The continuing kerfuffle over free-range moms letting their kids walk around town unattended by an adult has many parents wondering: At what age can my kids head out to a playground or walk to school on their own ... without the cops showing up on the doorstep? According to experts, the answer isn't clear-cut.
For starters, no federal law exists setting a minimum age when kids can walk around in public unaccompanied by an adult. For laws specific to your state, you can contact your local coordinator for Safe Routes to School, an organization that assesses the safety of kids walking to school -- arguably the most common scenario where this question crops up. Your school district's transportation department may also be able to share rules for your area.
There's also a question of how parents estimate their children's abilities. Studies show that many parents think their kids are ready to cross streets as young as 7 1/2, and yet the National Highway Traffic Safe Administration (NHTSA) recommendations state that -- in general -- kids aren't ready to cross a street along until age 10.
"This is one reason why many elementary schools have safety patrols or crossing guard programs, since children in first grade who might
otherwise be able to walk alone could have difficulty crossing major streets," says John Wetmore, a pedestrian expert and producer of the TV show Perils for Pedestrians.
According to Safe Kids Worldwide, every day an estimated 51 pedestrians under 19 are injured, and more than 11,000 have died since 1995. And while fatalities in this age group have declined 53 percent over the past 15 years, parents have a right to feel nervous once their kids start heading out on their own.
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Car dangers aside, parents may also worry about other what-ifs, like kidnappers. There is good news here -- statistics suggest that these worries may be overblown. Missing person cases among minors have dropped 40 percent since 1997 -- and 96 percent of those are runaways, with only 0.1 percent being your classic "stranger abducts child" kidnapping.
There are no guarantees that any kid will be safe, and since environments and their dangers vary, experts say the best way to tell if your kids are ready is to have them take baby steps toward independence.
"If the child wants to start walking to school or to a friend's house, parents can walk with them, and let the child lead, or even walk behind the child," suggests Mark Loewen, a therapist in Richmond, Virginia. This is good practice for the child and will also show you how they'd handle various situations on their own, from traffic lights and cars to approaching dogs and strangers.
You should also ask your kids "what would you do if... " to see how they'd handle various hypothetical scenarios, and coach them on the safest course of action. For instance, kids should never pet dogs without asking first; if a stranger approaches, they should keep their distance no matter what. If they're invited into a car, they should run in the opposite direction the car is facing and yell for help.
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Last but not least, there are some added things you can do for peace of mind, like having someone at the destination call you once your kid arrives. "Teach your kids that it's safer to hang out or walk home in groups versus alone," says Beverly Hills psychotherapist Fran Walfish, author of The Self-Aware Parent. "Solo individuals are more desirable targets."
Take these precautions, and your kids can slowly ease their way toward independence without worrying you silly -- and they'll be prouder, more confident kids as a result.
"Taking a walk on their own can provide a sense of mastery for a child," points out Loewen. "It's an important milestone, and need not be dangerous if done in small steps."
At what age would you allow your kids to walk around outside alone?
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