The XX Factor

Would You Let Your Kids Walk to School Alone?

DoubleX is starting a new partnership with The Washington Post Magazine . Each week our contributors will argue over a certain question, and we invite you to join in. This week: Would you let your child walk to school alone?

Hanna Rosin : Next year [fall 2010], my daughter will be in fourth grade, and her school is in a new location. The rational thing would be to let her walk there alone or with friends. But it’s in an urban neighborhood, and the idea fills me with terror. She’s a girl and, well, you never see kids walking alone anymore. I’m not usually a paranoid type, but I’m secretly plotting to follow behind her in my car. What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with us parents?

KJ Dell’Antonia : I allow-expect, demand-my 8-year-old to walk alone from the bus stop to my husband’s office, to bike the 3/4-mile to one friend’s house and walk the shorter distance to another. He needs these limited opportunities to take responsibility for himself so that we both see that he can do it. Admittedly, we live in a small town that feels safe, but the kind of random violence that parents fear can happen anywhere. Letting your child walk to school is less about safety than it is about letting go and trusting the kid you raised to look both ways.

Jessica Grose: I’m about two years younger than Jaycee Dugard, but since I grew up across the country, she never entered my consciousness. I started walking to school when I was in fourth grade. I met my best friend at the corner of my block and we would eventually pick up three or four other friends by the time we got to school. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of long walks home from Dows Lane Elementary, jumping in piles of leaves along the way. By the time we reached junior high, my best friend had become my major crush and he wheeled alongside me on his skateboard. I can’t remember a single moment of fear or unease.

Samantha Henig: I treasured my walks to and from school with my best friend, but we weren’t allowed to do it sans escort until middle school. Even then we once had an old lady in a car creepily slow beside us and firmly ask us to get in so she could give us a ride. (We refused.)

My request for those parents brave enough to send your kids off unsupervised: Don’t send them on the subway. For all the quaint and peaceful images of children bonding and reflecting during idyllic walks to school, subway rides offer a horrifying contrast. Unsupervised kids and teens take the crowded train cars as their stage in a cuteness contest, with high points given to those who are loudest and crassest. Here, they are the predators, and those of us who want a peaceful commute are the victims. I don’t care if they walk or you drive them, just get them off the B train!

Rachael Larimore : Once I got used to walking the four blocks or so to kindergarten, my mom let me walk to and from school without her, though usually in the company of neighbor kids. One day, in first grade, I was walking by myself and I came upon a car getting ready to pull out of its driveway. Having no understanding of brake lights, I thought when the red lights flashed at me that the driver was telling me to go. So I kept walking, going directly behind the car as she pulled out. In my infinite 6-year-old wisdom, I thought if I pushed on the car’s back end that I could get her to get out of my way. I got knocked to the ground-I can still see the car’s undercarriage rolling over me-but was unharmed. The woman drove off, not realizing what had happened.

I went to school and started crying when I realized my Cracker Jack lunchbox had been flattened by the car’s tire. Teacher called my mom, who came and got me. We tracked down the old lady who ran me over, and she was mortified. And she bought me a new lunchbox.

We live two miles from my son’s elementary school, down a windy country road and over some railroad tracks. As long as we live here, it’s the bus for him. I do have fond memories of walking back and forth to school, but needless to say I’m aware of the dangers. And frankly, I don’t see us returning to a time in which we let kids walk by themselves. We can mourn the passing, while finding other ways to foster independence in our kids.

Emily Yoffe: I started walking the half mile to school in kindergarten, a month before my 5th birthday. I do remember there were days when I was distracted on my journey by picking up fall leaves or making patterns in the ice. There were several ways to get to school and I liked to surprise myself by deciding different paths. Sometimes I met up with friends, but often I walked alone.

From kindergarten through third grade I walked my daughter the four blocks to her school and back because it required her to cross a busy street and there are so many crazy drivers on cell phones. Anyway, the notion that a 5-year-old would walk to school alone was unthinkable. (She did start walking with friends in 4th grade.) I sometimes wonder if she would have liked to meander on the way, or do experiments with rocks and ice.

Liza Mundy: A friend of mine, who grew up in the Midwest, says that on his first day of kindergarten, his mother opened the front door and wished him luck.

For me, my quandary is whether to let my kids walk home from the bus stop. They are 11 and 13, so I do. They usually walk in a group with other kids. But in the past two weeks, since school started, we have gotten three-count them, three-e-mail alerts about a man who has been approaching and, in at least one case, assaulting young women in our area. So I have to confess I am thinking twice.
When they were younger, the main impediment to letting them walk to elementary school was, as Emily says, a very busy highway between our house and the school. People do run the stoplight. And the school doesn’t have safety patrols manning intersections, I guess because …  what’s the point, since no one lets kids walk to school?

Like Emily, I loved walking the three blocks to school, and back. We also walked home for lunch. And sometimes made ourselves grilled cheeses. Imagine that.