In Our Family, We Walk to School Together

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A mom holding her daughter's hand walking to school.My nine-year-old daughter’s question caught me off guard as we meandered down the sidewalk, halfway through our daily half-mile walk to the elementary school.

It was a beautiful morning, the sky clear, the air still thick with summer, my kids dressed in shorts and tan lines. I was pushing the stroller with my three-year-old inside and holding my two big kids’ backpacks while they walked beside me. I shifted the weight of my daughter’s heavy pack as she spoke.

“Why can’t I walk alone to school?” she asked, pointing to some friends ahead of us.

Her eyes narrowed as I followed her gaze. Sure enough, many fourth graders like her were walking to school alone. Surprised by the shift – last year, they’d all walked with parents – I tried to play it off like it was no big deal.

“Because in our family we walk to school together. It’s more fun that way,” I said, pointing to her little sister and first-grade brother.

But my daughter shook her head. “No, it’s not! It’s not fair!” she said. “I’m just as responsible as those other kids.”

“Of course you are,” I said, “but haven’t you seen how people drive around here? Walking together is safer.”

My daughter knows I run these roads daily. She’s heard my stories of close encounters with cars that have blown through stop signs. But still, I could tell she wasn’t satisfied with my answer.

Luckily, we reached the school before she could argue further. Yet, for the entire week that followed, I could see the hurt in her eyes whenever we walked to school.

So-and-so has a phone, so she can call if something goes wrong. My other friend has a watch that can call her parents. Maybe I can walk if we get one of those,” she’d say whenever a solo fourth grader passed by.

Her arguments were convincing, first because we’ve always encouraged our daughter to take risks. Just this past summer, we’d made her stick with a sailing program where she had to sail a small boat on her own, even though she was initially scared. And second, I knew and respected many of the parents choosing to let their children walk alone. No doubt their decisions were thoughtful and well-reasoned.

Yet the idea of giving our daughter a cell phone and letting her walk alone felt like steps into an adult world our family wasn’t ready for yet. So I stuck to my guns.

“That’s a great solution for them,” I told her, “but our family is different. We walk to school together.”

She groaned. And every day after, her smile dimmed a little more. It didn’t help that most of her classmates who walked by ignored us as if a mere ‘hello’ in the presence of a parent would somehow ruin their coolness.

As the days wore on, my heart broke for my daughter. I could see her holding in tears as she told me about other kids who walked home together. Or talked about those who stayed after school to play unsupervised. I remembered how much I’d yearned for independence as a kid and how I’d been responsible once I’d gotten it. But I’d also taken the bus to school. Independence hadn’t started until I was closer to twelve.

My daughter is a hard worker, a conscientious student, and a huge help with her younger siblings. But she is also still a kid. Was it wrong of me to want to keep her this way a little longer?

Unsure of what to do, I turned to the experts. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children wait to walk unsupervised until they are ten due to road hazards and developmental concerns.  

I thought of our walk to school, with its enticing shortcut across a busy road with no crosswalk. I thought of all those houses under construction that we passed, their driveways a constant stream of motion. Then I thought again of all those close calls I had encountered running. It was clear the safety aspects of the walk were real.

But that wasn’t the whole picture. I was also nervous about social distractions. About what would happen if my daughter got lost in a conversation with a friend. Or hurt herself doing something unsafe in an attempt to show off. The thoughts made me nervous. Yet part of me wondered if that was the point.

Maybe those parents letting their kids walk alone were giving them an opportunity I wasn’t. A chance to learn how to navigate the world on their own.

For another uncomfortable week of family walking, I sat with this, trying to untangle my thoughts. And then, one afternoon, when we were walking home together, it hit me. What I’d told my daughter that first day was right. Part of the reason I encouraged family walking was because I loved having that special time with my kids. I wasn’t ready to give it up.

So that night, when I tucked my big girl in, I sat just a moment longer, running my fingers through her long brown hair.

“I know you’re upset with my decision about walking to school,” I said. “And I want you to know I’m not changing my mind, at least for this fall. Not because I don’t think you’re responsible, but because I don’t trust the other cars. And because I enjoy our time together. I love hearing all your jokes and stories. Maybe if I had an early job start or another obligation, I’d make a different choice. But right now, I don’t, and there’s nothing I love more than walking together.”

Her face relaxed. “I like it too,” she said in a whisper.

I smiled. “I’m glad. Because in a couple of years, you’ll be off to middle school, and it won’t even be a question if you can walk yourself. After that, you’ll start high school, and then you’ll be driving. I know we do things differently than some families. No phones, no walking alone. But it’s because the time we have together is so short and precious. I don’t want to rush it.”

My daughter nodded. “That’s a good reason,” she said. Then she reached for her bedtime reading as I kissed her goodnight.

The next day, we all walked to school together, much more relaxed. Overnight her complaining had faded, along with her summer tan.

And I couldn’t help but wonder if she felt it too, this momentous shift that awaited us just over the horizon. Next year she would turn ten. In two years, she’d be in middle school. Childhood as we knew it would be ending soon. And while those changes would bring their own special moments, what we had today was something to cherish.

In the future, I know we will not be able to resolve every conflict so easily. Already I worry about the day my daughter becomes one of the only kids in middle school without a smartphone. But by walking to school together now, I’m hoping that when the day comes for her to walk alone, she’ll know I’m still by her side, even when I’m not with her.

Because nine years have already passed in a flash. I hope my daughter can forgive me for holding onto these next nine just a little more tightly.

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Jackie Nastri Bardenwerper lives in Fairfield, CT with her husband and three children, ages 9, 6 and 4. She is the author of several novels that encourage tween and teen girls to listen to their inner voice, from saving the family fishing business in ON THE LINE, to following a passion for crafting in SALTED CARAMEL DREAMS, and exposing a friend’s hurtful social media platform in POPULATTI. She is currently working on a new children's book series and a new novel on motherhood. She also shares her own motherhood experiences on her Instagram @jnbwrite. When not writing, you can find Jackie and her family enjoying Fairfield’s beautiful coastline where they love fishing, swimming and sailing.

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