Letting Your Kids Walk to School: Does It Make You a Bad Parent?

jaycee-dugardIn 1991, 11-year-old Jaycee Dugard was kidnapped while walking to a bus stop on the streets of California. Now 29, Dugard was recently discovered living in the backyard shed-system of her captors — one of whom had fathered her two children.

The young woman’s reemergence has New York Times writer Jan Hoffman wondering how parents feel about allowing their children to walk to the bus or to school these days.

One source, Katie, says her friends have voiced concern about her 7-year-old daughter walking to school, which is located just one-and-a-half blocks away:

“ ‘She’s just so pretty. She’s just so … blond.’ A friend said, ‘I heard that Jaycee Dugard story and I thought of your daughter.’ And they say, ‘I’d never do that with my kid: I wouldn’t trust my kid with the street,’ ” said Katie, a stay-at-home mother.

Although Katie admits to being horrified by the threat of abduction, she says she is also trying to encourage her daughter to be independent:

“Somehow, walking to school has become a political act when it’s this uncommon,” she said. “Somebody has to be first.”

Her intent may be noble, but — and I speak as a non-mother here — 7 seems a slightly premature age upon which to heap independence. Especially in light of such events as the abduction of a young boy named Etan Patz from the streets as he walked two blocks to his bus stop. The Times reports:

It has been 30 years since the May morning when Julie Patz, a Manhattan mother, finally allowed her 6-year-old son, Etan, to walk by himself to the school-bus stop, two blocks away. She watched till he crossed the street — and never saw him again. Since that haunting case, a generation of parents and administrators have created dense rituals of supervision around what used to be a mere afterthought of childhood: taking yourself to and from school.

Many parents are choosing to be safe rather than sorry: They take their children to school or to the bus stop by car; they wait in the car for the bus to arrive. Buses, too, are being equipped with safety devices, like surveillance cameras.

Of course, the autonomy that comes with walking oneself to school is important for confidence. It is also a rite of passage that ZL readers, like myself, were probably excited about. But this experience is dwindling for our children, as  Paula S. Fass, a history professor at the University of California, Berkeley, says fear of kidnapping “has become a norm within middle-class parental circles.”

The numbers support this statement:

In 1969, 41 percent of children either walked or biked to school; by 2001, only 13 percent still did, according to data from the National Household Travel Survey.

Driving our children to school may give us (deserved) peace-of-mind, but according to the Times article, the trend has also contibuted to pollution, childhood obesity, and has “hampered children’s ability to navigate the world.”

So what’s the answer? A few options have arisen that aim to satisfy the desire for safety and the importance of exercise and independence:

The federally funded Safe Routes to School program has been working with communities to address problems that impede children from walking or biking to school. Particularly since last summer, when gas prices rose and districts began cutting budgets, some districts have been turning to “the walking school bus,” where parent volunteers walk groups of children to school.

I would like to think that, should I have a child, once she or he reaches a certain age — and especially if she/he has friends to walk with — I would feel comfortable allowing she/he to walk to school or a bus stop. I’m thinking 12, early teens maybe? Naturally I second-guess that plan, especially after reading about one Mississippi woman’s run-in with the law after she allowed her headstrong son to walk to school:

Last spring, [Lori Pierce's] son, 10, announced he wanted to walk to soccer practice rather than be driven, a distance of about a mile. Several people who saw the boy walking alone called 911. A police officer stopped him, drove him the rest of the way and then reprimanded Mrs. Pierce. According to local news reports, the officer told Mrs. Pierce that if anything untoward had happened to the boy, she could have been charged with child endangerment. Many felt the officer acted appropriately and that Mrs. Pierce had put her child at risk.

Do you think the officer was in the right? It’s hard to say, as we know very little about the neighborhood the boy was traversing. We do know that only about 115 children a year are abducted by strangers — is that enough to justify the officer’s actions? And is it enough to make you a wary, protective parent? Like the article says, is there any arguing with “Just in case”?



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42 thoughts on “Letting Your Kids Walk to School: Does It Make You a Bad Parent?

  1. Wow, I feel like parents just can’t do the “right” thing here. If I want my kids to walk or bike to school, they should totally be allowed to without the fear of CPS being called. I was 5 when I started walking home from school. Grade one…and that was in 81. My oldest is 4 now. Would I let him walk to school next year? I don’t know. If he had street-mates to go with, like I did, maybe. There were 3 of us 5 year olds and one 10 year old, and we also walked just under a mile. I loved it. I thought it was fun. We raced sometimes, took our times, picked up sticks…I can vividly remember it. I walk my son to school now, and he knows the way. He knows his address and phone and name, and ours as well. I hope he has the confidence and desire to go alone some day, and sooner rather than later. I guess I’ll risk the CPS and 911 calls, because for me, my desire to raise strong, smart, independent kids is my goal – and from studies I’ve seen, the kidnapping rate has not changed since I was a kid.

    • I completely agree with you. My sisters and I all walked to school together when we were close enough to the school to be outside of bus zones, and it was *fun*. Nothing ever happened to us, not once. Not even in the sketchier areas. My youngest two sisters are still in grade school, and they still walk to and from school, usually with friends. Its never that far, and is in a place where everyone feels safe. All of them are well-versed in What-If scenarios and have safety precautions drilled into them regularly, and over the years, nothing has ever happened. And I doubt anything will ever happen, because the crime rate hasn’t gone up. Kidnappings don’t happen with more frequency. They just get reported more, and people have become more aware. But, really, I believe that awareness has started to make people a taaad bit paranoid.

      • What a sad world we live in that this is even an issue. When I was growing up I walked to school every day and on weekends I left my home in the morning and disappeared until dinner time and no one ever worried about something like this happening. Now you can’t leave your kid on the front lawn to answer the phone without worrying some pervert will snatch them. What has happened???

        • People got more paranoid about the not-increasing number of pedophiles.
          Not tosay it ISN’T an issue, but it’s not MORE of an issue today than it once was. People just knew about less cases and hid more of them.

  2. Maybe If I lived REALLY close to the school (as in, I can see it from my front porch), I’d let my children–not that I have any yet–walk. However, this is an unrealistic expectation. I’ll probably play it safe and drive them when the time comes.

  3. I was super lucky to live very close to my daughter’s elementary school. We walked together and when she got a little older and more confident I’d walk her part way and watch her walk the rest of the way herself.

    At the rate that California schools are declining I’ll probably end up homeschooling my son by the time I have to figure out what to do with him…

  4. I walked to school by myself from age 6. My mother walked my sister the first few days of school but after that I walked her since we were both in the same school until she was 6 too.

    I wouldn’t let my son walk to school at age 6 simply because we live in a much larger town and he’d need to walk down a busier road. Maybe once he’s about 9 or 10. I have no intention of ever driving him to school so long as we live in this house because it’s only about half a mile to any level of school from here.

  5. This helicopter parent trend must die!! I took the bus to school until I was about 12, but in the seventh and eight grade I couldn’t catch the bus home because I had sports practices. So I would walk the three miles to my house. Maybe if more parents would let children out of their houses/SUV’s every once in a while there wouldn’t be such a high rate of childhood obesity.

    • Couldn’t agree more! I was driving down the road today past a school just as the buses were coming out. The bus in front of me stopped 4 houses down from the school. 4 houses, I counted. Would have taken that kid less time to walk home than they spent waiting to get on the bus and then waiting for the bus to leave. Then they went down another couple of houses and stopped again. Then another couple and stopped again. The bus turned off less than half a mile from the school and it stopped 5 times in that distance.

      I remember discussing school buses on a mom’s message board once and once mom was bitching about her daughter having to walk 5 houses down the road in a quiet subdivision with sidewalks. Apparently letting her precious angel walk a few yards by herself was not an option. Neither was getting off her fat backside (yes, she did have a fat backside, I saw pictures) and walking a few yards because that would mean changing out of her pajamas and she didn’t like to do that till just before her husband got home from work if she could avoid it.

      It’s not just good for the kids either. Think of all the gas we’d save not bussing kids just down the road and not stopping every few feet. All those idling cars behind the buses, total waste of gas in most cars.

    • I agree, and not just about obesity. Maybe if you let your child out of the SUV every once in a while they might have some common sense, they may even make some friends (other children, who have also been released from the Range Rover), and together, as a group these children could walk home together.

      I lived in a small town and walked to school alone at about the age of 6 (less than 1/2 km), and my husband, who is from a large city was allowed to walk to school at about 12. Obviously parents need to use common sense about how safe the neighbourhood is and how far their child needs to go, but holding on to your kids for dear life because you are scared of abduction (scary and awful, but super-unlikely) is unreasonable. Your child has a higher chance of having lukemia than being abducted.

  6. When I was in Kindergarden I took the bus. The next year we lived too close to school to take the bus and I walked everyday with my older sisters. But once they were in middle school and I was still in elementary, I had to walk with my little sister, and I was fine. I’ve never had to walk by myself, and I think, if I ever have kids, I wouldn’t let them walk alone. If they had someone to walk with it would be fine though.

    I think Lori Pierce was in the right here. The kid was 10. My little brother is 11 and can totally walk to school by himself. If the kid was 6 or 7, then I could see where the problem is, but he was 10 and he said so himself he wanted to walk. And a mile isn’t that far. When I was 10, I was walking the 2 miles it took to get to the library and grocery store every day in the summer and I was totally fine. Parents are a little too overprotective these days. There are times when it’s good, and there are times when the just need to relax.

    • Well, you also need to take into consideration the location. Maybe in a small town where everybody knows everybody it wouldn’t be a big deal, but not all places are like that. Where I live, well, it isn’t the worst place on earth, but I would be seriously hesitant to consider letting my kids walk to school.

    • So you won’t let your kid ride a bike/go outside/go to friends’ houses because the risk of bumped knees/skin cancer/unsanitised surfaces is too high?? Qualify your opinion, otherwise you just seem like another neurotic parent that is fueling the rise of unhappy/obese/scared children completely devoid of any real life experiences.

      If you don’t let anything happen to them, then nothing would ever happen to them. (to quote Finding Nemo)

  7. I don’t have kids, and I probably won’t have any for another ten years or so. I still live at home though, and my sisters walk to school every day. We are pretty lucky though. We have friends and family living on the whole way to school so they can always check up on them. And they do walk together so it’s a lot more comforting. If it weren’t for those factors though I don’t think my mom would let them walk to school by themselves. They really do enjoy the walk to school, just like I did when I was younger. It seems like a huge part of the school experience. But like Adum said, it is better to be safe than sorry.

  8. I wouldn’t let my son walk to school even though we are a mile, but for me it’s more an issue of being worried about physical safety rather than abduction. He’d have to cross two dangerously busy streets to get to his school. We’re eligible for bus service thankfully. If we didn’t have those streets to cross? I’d definitely consider letting him walk to school, especially if I could find an older “buddy” for him to walk with (he’s 5).

  9. And have te rates of actual kidnappigs changed at all?
    Or just the rate of exosure to scare-tactic “it-could-happen-to YOU” news?
    I suspect the latter…

  10. I walked to school starting in first grade and up until I had friends old enough to drive me. I left the house in the morning during summers and came back at dinner. NO problems.

    There were no issue because all the families in the neighborhood knew whose kids were whose and trust me- anything you did would get back to your parents.

    Even if you didn’t have direct supervision there was always someone looking from their house to make sure you only caused a reasonable amount of trouble and were safe.

    I didn’t grow up in a gated community or even a spectacular neighborhood with A schools. I grew up in a normal place in CA, OH, and FL. I also didn’t grow up in the 50s I grew up in the 90s

    If everyone took the time to pull their heads out of their own self absorbed asses and did the same things all my neighbors did then we could let our kids walk to school, explore, and be independent.

    Make sure everyone in the neighborhood knows who you and your children are. Create a community again instead of a few blocks of people who happen to live in the same neighborhood.

    What ever happened to “it takes a village to raise a child”?

  11. Paedophiles are everywhere! Go ahead, step outside and look in the nearest bush and I can guarantee that Uncle Badtouch is lurking within with some lollipops and a puppy.

    Teach children basic safety precautions and show them how to have faith in themselves. Installing fear in them, leading them to believe that all strangers are possible boogeymen I feel is mostly socially crippling and counter-productive.
    It’s a cruel world –and there are psycho scum out there and some kids tragically get abducted and maybe never heard of again– but we cannot be paralyzed by fear over the small chance that our kids may become statistics.

    • I got a letter in the mail informing me that a dangerous sex predator has moved into my neighborhood. His crime? He raped a woman a gunpoint. It’s isn’t bullshit, these people can be living right down your street. You should check out the list of perps in your neighborhood, you would be SHOCKED. The list is publicly available online.

      • Wow, that sucks, I understand that must be horrible for you. Yet this is a concrete situation in which you are well informed about a very real danger down the street, and my original post points to the fear and exaggerated belief that paedophiles are absolutely everywhere.

      • Just remember that a lot of the supposed perps really didn’t do anything serious. Of course raping a woman at gun point is very serious and that’s something you should know about but it’s very rare. I looked at the list and there’s one guy in my area on it. The crime was having sex with a 17 year old girl and based on his age and the year the crime was committed I’m guessing that he was 18 or 19 and having consensual sex with his girlfriend. I saw him at the grocery store one day and noticed a number of women staring at him and moms picking up their kids and walking away. Frankly I just felt sorry for him. There are so many guys on that list because they have consensual sex with a slightly younger girlfriend or because they nipped down an alley for a pee and a cop saw them exposing themselves.

        I’m glad we have the registry so we know about the serious cases but I think they put too many people on the list. I want to know if the guy down the road has a thing for 4 year old boys but I really couldn’t care less if he had sex with his HS girlfriend 20 years ago.

        • Seriously! My husband I and I were just wishing there was a filter for the registry. Like, I don’t want to know if my neighbor pissed in an alley or screwed a chick that was a few months shy of being legal.
          I do want to know if any of my neighbors have raped anybody, though…

      • The episode contains interviews with people that has some sober things to say. Yes, I agree with Penn & Teller most of the time so I may be biased, but even a non-fan could appreciate some segments of that particular episode.

  12. “Make sure everyone in the neighborhood knows who you and your children are. Create a community again instead of a few blocks of people who happen to live in the same neighborhood.

    What ever happened to “it takes a village to raise a child”?

    that is a nice sentiment, but it is not my job to raise people’s children. if i wanted to raise children i would have my own. i would of course watch a kid who was crossing the street alone at my corner if i happened to look out, or i would certainly come running if i heard some kid screaming, but it is the parents’ responsibility to get their children safely to school or to the bus top. also, why can’t the stay at home mom in the article walk her kid the one and a half blocks to school if she’s so worried? she’s a stay at home mom for god’s sake! isn’t that the point?

      • HAHAHA I hate typos too.

        I agree about the village thing. It just seems like I was raised in safer times. I’m sure there were “funny uncles” and pervs floating around back then but I also think there is an alarming increase in their numbers and I can’t help but think that the proliferation of porn and the internet has something to do with it. I think the net is bringing them out and making it easy for them to act on their sicko thoughts.

        • frondi, it is an interesting paradox: more and more people have guns, there are more surveillance cameras than ever before, we know more about child abduction than we did 20 years ago, every other neighborhood is on neighborhood watch, and yet we have never been more afraid of one another.

        • I hear ya, it’s weird. Probably has a lot to do with social isolation. People don’t go outside anymore, always inside on the computer or watching tv where you see and hear the worst of everything so it breeds fear. The media also peddles sex left and right so pervs feel compelled to act out where in the past maybe things were more repressed. That’s my theory anyway.

  13. living in miami, i would never let my daughter walk alone to school. i’m not worried about her getting kidnapped, i’m worried about her getting run over by the shit drivers we have down here. seriously, we’ve all gone walking and i’ve been nearly hit by cars taking stop signs and speeding through crosswalks. we were voted the #1 city for worst drivers and the #99 out 100 of the worst ciites to raise your kids. Maybe if I lived in a small town or a place where EVERYONE walked (meaning to school, work, etc…) maybe it would be different. but our town is a driving town. Nothing is within walking distance.

  14. I’ve been walking to school since the age of 8. I totally think you should let your child walk to school, albeit with other children when they’re young

  15. In middle school the bus stop moved from my drive to down the road (fairly busy road). I had my brothers to walk with me until they were both graduated and I was a sophomore. After that it was me and my sister and my parents didn’t want us walking anymore so my dad would wake up every morning at 5:30 to drive us. I had on occasions been left with no other choice but to walk alone and it was always the most terrifying thing especially when a car would slow down a lot (one time someone actually pulled over and tried talking to me and a neighbor). I feel like I’d be the one at least driving my kids to the bus stop if it was far.

  16. Sixty nine years ago, 1940, when I started to school, everyone except those in rural and other out lying areas walked to school. We lived about a mile from my elementary school in Norfolk, VA. Mom walked with me the first few days as I learned the route and how to cross streets safely.

    Other children in the neighborhood did the same. Yes, we heard a few horror stories, but no one adopted the “chicken little sky is falling” paranoia of today.

    When we entered WWII in 1941, with all the gasoline rationing, walking, riding a bike, or taking a city bus was the only way to get to school.

  17. First, you have to realize that most kids are abducted/abused from family members and close friends.

    And, back in 1969, there were more stay-at-home moms than there are now. Many parents drive their kids to school so they can get to work. And, given most state budgets, there aren’t as many public transit options in some places.

    When my kid wanted to walk to school by himself, here’s what I did: I contacted some neighbors who had younger kids at the same school and asked if he could be in charge of walking them to school. The younger kids loved it — a big boy paying attention to them! — and he was much more careful because he had a responsibility.

    We parents have to remember that our job is to teach our kids how to be responsible, contributing members of society. Making them fearful isn’t the way …

  18. I came across this – i dont know how but I am here lol

    I’m 1985 I was 5 year old and walked to and from kindergarden – 4th grade, a total of 2 miles a day. Sometimes I would walk with friends and sometimes – if I was to busy watching Smurfs to meet up with them – I would walk alone. I remember being about 6 and 7 playing in the sprawling woods on Ft.Meade where we lived, alone, for hours…no worry in the world!

    I now have a 1 year old, 2 year old, and one on the way. I could NOT imagine doing this today. Though comparing now and then…it seems LUDACRIS to hover over them! (if fact we used to make fun of the moms who walked the kids to school and packed them peanutbutter on wheat and a side of carrot sticks for lunch lol) But I do not feel safe letting my children roam the neighborhood, as do some of my neighbors with 3 year olds. My children cant follow my instructon in my sight, let alone a few blocks away!!

    I noticed someone mentioned the rates are the same…115 a year or something….how about OVER 260,000! over 800,000 reported missing…did they fall into a lake? obviously something that wouldnt not have happened had they had supervision.

    Anderson Cooper Blog “The NCMEC says 203,000 children are kidnapped each year by family members. Another 58,200 are abducted by non-family members. Many others are runaways or pushed out of the home by parents.

    Despite these huge numbers, very few children are victims of the kinds of crimes that so-often lead local and national news reports. According to NCMEC, just 115 children are the victims of what most people think of as “stereotypical” kidnapping, which the center characterizes thusly: “These crimes involve someone the child does not know or someone of slight acquaintance, who holds the child overnight, transports the child 50 miles or more, kills the child, demands ransom, or intends to keep the child permanently.”

    Of these 115 incidents, 57 percent ended with the return of the child. The other 43 percent had a less happy outcome.”

    What about the kidnapper nextdoor who takes your child there( less than 50 miles – as most abductiosn that I read about are) and bury them in the backyard? this 115 number is NOT inclusive of all the “less happy outcomes”
    And not even adults, read the stories on 10 year old Mary Bell of England who murdered her 3 and 4 year old playmates, the 2 11 year old boys that brutaly murdered 2 year old James Bulger – just to name a couple. This scares the sh*t out of me.

    I am sorry but at this time I cannot let my children out of my site knowing that there are at least 2 registered sex offenders in my small 60 home neighborhood. It probably doesnt help the fact that I myself have dealt with 2 attempted molestations, I have been raped twice, as well as recieved comments and touches form older men at a young age. And yes, this also scares the sh*t out of me!! I do not allow my children alone with ANY men! Well, besides my husband.

    When my children are at an age where they can understand and be truseted without me I will not make them fear the world but I will arm them with the knowlege, defensive skills, and common sense to make smart proactive decisions regarding their safety and wellbeing.

  19. And a littl emore food for thought for those who say that kidnapping havent increased since our childhood……..According to the Department of Justice, kidnapping makes up 2% of all violent crimes against juveniles. Risk of kidnapping steadily increases with age, increases greatly from 10-35 yeaers, after which the risk steadily decreases. Several distinct kinds of kidnapping exist: 49% of all kidnappings are “family kidnappings,” 27% are “acquaintance kidnappings,” and 24% are “stranger kidnappings.” The FBI states that 85% to 90% of the 876,213 persons reported missing in 2000 were juveniles. Between 1982 and 2000, the number of persons kidnapped in a year has risen 468%….FOUR-HUNDRED SIXTY-EIGHT PERCENT!!!

  20. Oh god, that’s so US. Here (Germany) most kids are taught the way to school and back from 1st grade on and noone thinks twice about it. Kidnapping as a common experience? Please…

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