Middle School: Time To Walk Alone? Eight Things To Consider

How old is old enough to walk to school?

As a child I did not go to a local school, and it was always my dream to be able to walk to class. Now grown up with kids of my own, I live in a very foot-friendly Los Angeles community. From the moment my kids could take off on two feet, we have been promenading in the park and walking to the library, the grocery store, the farmer’s market, and our multiple options for fro-yo. I like to think that I have modeled safety and caution, and hope that's been absorbed by my children.

My daughter is off to middle school next year and I know she is going to want to walk on her own. Should I let her? Yes. No. Maybe. It is possibly more difficult to parent a middle schooler than to be one.

The departure from elementary school seems to be a point of demarcation between childhood and something else. We certainly can’t call that something else adulthood, which is why this chapter of parenting can be so difficult to navigate. Many parents and kids schedule the transition to a bigger school with older kids as a time to add responsibilities and privileges. While in principle this makes a certain amount of sense, it is also wise to pause a moment and think about who your individual child is.

If you have reasonable reservations about whether your child is ready to traverse the world on his or her own, it is okay to say no. Just because some or many (but not all, despite what your kids may protest) have freedoms you are not ready to grant doesn't change that, as a parent, it is your right and responsibility to keep your kids safe. There are a lot of reasons to allow kids to walk to school, but just as many to not.

While some kids are anxious for freedoms that were heretofore denied, others balk at expectations of independence placed upon them by parents who are ready to lighten their own load. One phrase I sometimes hear from other parents that really makes me cringe is, “You’re old enough to...” We should allow our children to be kids as long as they want to be. Let them tell us they are old enough, and then we can decide whether or not they really are.

What makes a child ready to walk to school? First of all, the child should want to do it. In my neighborhood middle school is 6th to 8th grades, meaning the kids range from 10 on the youngest side to 14 on the oldest. If your 6th grader isn’t ready to head off on foot on his (or her) own, don’t push it. If by 8th grade, this kid is still demanding a chauffeur, it may indeed be time to recalibrate. Here are some other things to consider:

1. What is the geography of the walk going to be? In my case, there is a nice straight path of single-family homes populated by crossing guards on most of the corners, with hordes of kids and families walking to the middle school in one direction, and the elementary school in the other. It's mostly user-friendly except for the fact that my kid must first cross a major boulevard to get there, and many drivers use this as a cut through on their way to work. If I lived in the heart of the neighborhood, I would have no reservations about walking. Sooner or later, I will have to let her to do it, but maybe not just yet—or at least not without me.

2. Crossing the street: From the time our children are small, we teach them how to do this safely. “Look both ways,” we say. “Wait until the cars have gone by,” we implore. “Don’t cross at this intersection; use the one with a light.” Alas, these are rules that many middle school kids, whose impulse-challenged brains are developing, seem to forget. If your young tween is still struggling with these basics, he or she is not ready to walk to school without an adult.

3. Stranger danger: Most of us, when our kids are very young and spending a great deal of time on the playground, have had this talk with our children. Once we send them to school and enter the world of safely supervised scheduled activities, we kind of (at least I have) stop reminding them not to interact with strangers. But the truth is that we still need to make sure they are aware. Teenagers feel invincible. If your kid is easily approached, you need to be certain she understands the basics of interacting with strangers before you send her out on her own.

4. Size: This is a tough one. One of the roughest aspects of a tween’s life is the disparity between those kids whose bodies grow and transform, and those whose bodies are taking their time. My daughter is fairly petite. She looks like an elementary school kid. An SUV backing out of a driveway will never spot her. This has nothing to do with her emotional readiness but is a practical concern. Nevertheless, I don’t expect her to embrace or accept the concept that she is "too small" to be out on her own. To a kid, that sounds like "not old enough" or "immature."

5. Companions: Two or more on foot is definitely better than one. Groups are more easily spotted and hopefully there is at least one in the bunch whose inclinations are sensible. I do know one mom whose son had strict instructions not to talk to his friends while walking with them, lest he be distracted. While I see her point, I think it is an unreasonable solution. If your kid can’t handle knowing when to stop chatting and look both ways, he isn’t ready to walk to school; and it is highly unlikely that he will follow the no talking rule without a parent present.

6. Distractibility: My son was pretty cautious and focused when it was time for him to walk to school. My daughter not so much. She knows and understands the rules but tends to daydream a bit. In all likelihood, this is how she will be for the rest of her life, but I am going to need to see her concentrate on her surroundings a bit more before I let her loose on the streets of Santa Monica.

7. Chart a course: Practice. You and your child are both ready to take this big step. Does this mean you send him off on foot the very first day of the first year of middle school? No. Walk together for a week or so. Make sure he is familiar with the route you want him to take. In our case, it is easier to dash across the street than head over to cross with the light. I’m going to need to be very sure that my daughter understands it’s better to go a few steps out of her way for safety’s sake before I let her wander off on her own.

8. When is it appropriate for your child to get a cell phone? The answer to this provocative question, in my opinion, is "now." For all the reasons there are to revile our children’s preoccupation with electronic devices, cell phones do provide a valuable line of communication between parent and child. As we begin to separate from our kids and let them do more things on their own, it is hugely comforting to be able to reach them and even more comforting to know they always have a means to call for help. When my son first started walking to school, he would call or text to let me know that he had arrived safely, or to let me know when he was on his way home. This of course was a useless exercise as far as he was concerned, but made me feel better. It also established a habit of communication. Now that he is in high school and has much more freedom and mobility, I still usually know where he is.

In all likelihood, my daughter will not walk herself to school next year. We will walk together, or drive. At some point, she will want to test the waters with trips to the ice cream shop after school with groups of friends, but by the time I let her do this without me, we will have practiced many times together (probably in the summer before school starts). Possibly, by the end of the year, if she has a friend coming over, I will let them walk, assuming, of course, that the other parents approve. As her years of middle school progress, I imagine she will walk more and even at some point solo. Parents who work full time must choose between walking and after care. I do feel lucky that as a parent, I have the luxury of being able to pick my daughter up. It’s my favorite part of the day.

Photo credit: Jim Larrison via flickr

Disclaimer: These guidelines are the opinion of the writer and should not be construed as legal or parenting advice. Any use of this article is at the risk of the reader who is ultimately responsible for the well-being of kids in his or her care. While many states don't have specific laws regarding at which age children can be left unsupervised, some do. So if in doubt, please check your state's official website. Mommy Poppins does not assume responsibility for damage or injury to persons or property arising from the use of any information provided by this website.