea of the girls walking home alone. Both felt that my eldest was responsible enough to take the lead and that Libby, with her big sister, could manage the walk just fine. As much as I think I know my own daughters’ abilities and maturity, it was a relief to have this judgment affirmed by educators who know both my kids and are professionally trained in child development.
Could they walk together without fighting?
Like most siblings, our two spend large amounts of their days bickering and fighting. Images of the crossing guard having to break up one of their wrestling match in the middle of an intersection danced in my head as we started talking to the kids about walking together. We asked the girls to share their own comfort level with what we proposed and learned that Nell, my older daughter, was thrilled at the idea of being in charge. Libby, the younger sister, was less delighted. So we practiced. I started meeting the girls part way on their walk home. Over the course of the week, we worked our way up to a full, independent walk home. We talked through any of the tricky points and made it clear to our youngest that she could not run ahead of her big sister. We adopted the mantra, “Leave no sister behind,” and talked through their questions.
I’ll admit that I was not above bribery in making this work. We determined that walks home on rainy or snowy days would automatically mean they could make themselves hot chocolate as a snack (so much for cutting back on sugar here!). This, of course, led to other conversations and more practice on how to safely use the microwave & how to clean up after oneself in the kitchen. We also settled on letting the girls watch cartoons on Friday afternoons if they made it through the entire week without fighting with each other.
After all the angst I put myself through, it turns out that my girls are more than capable of walking down the street by themselves. I took the job and the girls proved themselves mature and responsible enough to spend brief periods of time in our house without us. This confidence has since spread to other areas that I hadn’t previously considered. They now make their own snacks on a regular basis, call their dad to deliver messages for me, leave my side more easily when we’re at family events, and so on.
I also think that the girls’ time away from us has brought them closer together than they would otherwise be. They sit together more often in the house, share private jokes and games, and, I like to think, look out for one another more. They still fight, but know that when they’re out in the world together, they have each other to back them up. Were I always with them, I don’t know when they would have found this quality in their sibling relationship.
For some families, the conversations about navigating the streets alone will happen sooner than for other families. I acknowledge too that every family will have to determine for themselves the right age for their kids to be alone. For us, I’m glad that out of necessity we had to tackle this conversation sooner because of how positive an experience it’s been. The truth is, our children need to learn how to walk down the street alone. They’re going to grow up and have to navigate the world, and I, for one, am glad that my girls are learning to do so first in our neighborhood together.