09/07/2015 07:59 EDT | Updated 03/27/2017 06:18 EDT

What Age Is Best for Kids to Walk to School Alone?

Inti St Clair via Getty Images
Mixed race brother and sister walking on sidewalk

"But all my friends walk to school without their parents!" I've heard it at least a dozen times this week. With school just a few days away, my 10-year-old son Gavin has been relentless in his pleas for greater freedom.


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I can totally understand where he's coming from. As a kid, many of my best memories are of walking home with friends -- kicking stones, complaining about teachers, and chewing happily on the wormy apples from Mr. Johnson's tree.

But that was in a sleepy town in the seventies. Gavin's growing up in a busy area of downtown Toronto, in the age of distracted drivers. Our local intersection is a major pressure point for rush-hour drivers who will do whatever it takes to cut seconds from their commute. (The amazing crossing guard Ed, a veteran in his eighties, is known for shouting and waving his sign at drivers who almost clip kids' backpacks while trying to beat the light.)


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Like many parents, I wonder if I'm too protective. "How can I learn to be safe if you go everywhere with me?" asked Gavin yesterday. He had a point. Especially since I had just read a page on World Vision Canada's web site highlighting the incredible journeys made by children around the world, as they travel to school alone.


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The children in these stories cross mountains, ford rivers and navigate deep forests to reach their places of learning -- often spending many hours each day on foot. They wade through deep mud in pouring rain, or trek across the desert in 50 degree heat. In contrast,, even shepherding my boy past speeding, texting drivers twice a day can feel a bit like coddling.


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I thought about this a lot last night, after Gavin went to bed. I went online to read a few articles, including this one from the Toronto Star about the right age to let your children walk.

"Generally around nine," the writer had found, after checking with a charity focused on injury prevention. The piece acknowledges the many factors parents consider, such as distance and traffic. But it notes that at around age nine, "children are less impulsive, more attentive, and have the cognitive ability to cross a street safely."

Okay, that takes care of the children. But what about the drivers? Many of the commuters I've seen behind the wheel at 8:32 a.m. are more impulsive, less attentive, and appear to boast less cognitive ability than the child dutifully who is looking both ways.


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In coaching my older son to navigate that killer intersection near our home, I suggested he start with the assumption that no one will actually obey the rules of the road. During morning rush hour, he must do their thinking for them. Derrick now makes eye contact with each driver -- glaring if needed, until they look up from their phones -- before stepping onto the street.

Maybe there's a compromise we can reach about walking to school. Perhaps for now, I'll stick with Gavin during the dangerous stretch, then kiss him goodbye once we hit the quieter streets. Or maybe, depending on which of his friends are around, I'll forgo the kiss and stick with the high-five. My boy is growing up after all.


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