When is it OK for kids to walk home alone?

no childrenI was very interested in a recent news story from Maryland, USA which created headlines around the world, raising the issue of parental responsibilities. Parents, Danielle and Alexander Meitiv are still being investigated for allowing their children (aged 10 and 6) to walk a mile (1.6 km) home alone from a park.

Despite the Meitivs hoping the matter would soon be closed, a meeting on Monday with the Montgomery County Child Protective Services failed to reach a resolution and they are still under investigation for neglect. The main issue seems to be that Maryland has a law stating that:

A person who is charged with the care of a child under the age of 8 years may not allow the child to be locked or confined in a dwelling, building, enclosure, or motor vehicle while the person charged is absent and the dwelling, building, enclosure, or motor vehicle is out of the sight of the person charged unless the person charged provides a reliable person at least 13 years old to remain with the child to protect the child. (Family Law s5-801).

It is interesting to note that it doesn’t actually say anything about children walking home.

The case has sparked a great deal of debate about whether or not it is appropriate for young children to be allowed to walk home alone and how closely parents should supervise their children. Of course, there are real grey areas with this issue. If 6 and 10 years old is too young, is 8 and 10 OK, or 10 and 12? Last year our daughter (then 10) regularly walked home from school, about 1km, with an 11 and 8 yr old. Is this very different from the US case? Would many parents here not allow that?

I think it is really important that we encourage children to make decisions for themselves, take risks and explore their surroundings. While we shouldn’t take unnecessary risks, we also shouldn’t be overprotective. Last year 54 children aged under 15 died in road fatalities in Australia, but we don’t see parents as being irresponsible when they drive their children somewhere. We know there is a risk but we take safety measures (e.g., ensure they are wearing safety belts) and believe it is an acceptable risk.

Children are more likely to be killed by a car than to be murdered. In 2013 (the latest figures available) 10 children aged under 15 were murdered but receive much more media coverage.

While I understand “stranger danger,” I think it is a sad message to give our kids. In 2010, of the children under 15 who were assaulted, only 19% were assaulted by a stranger whereas 34% were assaulted by a family member and 43% were assaulted by a known, non-family member (p.146).

I want our daughters to know that most people ARE trustworthy and that if they are lost or something has happened to them, most people can be relied on to help. We have discussed with them who would be good people to approach if something happened (e.g., shop keepers, parents in a park) and when they might want to be careful (e.g., if they are approached by a stranger for no good reason, if they feel unsure about somebody’s motive).  Somehow we need to help our children learn how to keep themselves safe in a range of situations.

Of course it might be appropriate to let children walk home in one context and not in another. Looking at some of the interviews with the Meitivs, it seems that they have thought about how much independence to give their children, try to manage potential risks and take their role as parents seriously.

Growing up is a process of becoming more independent and walking home from school, exploring the neighbourhood with friends and going on adventures are ways that children can gain confidence and learn a great deal. For parents, it is surely a process of gradually letting go, allowing our children to make their own decisions and being confident in their abilities to look after themselves.

How much independence do you give your kids?

If you liked this post you might want to follow my blog (top right-hand corner of the blog), and you might like to look at:

  1. Parenting for a better world
  2. Being a father
  3. Death of a chicken
  4. Talking with children about the environment
  5. A 10 year old’s birthday party

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), environmentalist, Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace & sustainability.
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13 Responses to When is it OK for kids to walk home alone?

  1. I think the answer will be different for every person. It is all so dependent on the individual child, the town you live in and who they might be walking with. It is such a fine balance of when to let go and when to hover.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Robyna says:

    This is an issue that really resonates for me. I have a six year old son and I really want him to be independent. It just seems that we are stopped and made to feel like bad parents at every turn if we try to encourage that in our children. I think he’s too young to walk to and from school just yet, but the other day we were in a shopping centre and he needed to use the bathroom. He really wanted to use the mens. I stood right outside the door, kept chatting to him and had no less than three serparate people tell me that I was doing the wrong thing. When did we get so scared of each other?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. smudge2012 says:

    i would not let my kids walk home in Los Vegas either! However i live in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia and I think this means we are fortunate enough to let our 9yo walk to and from school on his own (which also means with other kids in the neighbourhood he catches up with). he takes the responsibility seriously, and his growth in confidence and self-respect is clear, with flow through effects to all areas of his life. Sooner or later they have to take those steps of independence, and find out who they are in this world. Let ’em walk I say and practice in a safe environments – assuming they are not in Los Vegas :)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. lifeofryrie says:

    This is a really interesting article. In Switzerland I see primary kids walking to school by themselves from as young as 4. They wear high vis vests and generally are in a group of 2 or 3 kids – but they are all the same age within a year or two. So you have 6 year olds walking with the 4 year olds. Personally I couldn’t pack my kids out the door on their own (they are 7 and 5). But here it is the norm. The only major difference to the community is that the pedestrian has right of way (oh and the Swiss are very good at self policing) so I guess the kids are perceived to be safer.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Margaret says:

    When my son was in grade 5 his sister started school, so he started walking home then as she had an earlier finish time. We are very close to school but it was stressful waiting that first day for him to arrive home safely.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Matt of the Blue Mountains says:

    Firstly as a 6 year old in the 80’s I walked with my 8 year old sister to and from the bus stop including running across a major highway to get there.

    As for my kids as soon as my youngest (16 months) is old enough to have basic road sense they will all be allowed to walk to the local park so from around 6-8. For my middle girl and 8-10 for my eldest.

    As long as kids have stranger danger built into them they should be allowed to explore all parts of their neighbourhoods and in our case local Bush lands.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pooyaka says:

    Interesting. But the main question is still open: At what age kids can walk home alone?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think it comes down to the individual children, where they are walking, and a whole lot of other variables. I doubt there can be a hard and fast rule. We felt OK with Alexa walking home when she was 10, but she was 7 or 8 when she first started walking home with Jasmine who was 3 years older.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Erik T says:

    It was OK in the ’60s, at least in rural Colorado where I grew up. Most “Boomers” probably walked alone as children, rode in cars without child seats (or seat belts, for that matter), and rode bicycles without helmets. Most of us survived. That being said, I would never let my 7 year old grandson walk home alone in Las Vegas. I am not sure if the criminals are more prevalent, or if we are just more aware, but it is a sad state of affairs.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Things certainly do change! I really struggle with wanting to let our daughters having independence and ensuring their safety. It is a sad state of affairs when people are scared to let their children walk around the neighbourhood.

      Like

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