It’s back-to-school season, and kids across the country are heading out the door with their backpacks. Some of them are making the trip alone for the first time.
We all know it’s good for them to get a little exercise during their commute, and there’s even evidence that walking or biking to school is correlated with kids’ confidence in their academic abilities.
But what about safety? As a parent, it’s hard not to worry when watching your child take off down the street by themselves. At the same time, we want to encourage our kids’ independence. We won’t be walking them to their college classes, after all.
So how can a parent know when a child is ready to make their way to (or from) school by themselves? And what safety lessons should we be sure to impart before they do?
We spoke with several child safety experts about the best way for parents to approach this milestone.
Know your child.
There is no one age at which all children become capable of walking themselves to school. There are too many factors involved: Will they be with an older sibling or neighbor? How far away is the school? How many streets do they have to cross?
You also need to consider your child as an individual. How mature are they? How anxious?
“I always tell parents there is no one-size-fits-all right age. I do think, however, that kids under the age of 10 should not be walking to school on their own or even with another 8- or a 9-year-old,” Pattie Fitzgerald, a child safety expert and founder of safelyeverafter.com, told HuffPost.
“They know how to get there, but they don’t have the executive function to make a snap judgment as quickly,” she added.
Physical size matters, too. A driver is more likely to see taller bodies and miss shorter ones.
Don’t have their name visible on the outside of their backpack or other items.
It’s extremely unlikely that your child will be approached by an unknown person with ill intentions while walking to or from school.
“In 2021, 27,733 missing children were reported to NCMEC and only 142 of these were reports of children who were abducted by someone who was not a family member,” Susan Kennedy of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children told VeryWell Family a few months ago. “These types of cases represent less than 1% of cases reported to NCMEC.”
Nevertheless, it’s probably a good idea not to have your child’s first name visible on their backpack, lunchbox or other items they carry with them.
“That could actually give a stranger the chance to use your child’s name and pretend to know them,” Debra Holtzman, a child safety expert, told HuffPost.
Though you do want to have your child’s name on their belongings in order to increase the odds of them being returned when lost, Holtzman suggested labeling them on the inside instead.
You can also use their initials, a symbol or stickers to mark the outside of such items, in order to easily differentiate them from those of classmates or siblings. Land’s End, a retailer that sells children’s backpacks, offers custom monogramming, saying on their website, “You can have your backpacks personalized with your kid’s favorite logo, initials or cartoon character.”
Explain that safe adults don’t ask kids for help.
In lieu of “stranger danger,” one helpful thing that kids can remember is “‘Safe grown-ups don’t ask kids for help,’” Fitzgerald said.
Predators often use a request for assistance, such as carrying packages or finding a lost pet, to draw a victim in.
You can simply explain to your kids that safe grown-ups ask other grown-ups for help, not children. If a person does this, she suggested that kids use the phrase “not allowed,” as in, “I’m not allowed to do that.” This works because it is easy to remember, short and can simply be repeated if the person’s requests continue.
Teach basic street smarts without instilling fear.
Though you may have grown up during the era of “stranger danger” warnings, this teaching has fallen out of favor over the years. The worldview that this kind of thinking can encourage is that every adult your child doesn’t know is a potential threat, and this doesn’t reflect reality. A belief like this can cause a lot of anxiety and worry for kids.
The truth is that when a child is harmed, it is usually by a family member or another person that they know. Telling them not to trust strangers won’t protect them in these situations. It also won’t help them in situations when it is appropriate to approach someone they don’t know, like a store clerk or librarian, for help.
“Remember, you’re not trying to frighten them; you’re aiming to give them knowledge and confidence,” Holtzman said. “Using role-playing is a great method to show kids how to deal with tough situations.”
The goal is for kids to feel able to advocate for themselves and get out of an uncomfortable situation. They should not feel pressured to comply with another person’s requests for the sake of being polite, whether or not that person is a stranger.
“Instruct children to ignore drivers or individuals who try to engage them in conversation and to not go into someone’s car or house unless it has been previously arranged by parents. If feeling uneasy or scared, instruct children to approach a mom or dad with kids of their own and say, ‘I do not feel safe,’” Rosemary Webb, co-president of Child Lures Prevention, told HuffPost.
In addition, Fitzgerald said that some parents give their children a list of safe adults who are allowed, for example, to pick them up from school, so that they know not to get in anyone else’s car unless a plan has been made in advance.
Others designate an “ultimate safe stop,” which could be a store or friend’s home on the route to school, where a child can go if they are feeling unsafe for any reason.
Like all important conversations with kids, personal safety isn’t a topic that you’ll cover in one sitting.
“Child personal safety is an ongoing conversation that ideally begins when your child is very young, even pre-verbal. This keeps safety tips fresh in mind and parent-child communication open. When safety tips are incorporated into normal conversations, it is less likely to cause undue anxiety. Children learn through repetition, and reminders are always a good idea,” Webb said.
Keep your tone free of fear, and remind kids that the people they need to stay away from are few in number. “Assure children that most people are kind and safe and can be counted on to help kids,” Webb said.
Stress the importance of being attentive to their surroundings.
You’ll see kids and teens (and adults, too) walking hunched over their phones, earbuds in, absorbed in the sounds and images of that tiny screen. This isn’t a safe way to travel from one place to the next.
“Emphasize to your children the importance of staying alert while walking/biking,” Holtzman said.
First, if they’re not looking where they’re going, they’re more likely to get hurt by tripping over or running into something. Second, they’re less likely to hear or otherwise notice an approaching car.
“If they’re listening to music, not both ears,” Fitzgerald said. They should remove one ear bud so that they can hear what’s going on around them.
Finally, being engrossed in their phones makes them an easier target for anyone who might do them harm.
“This is even for adults,” Fitzgerald explained. You’re safer, she said, when “you’re walking around with purpose in your step and your eyes are looking around.”
Plan and practice.
One of the best ways for kids to learn a new skill is to do it with you.
“Map out the safest route to school, and walk it with your child at least once. Tell your child to avoid shortcuts and follow all pedestrian and road safety rules,” Webb said.
Practice using crosswalks, where cars will be more likely to see them than if they cut across in the middle of the street.
If your child has a phone, use available technology.
Once you’ve decided that your child is ready for a phone, you can use location sharing to track where they are.
You should also “teach your child how to dial 911 should they feel threatened in any way,” Webb advised.
She added that “there are many free apps to help ensure your child’s safety while walking to and from school or the bus stop, including Life360 … and Google’s Family Link.”
Fitzgerald suggested setting up an emergency code word or an emergency code emoji, something kids can text their parents quickly to let them know they need to be picked up or called back right away
“This comes in handy when they’re teenagers at parties, but it also comes in handy when they’re walking to school and somebody is making them uncomfortable,” she said.