By Cassandra Szklarski
THE CANADIAN PRESS
Toronto mom Tanya Barrett has no problem getting her 10-year-old twin boys excited about walking outside unsupervised and taking public transit to school by themselves for the first time in September.
The issue is getting herself comfortable with the idea.
“They’re raring to go, but for me they’re 10,” says the mom of four kids, admitting to feeling a twinge of anxiety as she pushes them into a new realm of independence.
“My neighbours are driving their Grade 7s and 8s to school. And I’m like, ‘Yeah, my kids are going to be all by themselves. Off they go.”
Barrett would prefer that they continue taking a yellow school bus, but they’ve grown out of that service now that they’re entering Grade 6. Barrett doesn’t drive, and has an eight-year-old that needs supervision before and after school. So that leaves public transit as the only option.
She says she’s eager to see her boys mature and take on greater responsibility, but she can’t help but wonder if it’s too soon.
The answer to when a child is ready depends on many factors, says parenting expert Kathy Lynn, citing age, distance, and the travel route.
But there’s no question it’s a valuable rite of passage that every child should experience, she insists.
“Walking to school is an important part of growing up, it’s an important part of actually doing well in school because if you’re walking to school you’re getting some fresh air and exercise,” says Lynn, a Vancouver-based author and public speaker.
“When we have a child who gets up in the morning and sits down to breakfast and sits down in a car and then they get to a classroom and sit down, they can’t sit still. For a lot of them I bet you they don’t pay a whole lot of attention until after recess.”
She encourages parents to prepare their kids for independence between Grades 1 and 3. That might sound young to some, but Lynn argues that today’s kids have been coddled by over-protective caregivers.
“Parents seem to be afraid that kids won’t be safe and kids are used to being taken places,” she says. “And then all of a sudden we have ourselves a child who’s graduated Grade 12 who’s trying to apply for a job and they haven’t a clue how to go anywhere.”
She suggests parents use the month of August to teach kids how to travel safely.
Barrett started training her boys about a month ago for the 25-minute streetcar ride to school. She and her husband bought the twins phones, drilled them on street safety, and started letting them visit the local park and pool by themselves.
That freedom comes with more responsibility, Barrett adds, noting she’s also insisted they learn to check the time frequently and adhere to strict curfews and geographical limits.
“It’s hard because nowadays, everything is monitored, everything is supervised, everything is kept very close, play dates are arranged,” she says of lengthening the leash.
“Other parents will try to parent your kid, so that’s kind of it, too, right? We have a lot of shaming and parent-shaming.”
Data from a Greater Toronto Area public transit agency suggests fewer kids than ever are heading to school unaccompanied.
Earlier this year, a report from Metrolinx found the number of students being driven to school in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area has more than doubled in the last few decades. It jumped to nearly 31 per cent, while the number of kids who walked to school declined to 39 per cent from 56 per cent.
The safety organization Parachute refrains from designating what age kids are ready to navigate the city by themselves, but encourages parents to begin discussing traffic safety when their kids are toddlers.
Even though Barrett has already been through this process with her eldest now 21 she still worries about how her twins will manage come September.
“It’s hard to let your kids grow up. You want to protect them,” says Barrett.
“You kind of have to learn to let go, let them be independent, hope you’ve given them the tools and then trust them.”