Is it Safe to Let Your Kids Walk to School?

Author Lenore Skenazy says it's time to let kids’ freedom win over parental anxiety.

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Lenore Skenazy and son Izzy

This week my daughter, a friend of hers, and I walked the mile plus to her elementary school, picking up the first red maple leaves of fall along the way. It was a glorious way to start the day, far better than the usual rush to the bus stop. And since it's National Walk to School Month, I figured, why not?

cover of book Free-Range Kids

But few kids, including mine, walk to school anymore. Lenore Skenazy wants to change that. She's the author of the new book Free-Range Kids (Jossey-Bass, $24.95), and you may remember her as the mom who caught a heap of heat for letting her 9-year-old son ride the New York subway by himself. There was more kerfuffle last month, when she was quoted in a New York Times article on how walking to school has become a political act.

On our morning walk to school in suburban Washington, we saw kids at the bus stop and kids in cars, but only one other kid out and about—another first grader, riding bikes to school with his dad. Where are all the kids?

So I called Lenore last night, just as her two boys, now 11 and 13, were getting home from Boy Scouts—to which they had traveled by city bus. If we don't let kids set out and explore the world on their own, Skenazy argues, they'll be fat, scared, and depressed. Here's an edited version of our talk:

So why aren't more kids walking to school?

Sadly enough, because it's considered a radical act at the moment. When I was growing up, the majority of children walked to school. In the rest of the world, it's a given. It's only here that we see a block or two walk as too dangerous:

  • My friend lives in Chappaqua, N.Y., and the children are not allowed off the bus unless a preapproved adult is waiting for them.
    • Children in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., are not allowed to ride their bikes to school even with parents.
      • Some places now think that the school bus stop is too far from some homes, and so they're having the bus stop at each house. It is good if you want to your child to be a blob of flab.
      • But cases like the Jaycee Dugard abduction really have parents scared. Shouldn't they be?

        Stranger danger is fiction, not reality. Basically, 50 kids a year are killed by a stranger, while 1,000 kids a year are killed by their relatives. It's horrible either way, but we have a skewed view of the reality. What we forget when we try to keep our children safe from the rarest of crimes is that we're opening them up to a host of other difficulties, including fatness. Our children are fatter than ever. They're depressed. It is kind of depressing when you're being told you're in such danger that you need a bodyguard to get from the school to the car, because outside is too scary. Why do you move to a beautiful, safe neighborhood and then tell your kids it's not safe? I do believe in keeping kids safe. But I want to keep them safe from something that could happen to them, like a sexually transmitted disease or a car making a left turn. I want to protect them from a bike accident by making them wear a helmet.

        So what did you tell your boys about staying safe before you let them ride the subway?

        The easiest way to make children safe is to tell them, "Never go off with a stranger, never go off with any adult who asks you to go with them, unless it's me." They can go off and talk with people and feel at home in the world, but you know they know the one rule that's going to keep them safe: "Don't go off with them." Tell them that in the rare event that someone does try to take them, [they should] scream, yell, run. You'll know you've taught them what to do. I suspect most parents think that there's no harm in driving them to school instead of having them walk.

        People feel there's no trade-off. But there's a lot lost. Children need to learn that feeling of competence. If we are denying our children even the tiniest bit of that feeling in the guise of helping them, something is lost. Our calling as children is to grow up, and our calling as parents it to give [children] roots and wings. The best thing you can do as a parent is to let your children know you believe in them. That's what we owe our kids.