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My 9-year-old is asking to bike to school without adults. He is generally responsible. So far I have said he needs to find a friend to go with him.

What can children do to convince their parents that they are capable of going to school on their own?

What factors do you think are important?

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I think this is an excellent question, and interestingly it varies culturally as well. In America, what we parents used to actually do as children is considered by most parents horrifyingly dangerous even in relatively safe suburban neighborhoods today. – MicheleV Mar 31 '11 at 17:00
It might help to understand if you currently accompany your child while they cycle to school, or if you walk or go by car. If the only factor changing is you ceasing to accompany them, the answers for how to go about this are different than if they want to cycle a journey they currently only do by car. If they get a flat tyre, be sure they can walk the whole distance pushing the bike - twice. If they get a flat on the way to school they still need to do their best to get there on time, then get home again. FWIW I used to cycle about 9 miles to school and 9 back at age 12 on busy main roads. – AdamV Oct 30 '14 at 9:14
up vote 11 down vote accepted

I'm approaching this from the "what could possibly go wrong?" side of the matter, as I think a child getting into trouble on the way to school is unlikely.

  • Traffic safety. A nine-year-old should already know how to cross a street safely. You can practice it with them and watch how they do it, both on foot and by bike.
  • Getting lost. Once again, a nine-year-old should know the way to school and back. The question is what happens when they decide to get adventurous. In that case, teach them what to do in the event they get lost. Approach police/any adult in public, go into a shop to ask, follow their steps back to where they came form until they know where they are, call home.
  • Getting bullied. This could happen, but is very specific to the child's social situation, and there is no real rule of thumb.
  • Getting kidnapped/molested/murdered/whatever. Honestly, the odds of this are about the same as being struck by lightning. I truly believe that people panic over this too quickly.

For what it's worth, 25 years ago, we all walked to school. I started when I was 6.

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Upvote for making a point of the odds. I can't speak for the whole world, but most places are far safer now than they were 20 years ago, and I bet most of us enjoyed a lot more independence in those days than many kids get these days. – Saiboogu Mar 31 '11 at 20:24
Accepted because it was a succinct list based on "what could possibly go wrong". This allows for flexibility based on: age, location, distance, hazards, etc. – nGinius Apr 5 '11 at 12:49
Your child should also know their full name, address, and phone number. Can't let them wander around without that -- most kids are smart enough around 5-6 to memorize this information. – ashes999 Apr 9 '11 at 18:30
I would also consider distance. A Middle School Student can also more likely handle a further distance than a third grade student. – balanced mama Nov 20 '12 at 22:36

This can vary widely by region: Some cities are downright murderous and can only be traversed by car, others are very safe. Here are the factors that I can think of, in no particular order:

  • How long is the trip? (three minutes at a child's pace, or twenty minutes by car)
  • What are the roads like? (bike lanes > pavement > dirt road)
  • How much traffic is there? Are there specific points that are more dangerous than the rest of the way? (hiding places, dark parks, big intersections)
  • What kind of traffic is there? (lorries, trains, cars, bicycles)
  • What kind of neighborhoods does the child need to get through? (upper class residential areas, shopping, industry)
  • Can the child ride the bike to get there? (moving faster than walking means less chance of distractions, and theoretically less chance of kidnapping??)
  • Can the child bike well enough? (both in terms of plain biking skills, and in terms of traffic awareness)
  • How should minor accidents be handled? (flat tire)
  • How should major accidents or injuries be handled?
  • Will the child travel alone? (siblings, classmates, known adults)
  • How can the child contact me if needed? (cell phone)

Also see this answer which basically says, let the child lead you to school and see if you feel okay. You can also try to distract the child and see how that goes.

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Good list. I especially like the role reversal idea from the public transit question. – Saiboogu Mar 31 '11 at 13:12

The only real factor, besides your own potential anxiety, is whether you believe he can take care of himself - including handling problems that may come up. To help decide, I would suggest quizzing him on possible scenarios. Maybe use some role play. For instance -

  • You've taken a wrong turn and don't recognize the street, what do you do? (Approach a stranger but stay in public view, ask for directions or to use a phone)
  • You run into another kid who wants to take a different route / go play at the park / etc (See if they want to walk with you for company, keep heading to / from school)
  • The classic stranger with candy - get in the van, help me find the puppy, etc. (Be polite but stay in public view, keep walking, scream bloody murder if you really feel threatened.)

Suggested answers are just that - suggestions. Use your own judgement - probably on the spot too, because no matter how much you or I think up, your kid will probably come up with their own responses that are very likely good fits to the situation too.

Ultimately, it's one of those "it depends" sort of answers, but I think the role played scenarios should help you figure it out, and will help prepare a kid who isn't quite ready.

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Role-playing this is an excellent idea! That can be done both in the living room and on the actual route. – Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Mar 31 '11 at 12:59
How can you discount kidnapping? If you remove the statement saying "only real factor" and talk about the risk of kidnapping, I'll give you an upvote. – Javid Jamae Apr 9 '11 at 4:28
One of my scenarios does handle stereotypical abduction tactics. And "only real factor" is part of a sentence that goes on to ask the parent to judge whether the child can handle themselves - including in situations like the examples. Making the point more explicit like you suggest amounts to fear mongering, which I don't partake in. – Saiboogu Apr 9 '11 at 13:04

Apart from the obvious issue of a child's responsibility level, distance and location would be important factors for me. I walked from school from around 9 years old or so, but it was only 0.5Km, in a quiet village with good pavements (sidewalks).

Riding a bike would personally make me very nervous as the chance of more serious accidents is much higher, especially on the road.

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The highest order risk for us has always been kidnapping. Where we live (in Houston), the news is filled with cases of children being kidnapped every day. It's sad, but kidnapping and human trafficking are a huge issue, particularly in our region.

Just a few years back, there was that case of the 13 year old girl in the US who was kidnapped and killed while walking home from a friends house, which got caught on a security camera. There are many, many similar stories that never make the national headlines.

We never let our 15yo boy go anywhere by himself until last year. He couldn't bike or walk to school by himself nor could he walk two streets down to his friends house. He begged and pleaded, and argued that we didn't trust him, but we stood firm and told him that it wasn't a matter of trust, but rather a matter of safety. The only reason we let him start walking and going places by himself (but usually with a friend at that) is because he is physically huge (6'5" and over 200 lbs). This significantly reduced the likelihood element of the risk for us.

We have many children on our street in our neighborhood. The kids come and go to each others houses. The ages range from toddlers to 10 year olds. We have a general rule that nobody let's their own kids or anyone else's kids walk to and from each others' houses unescorted, even if its only 1-2 houses down. There is no point in taking a risk.

We wouldn't consider letting any of our four younger children walk or bike anywhere by themselves until they are 14-16 years old. And even then, we will likely have rules that they have to always stick together or with a friend.

Its a little more work on our part to have to take the time out to escort the kids, but then we never have to worry about them.

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Your fear is hysterical, irrational, and endangering your children. Kidnappings make the news precisely because they are so rare. What actually kills kids is car accidents (75%!), homicide (usually at the hands of someone they know), child abuse, suicide and drowning. So every time well-meaning you drive your children somewhere because it's too "dangerous" for them to walk alone, you are actually putting them at much greater risk! The New York Times sums it up:… – jpatokal May 23 '13 at 16:01
The linked article is an interesting counterweight to Javid's post. Perhaps the truth is a balance between the two points. – Torben Gundtofte-Bruun May 23 '13 at 19:31
"a few years back" "there was that [single] case" that stands out in your memory because of its rarity. Over those "few years" children have walked to and from school or their friend's house, or the mall millions of times. – AdamV Oct 30 '14 at 9:11
@AdamV - The likelihood of kidnappings is low in the US, but much higher in certain other countries. There are a lot of other risks whose degree of severity and likelihood varies. Auto/pedestrian accidents happen thousands of times a year, and are extremely bad in some countries. Bullying/assault is a huge deal in many areas, I was personally assaulted by other students multiple times walking home from school when I was in middle school here in the US. Peer pressure can convince kids to detour from going home to get involved in illegal activities (e.g. vandalism, petty theft). – Javid Jamae Oct 30 '14 at 15:32

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