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Why don’t our kids walk to school?

Categories: Mommy Angst, Push my Button, Wanna Fight About It?

33 comments

When I was a kid everyone walked to school. Everyone. If we didn’t walk, we biked. Even in kindergarten. Of course, this was the time Way Back When Before Things Were Safe, when we rode seatbeltless piled into the backs of station wagons and we all owned cap guns and we always had scabbed knees from learning to roller skate and we walked alone to the candy store every week with our Saturday allowance in hand and as toddlers we sported coffee table cornered bruises on our foreheads.

So what happened?

I’d like to think we can pinpoint one event, one moment in our collective social history that forever transformed kids from the independent little beings they used to be who’d run out the door on summer mornings wearing flip-flops, letting the screen door slam on the way out, not to return again until lunchtime, having in the meantime been up and down the street with neighborhood kids or out riding bikes or in somebody’s back yard with trucks in the sandbox or skating around the block. But it’s more complicated than that.

In the 1960s more than 90% of kids who lived less than a mile away from their school walked or biked there. Now? Only 30%. And I’m betting most of those are accompanied by a parent or other adult. We don’t let our kids loose anymore. We’re afraid.

And we’re afraid because of an overreaction to a danger that occurs far less than we think it does. We think — and the media has been great about whipping our fears into a frenzy — that dark-windowed vans lurk on every corner waiting to lure our kids in with promises of candy or pleas to help find lost pets. But statistically, a child faces a 40 times greater risk of being killed in a car accident while being driven to school by a parent than of being molested while walking, bicycling, or taking a bus to school.

Hmm.

Plus all that driving not only costs us time and money (at $4 a gallon) but it’s also a huge impact on the environment. 30% of our collective morning driving is to our kids’ school. Cough.

And let’s not even get started on the growing obesity problem … but, well, now that you mentioned it, between 1976 and 2006, childhood obesity tripled. Fat kids, skinny kids, kids who climb on rocks? There’s way more fat kids these days and way fewer climbing on rocks.

And meanwhile, we’re raising kids who are stifled. Overprotected. Lack independence. And who aren’t prepared for Real Life. Oh, I’m guilty of this as much as anyone. At 12 I was — with a group of friends — taking the bus and then the train to the Big City 40 miles away, but I can’t imagine my 13-year old doing anything even remotely close to that.

Which means that, as parents, we lack confidence in our own abilities to teach our children how to get by in the world. As a result, we close the doors, lock the windows, and hide from the world.

Today is National Start!Walking Day. It’s geared toward adults to promote health, encouraging people to walk on their lunch hours, but … what about our kids?  Free-Range Kids is a website devoted to the concept of loosening the apron strings and letting kids grow up unfettered, the way we did. After all, we lived to tell the tale!

I let my kids play outside unsupervised. I know they’re in the neighborhood, somewhere. We have a walkie-talkie and they check in every hour or so, but aside from that they could be anywhere — riding bikes, riding scooters, climbing the big dirt mound, down at the creek — and it’d be okay. My only rule is that if they go inside someone’s house, I’d like to know whose. I’d let them walk to school if they could, but school is miles away and the bus is the only option. I’m the Bad Parent, though, who doesn’t wait with them at the bus stop. (Seriously, do we really have to wait with our kid in our car at the bus stop that’s 100 yards from the house?)

What about you? Where’s your comfort zone with your kids? Could you be a Free-Range parent?

[Photo: SEPpics, SXC]



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33 comments so far...

  • We rode our bikes to school on occasion as kids (about 3 miles) when I was only 7 or so. I can’t see myself letting my daughter do that. I just don’t feel it’s safe, at least not for younger kids. And if I have to weigh “independence” versus safetey? Safety will always win.

    Robyn  |  April 8th, 2009 at 9:07 am

  • I think suburban sprawl can be blamed (or at least share the blame). In our neighborhood, the pre-school/grade-school our son would be attending is about a mile and a half away, which is not only quite a hike for a little guy, but requires him to cross a very busy, 4-lane highway, so he won’t be walking. I trust him; I don’t trust the drivers I’ve seen speed through there.

    Another interesting thing I’ve seen in our area is there are schools literally in the middle of a housing community, BUT, the community has always had problems with crime. So, do you live in a crime-ridden neighborhood with a school 50 feet away? Or a safe neighborhood where the school is miles away?

    CAH  |  April 8th, 2009 at 10:18 am

  • It’s just not safe any more. I used to walk to school until HS. But still walked all over the small towns we lived in & by. But it’s a scarier world now days. Unless you want to walk your children to school.
    My youngest bus stop for HS is almost 2 miles from our home…I do not let her walk….it too far a young girl all by herself. I drive her to the school in the a.m. ( about 20 minutes) and pick her up at the bus stop in the p.m.
    The time I would spend being worried would not be worth it.

    eileen  |  April 8th, 2009 at 12:34 pm

  • That’s the thing - we don’t feel it’s safe. Our feelings are wrong. It IS safe. But we feel it’s not safe. And if anything happened to the kids, we’d never let it down, either to ourselves or the law.

    It is safe - but we can’t trust that. Geez, how screwed up our society has become.

    Amanda  |  April 8th, 2009 at 12:55 pm

  • Amanda, how do you know it is safe? Should I just take your word for that?

    Robyn  |  April 8th, 2009 at 1:10 pm

  • There were statistics in this post. That’s what I was referring to.

    Of course, nothing is ultimately safe. Kids can be kidnapped by a rogue bus driver too. But I don’t want kids to live in fear, and trying to constant protect them from absolutely everything just teaches them to be frightened.

    Amanda  |  April 8th, 2009 at 1:30 pm

  • Yes it is a better way to help reduce obesity. However, now-a-days with kids being a primary target for sex offenders and the like it’s just not safe. I would rather my daughter (when she get’s to be school age) ride the bus so I can be in peace knowling that no will harm her. On the other hand though, if it would fit into my schedule I wouldn’t mind walking with her to school (after all I do ride the public bus and walk myself ~I don’t want to learn how to drive for fear of being a bad driver and public transportaion / walking is a lot more economically friendly.

    Lindsey  |  April 8th, 2009 at 2:35 pm

  • Yeah, I see your point. Great post.
    I grew up in former Soviet Union. I was walking to school about a half a mile away by myself since age 7. Many times I walked with friends. I also spent much time outside playing until dark. Once I turned 10, some evenings i stayed out late playing until 10 or 11. But I was with people my parents knew. I was like five or six houses away. At age 10 I also took the bus and went to store with friends. At age 8 or so, I joined the knitting and embroidery club. My parents didn’t take me there. I went with a friend my age. It was about a quarter mile away.

    So true, how much time parents spent driving their kids places. I am not at that stage yet. I will be soon driving my son to extra curricular activities.

    vera babayeva  |  April 8th, 2009 at 5:15 pm

  • I was a walker too, starting at age 4 in KG. I went to a different school than most, but my 6-year-old brother accompanied me to a street corner with a crossing guard before heading to his school. My younger siblings grew up in a smaller town where all the kids walked to school together.

    It would be safe if everyone would let their kids walk to school (within a mile or two), because there is safety in numbers. We picture our own tiny, defenseless kid walking alone among strangers and think, “no way!” But why don’t we think collectively and picture all the kids in the neighborhood walking the same way? For kids who don’t have siblings, can’t we get together with nearby families and coordinate their walking together? Is this more an issue of lack of community than fear of pedophiles?

    My house is three miles away from the elementary school my kids will be assigned to, across two major streets, and down busy roads with no sidewalks. That’s just too much for me, even though I’ll regret not giving my girls the opportunity to walk to school. The middle school is about a mile away and I will have them walk (or bike) there. The idea of having them sit on a bus for an hour or more a day bothers me more than the thought of things they might get into on the way to/from school.

    SKL  |  April 9th, 2009 at 2:48 am

  • Not sure where this is at, but where we live, the older kids (jr high and high school) have to walk if they are within a mile, but even my child who is 10, walks 7 blocks just to the bus stop and is harassed and bullied. The only children that are allowed bus rides is if there are no safe walkways in or around from where they live to the school

    its’ more dangerous these days and although it looks good on paper, the schools are also now being held liable for a shitstorm more things involving kids than they were over 40 yrs ago, including the safety of the child from the time they leave the parents home to the time they arrive back in the home after school.

    {cher}  |  April 9th, 2009 at 6:03 am

  • I walked to school, or biked. My sister walks her son to school in the mornings and picks him up in the afternoons. Would I let my kids get to school of their own accord (bike or walk)? Never. Too scary, too big roads, etc etc. Do I have time to walk with them? No, my commute is too long already.
    I see a mom walking her kids to our neighborhood elementary school every morning, but it is along the only road, and cars whiz by at 50 mph. I can’t imagine that it is a pleasant walk, and I wouldn’t want my kids on that road, with me or without me!
    Good topic, though. My children are young, and we have a gate on their bedroom door. My kids have learned to open the back and front doors, and we keep the gate on their bedroom because we don’t want them leaving the house without us knowing. Too scary. (So we have to change locks/fix the doors but that is a different issue.)
    My husband doesn’t like it when I let my kids play in the backyard if I’m in the kitchen cooking. Nor does he feel comfortable letting them be in parts of the backyard we can’t see without supervision. I’m more relaxed about it, but it is something we talk about.
    I worry about child predators too–my children are girls, and I think about how easy it would be to snatch my kids from the backyard. So then I thought perhaps I’d have the two german shepherd dogs stay out in the yard with them as protection. But then I would worry about the dogs hurting the girls! (We trust the dogs, and the girls too, but we have heard of too many bad incidents with dogs and small children to ever really trust them all to be alone without us around.)
    Anyway, I worry about many things, and walking to school is just another one.

    spacegeek  |  April 9th, 2009 at 10:58 am

  • We live about a 1/4 mile from my son’s school. My husband and I walk him down every morning and the nanny walks him home in the afternoon. He is only 4 (K1) so at this point walking alone is not an option. He knows the way and there are crossing gaurds at the intersections, but he is easily distracted and it wouldn’t surprise me if I let him go on his own that I would find him 30 minutes later staring at the birds in the field we pass on the way. I will let he and his younger brother walk to school on their own when they are old enough and I don’t have to worry about “shiny distractions”.

    I walked to school in 1st grade and in 2nd grade my younger sister joined me. We walked with other neighborhood kids for the 1/2 mile journey. I feel it is important that my children learn life’s lessons from my husband and I. We will be kinder and gentler in the way we teach the lessons than the real world will, but they have to learn. They have to experience dissappointment and have the freedom to make decisions both good and bad. I don’t feel I will do either of my sons any good if I keep them sheltered from the real world. I also believe in competition but that’s a topic for another thread.

    KLG  |  April 9th, 2009 at 12:27 pm

  • I was not allowed to walk to the bus stop alone until I was in 8th grade. Our school was actually close enough to walk to but I was not allowed to do that either because of the danger. I doubt that I would let my son walk to school until he was a teenager, even if we were close by unless I walked with him. I really don’t even want him riding the bus as there was also a lot of fights on the bus when I was growing up. I think it depends on where you live, though. I have always lived in or right outside of cities and although my neighborhood might have been nice, it changes from block to block and you never know.

    Oceans Mom  |  April 9th, 2009 at 1:26 pm

  • I was thinking about this recently. When I was in high school I used to walk from our house to a bookstore that I liked about a mile and a half from the house. By myself.

    Two years later a girl my age was kidnapped from the parking lot, raped, and murdered. I never walked there again.

    I could never let my kids walk to the schools they’re supposed to go to because in both instances they have to cross paths with known sexual predators. They live *just* outside the boundaries set to keep them away from schools. It’s terrible and frightening.

    Beth  |  April 9th, 2009 at 3:10 pm

  • Why won’t my child ever walk to school alone? I don’t know if you read this thing called “the news” but an 8-year-old child was just kidnapped and killed when she walked yards away from her home to visit a friend who lived in her same trailer park. Kids who walk anywhere alone become targets for predators. It’s sad but it is a fact of life. Do I regret that my son will never live the freewheelin’ active kind of life that I lived as a child? Absolutely. But I would rather not have the police come to my door and tell me they fished his dead body out of a pond, stuffed in a suitcase. We’re living in a different world now and we all have to adapt to it. There are easier ways to solve child obesity than sending kids out alone into a world where there are people who think about nothing else but how to rape and kill children. The only way I’ll let my kid walk to school is if they institute a mandatory death sentence for first-time child sexual predators.

    Amy  |  April 9th, 2009 at 3:18 pm

  • I live only about a mile from the local elementary school, but none of the kids in my neighborhood can walk to school because of how the streets are designed. There are no sidewalks, and kids would have to travel along a couple of very busy streets with little to no shoulder in order to get to the school.

    In the town where I live, neighborhoods built in the 50’s and earlier have sidewalks. Neighborhoods built in the 70’s and later do not. I think that has a lot to do with why kids don’t walk to school. Even if they wanted to, they couldn’t.

    Susanna K.  |  April 9th, 2009 at 3:19 pm

  • I don’t let my kid walk the very short distance to school because 1) the sidewalk he’d use has a freeway-like street on one side and dense woods on the other side; 2) in the winter NOBODY shovels the sidewalk and when it gets icy , it’s impassable and I can see him slipping right onto aforementioned freeway and 3) the woods/ child molesters/ nuff said.
    Oh, I forgot the house at the corner of the school parking lot and aforementioned woods that I’m pretty sure is a crack den, complete with snarling pitbull straining to get off the porch.
    Nope, my kid’s not walking.

    CrossChris  |  April 9th, 2009 at 3:31 pm

  • My kids walk to school. We bought a house that is two blocks from the JK-8th grade and literally across the street from the high school precisely because of its excellent proximity to the schools.

    This isn’t my dream house, and it’s not my dream location. It’s a pain in the butt when hordes of noisy teenagers go gallumphing by my house every morning and afternoon.

    But the knowledge that I will never have to drop off/pick up my kids except when they have a orthodontist appointment? Makes it all worthwhile.

    Poppy Buxom  |  April 9th, 2009 at 5:46 pm

  • Humans fear what we cannot control. Logical or not, we fear not being in control. That’s why the vast majority of people are more afraid to fly than to drive, even though statistically we all know we’re a bazillion times more likely to be injured or killed in a car accident than in a plane crash. If we are driving, we are in control.

    I suspect this walking-to-school issue falls along the same lines. As long as we can control our children’s environment by escorting them to school, we feel safe. The unknown that could/might happen if they walked alone, whether it be crossing busy streets, bullying, or abduction is an unknown that WE can’t control if we’re not there ….. and that is exactly what we fear.

    With that said, my kids *do* walk to school, even though I count myself as a fairly paranoid parent. We only live one block away and they cross no busy streets. I stand on the porch and watch them to the corner. When they turn the corner they are within eye sight of the crossing guard. Within those parameters, I feel safe.

    Do they roam the neighborhood? No. Do they play outside unsupervised? Yes, although I confess that I prefer when they are outside together and I peek fairly occasionally out the window. They’re 9, 11, and 12, and have been playing outside without me for several years.

    It’s a hard gig, this “helping them to grow up” thing …. still not sure I like it! :)

    Kristie  |  April 9th, 2009 at 6:36 pm

  • Many of my students get dropped off at school and several who do walk have cell phones in case of emergency. These are ten-year-olds: 4th graders. With cell phones. Because their parents are nervous about their kids getting to school. At least two are instructed to call home as soon as they’re safe on the playground. One has to keep his phone in his pocket at all times.
    It’s a different world. Even in my city, a relatively safe place, a town where neighborhood schools are the norm, parents worry.

    Daisy  |  April 9th, 2009 at 8:42 pm

  • Karen, I am a Free Range parent, and I LOVE the blog that Lenore writes. I also just bought her book…which is hilarious and eye opening.

    My kids don’t walk to school because it’s 3.5 miles away , and they start at 7:45 am. But they do walk to the bus stop…when we get ready in time…and they certainly walk home from the bus stop.

    I have MANY MANY opinions about this topic….the media has made us INSANE on this topic. I’m choosing to be reasonable, teach my kids well, and trust them.

    Karla E  |  April 9th, 2009 at 9:03 pm

  • For those of you who posted comments about child predators and strangers…look at the statistics…the ones from the Department of Justice…not CSI Wherever, or Law and Order. The news sensationalizes any crime involving a stranger, simply becuase those crimes are SO freaking RARE. It’s terrible when it happens, but it is amazingly RARE…and no more common now than is years past (in fact it’s much less common than when we were growing up). You are putting your kids at greater risk by putting them in your car….or by letting them hang out with your family (most crimes against children are commited by family members).

    The Free Range Kids website is a good place to start.

    Karla E  |  April 9th, 2009 at 9:12 pm

  • Hi Karen

    Thanks for sharing this. I’ve actually blogged about this as well: http://realdelia.com/2009/03/12/helicopter-parenting-is-it-ok-for-my-daughter-to-marry-a-girl/.

    I think a lot of our reluctance to let our kids walk to school alone has to do with independence and changing notions of (as well as expert disagreement over) how much independence is OK for our kids and at what age. It’s not just about walking to school, either. It’s about where they go to college and if they can take public transportation. But as you say, it’s because we’re wrestling with these things within ourselves, as much as with our own kids. And I don’t think we’re going to come to an end point on this where it all makes sense. As with most parenting things, it’s cyclical and today’s conventional wisdom will soon be discarded as yesterday’s news. Which, of course, doesn’t help those of us trying to figure this out right now…

    Delia Lloyd  |  April 10th, 2009 at 5:20 am

  • Our school has something called walking buses where parent volunteers meet kids at different intersections and accompany them as a group to school. It’s pretty cool but I still end up driving her since I can’t figure it out time wise between school and getting to my job!

    starrlife  |  April 10th, 2009 at 6:07 am

  • Anything can happen to anyone at anytime. I believe people have established that. Car accidents, unavoidable situations etc. However, I feel that when things are avoidable it is worth trying to avoid them. When young children walk to school alone they are very vulnerable. My daughter is a toddler and I have a baby on the way, but my kids will not walk to school alone until I feel they are old enough. Walking in groups with friends at certain ages may make you less of a target, but any child walking alone is a potential target. I don’t think I am paranoid, but I am cautious. Even in the 70s my parents were pretty specific of where we were and we checked in frequently. It only takes a second for something bad to happen. I don’t want my kids to be afraid of the world. Eventually you have to teach them to be independent and careful. However, that doesn’t include letting young elementary age students walk to school alone. To me it is just too dangerous. It was said that the statistics that something would happen are rare, but I it is a change I won’t take.

    Christine  |  April 10th, 2009 at 12:16 pm

  • My youngest… when she was in Elementary School walked to school as she was lucky - living across the street. If I wasn’t able to walk her to school - I did most days- I watched her from the front yard until she was in front of the school. By middle school it was miles away and would have had to walk past the freeway ramps and up a busy road…never mind past a truck stop that is always busy with big trucks coming and going. By High School they had moved her bus stop almost 2 miles away…no longer down the street. And in my neighborhood nice young girls don’t walk the streets along. Too many crazy people. I’d rather her be safe. She hangs out with her friends in their neighborhoods and walks around in groups…never alone. To me safety in numbers.

    eileen  |  April 11th, 2009 at 1:50 pm

  • I think it’s more of a safety thing. Nowadays you’re not as safe walking to school as it was when I was in school. The school my son goes to is three miles away, and that seems like quite a walk to me. Besides that, my son is a big guy and while he could probably protect himself, there’s no way he could outrun a bullet or a switchblade. I’ve read way too many stories in the newspaper about kids gone missing, only to find them days or even weeks later (worst case scenario), so no my son doesn’t walk to school. That’s why I switched to 2nd shift. And when I’m at work, either his father or his grandfather picks him up and brings him home.

    GiGi Soto  |  April 15th, 2009 at 12:34 pm

  • Wholeheartedly agree. There are about 30% walkers in our school district, but the school is located in the center of a small “village” complete with post office, 5 and dime and library all on Main Street (you get the picture). My daughter is heading into 4th grade and next year will make the 1 mile trek to school in the morning, accompanied by one of us, on her bike, weather permitting.

    Still, just yesterday I read in the paper about a 6th grader who was hit with by a tractor trailer and killed instantly while biking to school at 7:45 in the morning. Sad

    Kelly  |  April 28th, 2009 at 2:46 pm

  • Hi Karen,

    I would like to ask your help spreading the word about Walk to School Day – October 7, 2009. Since you run a parenting blog and have blogged about walking to school in the past, we thought you would be interested in this information.

    You can register a Walk to School event by visiting http://www.walktoschool.org/register. Registration is free and available to individuals or organizations holding an event in the U.S. Registered schools will be displayed on an interactive map on the U.S. Walk to School Web site (www.walktoschool.org), where neighboring communities, media and other organizations will be able to view participating schools.

    By registering Walk to School organizers gain access to a variety of downloadable materials, including certificates, templates for printing stickers and a frequent walker punch card.

    Walk to School Day has been celebrated in the U.S. since 1997. Last year, more than 2,800 events from all 50 states and the District of Columbia registered on the Walk to School Web site (www.walktoschool.org). Many more communities held events but did not register. Around the globe, International Walk to School Month brought together more than 40 countries in recognition of the common interest in walking to school.

    Walk to School events are a way for schools and communities to build enthusiasm for walking to school, promote the benefits of walking and bicycling and bring visibility to any safety concerns. More than one-half (55 percent) of events are part of ongoing efforts to promote walking and bicycling throughout the year.

    For more information, contact me at (919) 843-4952 or ljones@hsrc.unc.edu.

    Thank you,

    Laura Jones
    Communications Assistant
    Walk to School Team
    National Center for Safe Routes to School

    Laura Jones  |  May 19th, 2009 at 9:16 am

  • In our area of the city less than 10% of the kids at school come from “in neighborhood” so most kids don’t walk to school. However, most of us who are in neighborhood do. For me, it is right on the way to the train so doesn’t take me out of my way. I’ve also seen parents walk from the train to the school with their kids and a good percentage of older kids (I’d say 4th grade up) do walk alone or in groups. The boundary doesn’t extend more than 6 blocks in any direction so it is walkable for just about anyone.
    However in daily life I don’t let her walk any further than next door all by herself. So I suppose I’m not “free-range” yet but I do let her do a little more each year, which I feel might be a decent compromise.

    Mich  |  July 27th, 2009 at 6:55 pm

  • What a great article. I frequently feel that others might call me the bad mom. I let my son climb trees, roam the neighborhood, as long as he checks in, ride his bike without a helmet, and play at the creek in the park without direct supervision. If I lived in an area where public transit was the norm I”m sure he would be managing the rails. We don’t watch much T.V. so not being exposed to the scare tactics does make it easier.
    Sometimes ignorance is truly bliss. I hope to raise a son confident to go out into the world comfortable in his own skin and able to use his intuition and best judgment.

    lori  |  August 7th, 2009 at 2:52 pm

  • I know what you are saying. Sometimes I feel like I am overprotective of the kids because I don’t want them to go inside other peoples house or walk around the neighborhood.
    I do let the kids walk to and home from school. My daughter is 13 and son 12. I think they are old enough to do that on their own. I just make sure to tell them to stick together, watch out for cars and to be careful. I don’t encourage them to go outside alone but if they do I ask that they stay in the yard. But when they are together I let them walk to the playground or soccer field to play when they want. If they want to go to a friends house I just ask whos house they are going to and give them a time to be home. I try to give them some freedom and just tell them of what to look out for and to just be careful.
    I think I am a little to paranoid because I just don’t want them to be exposed to dangerous things, drugs or alcohol. My husband says that I do need to give them more freedom…but I don’t know

    BreastFeeding Top Shop.com  |  September 10th, 2011 at 9:15 pm

  • So I got in trouble this morning for walking my daughter to the school door. The school my daughter goes to does NOT allow you to walk your child to the door of the school or pick her up unless you are physically in a vehicle. It is a children DRIVE THROUGH! Then everyone wonders why kids are obese …. well that’s why! Next thing we’ll probably have to do is go to school FOR them just so they won’t get hurt!

    Puzzled  |  October 5th, 2011 at 9:32 am

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