Care and Feeding

Is My Daughter Old Enough to Walk Home From School With Friends?

A girl wears a backpack.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Zinkevych/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Can you please settle a pretty low-stakes argument between my husband and me? We have an 11-year-old who’s starting sixth grade at middle school in the fall. I drove her to elementary school and picked her up every day (I work from home so it wasn’t a big deal). However, she enthusiastically asked me if she could walk home/to school with her friends or ride her bike. I said sure, with the caveat that I would drive her in bad weather (we live in a place with long winters). The middle school is 0.4 miles away from our house (so not eligible for the school bus), and we live in a very quiet, safe town. She can walk home in 15 minutes or less.

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When I mentioned this to my husband, he got extremely anxious and insisted on me taking her to school every day. He said anything can happen while we aren’t around and 11 is way too young to be somewhere unsupervised. But I think fostering some independence in her (especially independence that she’s asked for) would be a good thing! I had extremely strict parents who did not let me go anywhere unsupervised and gave me a 9 p.m. curfew until the day I turned 18, and I resented them a lot for it. Meanwhile, my husband’s mom was borderline neglectful and has a lot of resentment for that. Who’s right here? Is 11 old enough to walk or bike home from school?

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—Too Young?

Dear Too Young,

I don’t think this is a low-stakes question at all, actually. Many parents across the nation struggle with issues pretty similar to yours. First off, every 11-year-old is different. I’ve seen some extremely mature ones, and I’ve also encountered some who have the emotional maturity of kindergarteners, so it would be silly of me to say she’s “too young” because I don’t know her personally. However, I’m leaning more on your side when it comes to this debate.

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Walking or biking less than a half of a mile is pretty tame, especially if you live in a rural area. Not to mention, it’s not like she’ll be alone—if she does this with a group of friends, everyone will be safer.

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In order to make everyone in your household feel more secure, I would suggest that your daughter have a cell phone to use in case of emergency (if she doesn’t have one already). Once she has a phone, there are great tracking apps like Life360 to let you know when she arrives to school and leaves school. If you’re opposed to a phone that young, you can also look into a GPS tracker that functions similarly that your daughter can slip in her backpack.

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Eventually, we’ll have to loosen the leash on our kiddos, and the fact that your daughter asked for that shows how ready she is. Let’s be real here, it’s not like you’re sending her to a foreign country by herself—she’s traveling approximately 2,100 feet to a nearby school with a group of her friends. Of course, that decision is ultimately up to you, but I can’t think of a better way to give your daughter some level of independence than this.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m not a parent, but I work in a small public library and of course I see a lot of children. Our library is basically one big open room and noise travels a lot. I try to let kids be kids, and we absolutely don’t expect our library to be silent, but I also have to weigh other patrons’ comfort and my own ability to do my job. I always try to give kids a chance to calm down on their own, and a chance for caregivers to step in with their particular child, but I do have to tell kids to quiet down every so often. My go-to phrase is basically “It sounds like we’re having a lot of fun over here, but we need to have fun without yelling/running/smacking each other with dolls, etc.” and I try to direct it to both the caregivers and to the kids, if they’re receptive to a strange adult interrupting them.

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Usually this works, and usually I hear the caregivers step in if the volume starts escalating again later. But sometimes, caregivers get so mad at me! Instead of even once encouraging “inside voices” or explaining to a 6-year-old that different places have different rules, they either try to tell me off for telling their kid what to do, or just take the kids and go home, sometimes muttering under their breath about how rude or out of line I am. I work very hard to NOT be rude, so this hurts my feelings. I’m not asking for complete silence, or even for happy kids to smother their feelings—just for Grandma to agree with me that yes, tag is an outside game and her perfect angel should stop yelling at the top of his lungs inside the library. Is there a better way to approach these situations? What, as a parent would you like best from a librarian in my position? Should I talk more to the caregivers? More to the kids? Am I out of touch to wish that the other adults in the situation would back me up?

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—Turn it Down to a 6, Maybe?

Dear Turn It Down,

I don’t think you handled these situations incorrectly at all. When I was a kid, I remember a librarian flat out tell me and my friends to “shut up.” Quite frankly, we were being loud and obnoxious, so we deserved it. Of course we live in a very different world, and that would never be acceptable nowadays — but I still can’t help be dumbfounded by how fragile some parents have become when their kids are being called out for not following rules.

Here’s the important thing to remember—these kids and caregivers are in your house (figuratively speaking), and when they’re in your house, they need to abide by your rules. One thing I’d want to know is if you have your library’s ground rules posted in numerous places where caregivers and kids can see them. If not, I would do that right now.

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Next, I would direct your feedback to the caregivers first and not to the kids. Personally, if my kids were acting like fools, I wouldn’t mind if a librarian told them directly to knock it off—but the truth is many parents have issues with strangers directly correcting their kids’ behavior, and that’s where you’re probably encountering issues. Instead, I would approach the caregivers and say something similar to what you’ve said before, “Hi there, it sounds like your kids are having a lot of fun, however our ground rules (point to them) state that all patrons must keep their voices low to not disturb anyone. Would you like to tell them or should I?” I would like to believe that most parents would do the right thing in that regard and instantly correct the behavior, especially if you deliver the feedback to them privately and with kindness.

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However, you and I both know that won’t always be the case. Some caregivers will take your critique as a dig at their abilities to take care of children and will fire back at you. If that happens, you need to calmly but firmly remind them that this is a library with clear ground rules (point to them again) that must be followed. If the behavior continues, then I have no problem with you kindly offering feedback directly to the children (again, direct them to the ground rules) and see if that makes a difference. Just like in baseball, on the third strike, they’re out — meaning, I would ask them to leave.

I know it may hurt your feelings when people say rude things to you — but the thing that should keep you going is knowing that what you’re doing is right. The kids broke the rules and you kindly let the caregivers know about it. What happens from there is beyond your control.

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Not to mention, you’re doing these kids a favor. It doesn’t matter if it’s preschool, a library, a movie theater, a job, or a community — following rules is a part of living in a civilized society, and you’re ensuring everyone falls in line. As a parent with two sometimes-wild children, I fully stand by your decision to call out disruptive behavior in your library unapologetically.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

We live in a very diverse metropolitan area. My 7-year-old, who is white, attends a public school. Despite their class only having a handful of white kids, my child seems to have gravitated toward them. Their best friend and crush are both white. I don’t think this is intentional; they had close friends from different backgrounds in preschool. I grew up in an almost all-white environment, so I perhaps naively assumed that by attending a diverse school, they would make friends with kids of all backgrounds and not just gravitate toward people who look like them. Due to COVID, our social circle over the past few years has been pretty limited to family and close neighbors who happen to be white, so I’m worried that this is unduly influencing them. Any suggestions for encouraging them to seek friendships from all backgrounds?

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—Trying To Do Better

Dear Trying,

I wouldn’t beat yourself up too much over it. It’s pretty normal for humans to gravitate towards similar people, even at a young age. What I would be concerned about is if your child started making disparaging comments about the other kids who aren’t white, and hopefully that’s not the case.

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If we broke down racism in its simplest form, it always comes down to fear and ignorance. Seriously — if you thought about every racist you’ve ever known, you’ll agree that they’re all afraid of something, like “People of color are going to take our jobs.” That kind of statement are is laughably ignorant and stupid, but sadly there are millions of people in America who believe these kinds of things.

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That’s why the proper education is important—because when people are properly educated, the fear dissipates. When the fear dissipates concerning people of color, then racism becomes eradicated. Doing this early on in a child’s life is important, because as Frederick Douglass once said, “It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

Your job is to ensure your child learns that people of color shouldn’t be feared, hated, or ridiculed — and you can do that in so many ways. Books are a great place to start. You can also suggest to your child’s teacher to change the kids’ seating arrangements and workgroups to ensure that everyone is exposed to different people. Also, spend some time exploring your diverse city by eating at ethnic restaurants, enjoying a picnic in a park where diversity surrounds you, going to museums, art festivals, concerts, etc.

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The possibilities are endless, and once you do this, I have a feeling your child will become more comfortable branching out to people of different races and ethnicities. It may not happen overnight, but if you’re diligent about exposure to diversity, it will happen.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I both work full-time and have two children ages 12 and 14. The oldest has played soccer competitively for three years now and loves it. The downside is, of course, the toll it takes on our family logistically—but my husband and I decided we wanted to continue supporting our oldest for as long as he was still having fun. The problem is our youngest, “Jen.” Jen tried soccer for a year and is feeling only so-so about it. She has 1 or 2 friends on the team and is a fairly mediocre player.

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Jen recently started complaining about soccer. She tried rock climbing at a birthday party and loved it—and now wants to join the climbing team. The nearest rock gym is 45 minutes away and we don’t really have a way to get her there reliably. To be frank, having two kids both play soccer is so much easier than splitting between two sports—it’s only one carpool schedule to figure out, one tournament calendar, a similar set of equipment needed, etc. If my oldest wasn’t playing soccer, we could make it work, but it’s just impossible to split our time between two sports. We live pretty far from the other soccer families so carpooling won’t work, and there aren’t any other climbing families in our town. My husband and I are stuck. We want to follow through on our commitment to support our oldest with soccer—but should we still do this at the expense of Jen? How are families supposed to balance two different sports? Is there some sort of policy for ensuring our kids are equally supported? Please help.

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—Stuck Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Dear Stuck,

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This is certainly a tricky situation, but it’s not an “impossible” one to navigate. First off, you should continue to support your older child in soccer. Regarding Jen, I don’t know if she’s currently in soccer season, but I’d suggest that she completes it prior to moving on to something else. In other words, if you start something, you should finish it.

If the soccer season ends and she wants to try rock climbing, you should find a way to make it happen. I’d like to believe that she probably knows a few people at the birthday party who are a part of the climbing team, and hopefully one of them could transport them to practice. If not, then you could simply send an email to all of the parents on the climbing team to ask if they would be willing to help with carpools. I’ve been involved in youth sports for many years, and I have yet to find a situation where a kid had to drop out because they couldn’t get a ride to practice or games. Yes, I’m sure it does happen—but I also know many parents will step up to help a fellow parent in need, and I see this happen often on my daughters’ teams.

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The point is, if there’s a will, there’s a way. I don’t know this for sure, but I’m getting the vibe that there isn’t a “will” on your part to have your daughter start this new rock climbing adventure. If you feel that you’ve exhausted every possible option to make this work or you simply don’t feel like enduring the inconvenience, then you need to be honest and tell her exactly why you won’t allow her to participate. Will she get over it eventually? Probably, but I just have a hard time accepting that your situation is impossible.

—Doyin

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