One afternoon when I was seven years old, I was riding my bike home from school and came upon a group of boys. It was autumn, and I was on a comparatively deserted stretch of my route, set between a city park and a high school. The boys towered over me. I braked to a stop to let them pass. “Give us your bike,” one of them growled.
I froze. My BMX bike had yellow, mag-style wheels. A birthday gift, it was my most treasured possession. My response made it up to my epiglottis but no further. One of the boys moved beside me. That opened up a slice of the sidewalk and I rammed through it, rose up in the seat and swung the handlebars left and right in a bike-sprint flight that saw me reach home, breathless, some seconds later. Only then did I look behind me. The street was empty; the boys hadn’t given chase.
Probably, I realized later, they were just joking around. But I’ve been thinking often of that experience these days, because my oldest, Myron, is the exact same age I was when it happened. He’s been agitating to walk to and from school by himself, and though the distance is half what I navigated at seven, I haven’t allowed it.
This is a big change from the way children of my generation grew up. Decades ago, my and my classmates’ parents left us to our own devices. We stayed in the schoolyard or went to parks and played outside until dinner. The kids of my son’s generation tend to disappear from the yard soon after the dismissal bell, spending their afterschool hours inside, watching television or playing video games, within eyesight of their parents.
Many of those parents would doubtless insist that seven years old is too young to walk home from school unaccompanied by an adult. My son disagrees with them. He’s good around cars; he knows the way. He’s the sort of responsible, thoughtful boy who wakes up and, without being reminded, makes his bed and gets himself dressed. One school morning last week, I came downstairs to discover that he had already set the breakfast table and poured himself a bowl of cereal. He’s a lot more mature than I was at the same age.
I spent my childhood in the leaf-strewn neighbourhood of Walkerville, an upper-middle-class part of Windsor. Myron is growing up in downtown Toronto’s Kensington Market. His ’hood may be grittier, but I feel it’s also safer: Shopkeepers, U of T students, and other parents are far more present on the streets than they were where I grew up. If older boys tried to steal my boy’s BMX bike, he probably wouldn’t have to flee. It’s more likely a stranger would intervene to help him out.
What prevents my boy from walking home alone then? Only this: My fear. It’s the fear that has become endemic among parents of my generation, the fear that is robbing the fun from my kid’s childhood. In thinking about all this recently, I decided that allowing Myron his independence would provide him with benefits—more outside time, more socialization, more physical activity—that outweighed the risks.
So I started the process that ends with him able to walk to and from school alone. It began on a harried morning, when we were going to be late for his before-school cross-country practice. I let him take off, solo, while I stayed behind to pack his five-year-old sister’s backpack. Then, two or three minutes later—still close behind—we started out on the same path. Five minutes after that, we arrived at the school. Where was my boy? I scanned the broken asphalt and thought of aggressive adolescents and creeping pedophiles, and then I saw him, mid-giggle, running with a friend by the pine trees—completely oblivious to his momentous morning, and the step he’d taken towards adulthood.
What do you think is the appropriate age for children to walk the city streets alone? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.