It's a dilemma I had all summer to chew over, but I still didn't have a satisfactory answer for my 8-year-old when she asked me this: "Can I walk to school myself this year?"
Young Boy Walking With Heavy Backpack On Back
Credit: Sharomka/Shutterstock

I began letting our daughter walk to the elementary school that's exactly a half-mile from our home in a suburban New Jersey neighborhood when she was in first grade, and could be escorted by her brother, then a fourth-grader.  It was a strange feeling that first time I let them go, watching their figures recede down the street and around the corner out of sight. With a newborn at home that year, I had good motivation to set my older two free, or I may have continued walking (or driving) them to school and back every day all year. Where we live, school bus service isn't available for kids who live within walking distance of their schools, something some parents are fighting against.

But this year, my big kid's moved on to the local middle school, and there aren't any other children my 8-year-old's age on our tiny street. She'd be walking alone, except for when she happens to catch schoolmates along the way there.

Our town is safe. We have sidewalks. My daughter (then a third-grader) would only have to cross two streets: one not-busy intersection, by herself; at the other, she'd have a crossing guard to guide her. Working at Parents, I've become familiar with the stats on predators: Of approximately 800,000 children under age 18 reported missing each year, 115 are abducted by strangers, according to The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. My daughter had a much greater chance of being struck by lightning (400 people a year, if you were wondering) than she does being snatched by a stranger in a car.

I know I'm hardly alone with this dilemma, as parents everywhere have similar questions. At what age can kids get off the school bus—without your standing at their stop to meet them—and walk the rest of the way home by themselves? If you do let your children walk, bike or ride public transportation to school, do you equip them with a cellphone, and ask them to text you when they get there?

Some friends of mine in New York City, where travel to school often involves a subway ride, are asking their middle-schoolers to send a text when they arrive at school. My brand-new middle-schooler is walking the mile distance to his new school without a cellphone yet (but a phone's on the horizon), and in our circumstances, I'm comfortable that he's making it there and back just fine. But if I lived in a more urban area, would I want those check-ins? I think I probably would.

Not so long ago my kids and I were in the car listening to Ramona the Pest (an absolutely engaging reading by the actress Stockard Channing), and I was struck by the differences in our getting-the-kids-to-school habits between when the book was published in 1968 and now. As Beverly Cleary wrote:

"Before long, Mrs. Quimby and Mrs. Kemp decided the time had come for Ramona and Howie to walk to school by themselves."

With instructions from their mothers to be careful crossing the first intersection where there would be no "traffic boy" on duty, and to not talk to strangers, off Ramona and Howie went. But the stunning part, at least to me, was that this little fact about Ramona and her friend Howie wouldn't have raised any eyebrows at the time:

They were in kindergarten.

So far my 8-year-old is walking to school with an adult. She's pressing for her independence—some of her acquaintances are making the walk alone from their points in the neighborhood—and next spring, she and her classmates will learn about bicycle safety from the town police department. They can officially ride on their own to school beginning in fourth grade (though some kids start earlier).

Speaking for my family, I'd feel better if my daughter had someone to accompany her on her little journey back and forth to school every day. But it might be just about time to let her go.

Do the kids walk or bike to school on their own where you live? At what age do they start?