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Unaccompanied Minors in Transit

We have long taken transit throughout the city as a means to get to school, work, activities, and recreation.  Our TriMet Trekker group at school has further instilled confidence and familiarity of our transit system.  We have coordinated to have another school parent, who lives further out on our bus line, collect our kids as we deposit them onto the bus, unaccompanied, and that chaperoning parent has walked them the four blocks to their school.

Now, we have started to experiment with the kids taking the bus without an accompanying adult.  A few weeks ago, at the start of summer break, we sent three kids – ages 14 (a visiting relative, a non-Portlander), 10, and 7 – on the bus from our house to go to Powell’s Books.  This is a familiar bus line, as we work and go to school blocks from Powell’s.  They know where to get off (NW Davis) and where to walk so there would be crosswalks at lighted intersections.  They made it to Powell’s, bought a couple of books each with their saved allowance, then also had lunch at a restaurant, funded also by their allowance.

Yesterday, our eldest (the 10 year-old) and her friend (an 8 year-old) took the bus home from their summer camp.  It was one bus line (no transfers) and I met them at the stop where they de-boarded, as that stop is almost a mile from our house.   Once I was sure they were off the bus and across a busy intersection, I went ahead home on my bike and had them walk the rest of the way home alone.

I have some guidelines:

  • Go in groups; stay together.  Go to the bathroom together.  (In fact, try not to use the bathroom when you’re out!)
  • Sit in the front of the bus near the driver. 
  • Don’t jaywalk (even if mama might do so every now and then)

I repeat and repeat and repeat and repeat to them to be vigilant and cautious.  I have once mentioned to them the possibility that they could just be snatched up in a second and taken to a bad place.  There is a fine line between scaring the kids and letting them know that independence is very serious.  I catch myself when I start to rattle off scary stories.  The last thing are grown children who are so afraid to leave the house if I scare them so.

These are very, very big steps for us.  I recall the day when I first let the toddler out of my sight.  It was so scary; it was in the supermarket.  And, now, not only is she out of my sight, she is way out of my sight, possibly miles away.  I don’t deny that I have pangs of anxiety when I think about the what-ifs (there could be so, so many).  At times, I wonder if it is too early for this sort of independence.  Other times, I feel that it is the right time to learn this level of self-sufficiency.  We know families whose kids have started bussing on their own at this age (perhaps even slightly younger than 10) due to necessity - working parents unable to drop off/pick up at school made it a requirement for kids to get themselves to and fro on their own.  It's a bit of a luxury for us to be able to control when the kids start to transit solo, how far, and how frequently.

Are you there yet with your kids?  Have they gone out to take a walk to the store or park on their own?  Have they taken the bus or MAX or biked solo across miles to get to their desintation?  What are your guidelines for them as they venture out?


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Just finished reading about the 8 year old boy in brooklyn who was walking home from camp for the very first time and wound up dead. with his body dismembered and his feet cut off found inside someone's refridgerator. I know this isn't ny (although it was one of the safest communities in brooklyn where it happened), but its so scary to think this type of stuff is going on. My poor daughter will be 18 when I finally let her out of my sight! Looking forward to reading these comments and seeing how people overcome their "what if" fears and allow their kids to venture out alone...

A lot depends on the individual child.
Some kids are more mature than others so the
correct age is arbitrary. I think it's important
for kids to be strong and independent but
that's going to look different for each kid.

As a regular bus rider it really does go line by line. I
ride the 19, 12 and 20 close in regularly. Kids on
the 20 would concern me more than the other

My 15 just got on a plane by herself so I know the struggle. I didn't allow my kids to take the max unaccompanied until 12. Before that they just seemed like they could be too easily confused by an adult or become overwhelmed if something unplanned were to happen. They are pretty independent and I certainly tried to warn and coach but I think before a certain age kids just cannot think on their feet especially if someone is trying to befuddle them. I remember when my daughter was 10 and a mature 10 we were at a store and she picked up something I told her she couldn't have and she sat it down by the checkout. An older man told her not to put it there but take it back where she found it (in a brusque tone) and she picked it up and started walking away. It was a telling moment where her training and rules were over ridden by an authoritative command given by someone she assumed was an employee. By 12 she would have not listened to him. Each of those years brings such change.

My girl started riding the bus to and from school (one bus, 8 block walk from home to bus, stopped right in front of school) as an 11 y/old sixth grader. She's going into high school this coming year. There are a few familiar places she'll ride alone, but I don't think she's savvy enough yet to trip plan; she's really observant of people and things going on around her, but not landmarks. I will let her ride with friends who are better at paying attention to landmarks. MAX, I'm not as comfortable with--we ride together pretty frequently, but I won't let her ride it alone, and with friends it really depends on time of day and destination.

She does do quite a few walking errands for me during the day while I'm working, up to about a mile from our home. But again, it's all about the destination--I won't let her go more than about 6 blocks due North of our home, but South is okay.

One of my kids just mentioned the awful New York story and it brought to mind one of my rules. From the time they were very young I established that if they were lost or in need of assistance that they should seek out a woman, preferably one with children, to help them. I realize that doesn't guarantee the person is not bad but it does make it statistically much less likely.

For younger kids (actually my 9 year old still enjoys it) I recommend a video that we rent from the library called The Safe Side; Stranger Safety. It has very useful information that my kids really internalize, and it is entertaining and funny while still being very clear about how to read whether a person or situation is safe or not. And what to do about it.


And for adults I always recommend Gavin de Becker's "The Gift of Fear." Very very important book.

I have a personal rule that goes something like, "don't watch the news." Stories about eight-year-olds cut into pieces by serial killers are both terrifically rare and appropriately sensational to mess with any rational thinker's head. (another story I clicked on inadvisedly a few days ago, from the Portland metropolitan area, featured a two-year-old killed when her family's TV fell on her, while watching a children's show with her parents in the other room. danger lurks everywhere, and it's more often -- as with car accidents, the leading accidental killer of kids -- done with a parent as devastated inflicter.)

that said, I agree with others; it depends on the bus line, the route, the time of day, the maturity of the children in question. because I frequently ride the 4 and the 75 during morning and afternoon hours, I've seen hundreds of junior high-aged kids riding the bus without their parents. the biggest danger seems to be that they'll be so involved in their chatting or their texting that they'll miss their stops. riding to school or camp seems like a great place to start; any ride where you don't have to make transfers is also fine in my opinion.

I was trying to remember, when we were talking about this the other night, when it was I began taking the bus solo. it was probably 13 or 14, but not because of any concern on my mom's part; it just wasn't necessary until then.

I think the kids who are best skilled at handling themselves on public transportation and in other public settings are those who have seen a good model -- in other words, those who have been with their parents for many years in those settings. I know you've done that! I try to talk about any difficult or unusual encounters after they happen so I know my kids are processing, and at least thinking briefly about how they would have handled the interaction themselves.

like any burgeoning independent act, starting slow and giving them more privileges as they show responsible behavior is the way to go!

To minimama... That was a horrifying story. But it is SO statistically rare. Even in NY. You put your kids in MUCH more danger of death every single time you put them in a car. So, having them ride the bus by themselves is so much safer than driving them anywhere. And on top of that, they gain the independence they need so that when they turn 18, they can handle themselves. That kind of knowledge and street smarts cannot come on their own, if the kids are never allowed to exercise their "independence muscle." I know you were probably over exaggerating about the 18 thing, but giving them small baby steps to let them be independent is so crucial. Having worked in Higher Education, I've seen how so many students today are sent off to school without the necessary tools to make it on their own, and it can really set them back or cause them to fail.

I recommend the Free Range Kids blog, for more stories and suggestions (and statistics about what the real dangers we should worry about) are. (http://freerangekids.wordpress.com)

The link somehow went weird on me... trying again: http://freerangekids.wordpress.com

I have to admit, *I* don't feel safe on Portland's public transportation (though I've mostly ridden the Green Line). I don't think I'd be able to breathe if my kids were riding without me, and I certainly don't want them to have to witness or be subject to the crap I've witnessed. They have many, many years to see that stuff, I don't want to push it. I will find other ways for them to test & learn their independence.

Blair, I'm with you. I have sheltered my kids some against the "big, bad world". My kid just got a bus pass at 15 years old. He's doing some summer school at Benson high. While he said he's seen some "characters"... nothing untoward has happened to him so far.

I don't mind if people want to free range their kids to and from school. I do mind if they start picking on me for NOT free ranging mine. These cases may be rare, but that doesn't mean they're not real and made possible by the fact that kids are smaller and lack real judgment.

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2010/12/09/tori-stafford-mcclintic.html (8 years old)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kidnapping_of_Jaycee_Lee_Dugard (11 years old)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ward_Weaver_III (ages 12 and 13)

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/43737609/ (seven years old).

These are just the ones I can think of. And all involve the short distance between home and school.

Every child is different but I don't consider 12 or 13 a small child and taking the bus to school doesn't make you a free range kid. For many families it is a necessity . I'll remind you that in Oregon that 13 will be eligible for a drivers permit in two years and be driving alone in three! There has to be opportunities to build confidence and competency before they are too old otherwise they will be dangerously naive compared to peers. I could come up with a similar list of grown women who were abducted; it's a crazy world.

Thanks for the link to the free range kids stuff- I will definitely look it over... As a child raised in nyc, my mom allowed me to take the subways and buses alone at age 12 ( a tiny 12 at that) and I had my share of being hassled by other teens, mugged and even had a guy masturbate on me. on the subway. in near rush hour with LOTS of people sitting by watching. (it's ny, they can't help themselves). I was a mouthy little girl with very good observation skills and street smarts. Had I been like my own daughter (shy, a bit spacy, etc) it could've been a lot worse. I know that those awful things are rare but I'm just not willing to risk it. It only takes one time. I feel like there's got to be a balance so she can gain that independence and backbone, but I don't necessarily think it has to come at such a young age.

*I* wasn't ready for solo transport (Paris, Vienna) until ?17 or 18; NYC, ?18. I was scared!! We're going kid-by-kid, to account for individual comfort level & maturity. Small steps for the 6 yr old (around our block alone, going off w/trusted & beloved neighborhood parent on errands, staying in one part of the library when I'm in another, etc.). Ea time, I reiterate our rules "stay here until you see my face, even if someone tells you I'm looking for you; see the librarian/store clerk over there? that's the person to ask for help; etc) Public transport, I'm guessing, around 12-13, unless we believe specific kid isn't ready.

Love the de Becker book!!

anon, minimom and Blair,

Totally with you. The thing is, something horrific may not happen, but I was raised with a great deal of time unsupervised (on buses, at home, walking down a city street), and there were some seriously not great experiences (sexually, chemically, safety-wise, etc.) that were way beyond me. They didn't make the news, certainly, but they still resonate with me as an adult as being really unpleasant, to say the least. I was pushed into adulthood, and adult experiences, much faster than I would have liked.

Now, with my kids, I wonder what is the rush?

I wonder at what age k and the others would allow their kids to take the bus etc alone? Middle school? High school? 16?
For many parents necessity decides the age and they don't have the luxury of putting it off indefinitely. For others I guess it's the perception of their individual child's maturity and their conscious decision to put the need of their child to develop independence and confidence over their desire for freedom from anxiety or the illusion of control in a clearly chaotic world. Of course it's hard but I've always assumed it was for me to cope with -and not to hobble them for my comfort. I was a TA for several years at the university level and I am convinced that not allowing kids to develop confidence and independence is more dangerous than taking the bus at 13.

I was a TA as well, and I'm not nearly as convinced. Many lacked confidence because they perpetually felt nervous...because they were afraid of entering yet another situation completely alone. But I do agree that much is up to the child, where he or she is at, what the comfort level is for the parent and the child. I'm not telling anyone how to parent, just about my very unpleasant experiences of being unsupervised, that again, did not make the papers. Not every bad scenario is going to be in the media, or even be told to the parent.

I would never allow children so young travel on public transit, especially in a city like this. If you ever hang out downtown, and see the people who hang out there, i can't imagine why you would allow it.


Fascinating and relevant article in today's NYT. The link to Dr. Sandseter's paper are especially interesting. Overprotecting creates phobic children filled with anxiety.

But, see, every parent gets define what "overprotecting" is...

This is an incredibly interesting article to me because my daughter starts Da Vinci in the September, it isn't our neighborhood middle school and I don't drive.

Although my daughter has never ridden the bus alone, she has traveled on it (a lot) with me and has walked to and from school (6 blocks) alone since third grade (entirely her choice). She's also perfectly comfortable being by herself at home for a few hours when I shop, etc.

She actually WANTS to take trimet to school. We have a neighbor who has graciously offered to drive her every day, but my daughter in resolute in taking the TWO buses to school every day.

Since i'm not yet working, I plan to take her and pick her up for the first week or so and make sure she knows where to get off and on. And yes, she knows to sit near the bus driver, make a fuss if anyone bothers her, has a cell phone, etc.

BTW, regarding the cases of abducted children. Yes, it's every parent's worst nightmare, it also represents just .02% of all child abductions. And some children (like poor Elizabeth Smart) are taken from their own beds.

Moral---be smart, not paranoid.

I live right next door to DaVinci. Rest assured that whatever bus she is going to take, there are always a bunch of other DaVinci kids also catching the bus. Particularly the 19--there are tons of kids waiting for the 19 after school each day.

anon---thank you! I pretty much figured as much, but that DOES make me feel better.

Probably the reason that I'm (overall) more relaxed about it than many other parents (including my husband) is because I grew up in NYC and went to a non-districted high school. Even now I have fond memories of all of us together on certain train lines going to and from school.

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