Jeneé Osterheldt

Parents should let their kids walk alone so they can stand tall

This week’s big debate: When is a kid old enough to walk to school, the park or neighborhood store alone?
This week’s big debate: When is a kid old enough to walk to school, the park or neighborhood store alone? Bellingham Herald

The first time I walked to 7-Eleven alone, I was in fourth grade.

I had practiced the five-minute route with my parents. Sometimes my Uncle Rick walked with me and brought his dog, Bear.

But one summer day, I wanted a Slurpee. They told me to take the dog, remember the rules of the road and not talk to strangers. I felt like a big girl, powerful and capable of doing things for myself. I filled my cup with every Slurpee flavor.

It was the first of many walks alone. Sometimes I took the dog. Sometimes I didn’t. But an adult always knew when I left the house and where I was going.

I lived just 30 minutes from Silver Spring, Md., where the big controversy this week is over a couple who let their 10-year-old son walk home from the park with his 6-year-old sister. It’s a mile away. They have practiced the route. It was a Saturday afternoon, not late at night.

Now the parents, who say they are just trying to teach their children independence, responsibility and confidence, have told the Washington Post that Child Protective Services is investigating them for neglect. Maybe it’s because Maryland is one of the few states that have a law mandating a minimum age when a child can stay home alone: 8. (Kansas and Missouri have no such laws.)

As this story makes the rounds on the Web, people are debating who is wrong and who is right. And how old is old enough?

Lori Cartwright of Olathe says she and her husband have been letting their four children — ages 12 to 18 — walk home from their schools for about three years. It’s about a mile and involves a busy intersection. The kids were taught to be alert, to pay attention to the lights, to walk in groups. They have cellphones.

“I don’t see the problem,” she says. “I would trust a parent’s judgment in most cases. It depends on the kids, the location, communication. There are so many factors. I think we get a little overprotective and judgmental of other people. But the world isn’t more dangerous than it was in the past. We just talk more about dangers now.”

Social media and 24-hour news streams have created a culture of fear. Yes, children must be taught to be safe and to understand that there are bad people out there. But they shouldn’t live in fear. Both Lori and her husband were allowed to walk alone as kids, too.

“You have to let them grow up a little,” she says. “Bad things do happen, but they know what to pay attention to, they know to be confident and be aware. They know what to do if something goes wrong. But nothing has gone wrong.”

Ann Riensin Piyapant, a Northland mom, says kids shouldn’t walk alone until age 12. Her son is 14.

“Maybe I watch a little too much ‘Law & Order: SVU,’ but I would rather have them gain independence in other ways,” she says. “One mile by themselves is still a little ways away.”

Some 10-year-olds might be mature enough to walk alone, she concedes, but she still feels strongly that children younger than 12 should be supervised by an adult.

It all depends on the circumstances, says Clint Miller, a Lee’s Summit father of three. He thinks the Maryland police and government are overstepping.

Clint wouldn’t let his oldest child, who is 6, walk anywhere alone on the bad sidewalks of their neighborhood. But if they lived in a more walkable area, like Brookside, he might be more open to the idea.

“Good parents are not absolute,” he says. “They are flexible.”

I asked my uncle how they knew I would do the right thing and what made them think I was ready.

“Um,” he said on the phone from his truck in Tennessee, “it’s called trust, Neé Neé. We trusted you. You had shown us you were responsible.”

I understand that the world is scary, and parents have the right to protect their children from it. They also have the responsibility to prepare them for it.

It’s up to them to decide when to take that stand. But a little independence is a good first step toward learning how to walk alone in this world.

To reach Jeneé Osterheldt, call 816-234-4380 or email josterheldt@kcstar.com. “Like” her page on Facebook and never miss a column. On Twitter @jeneeinkc.

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