We want our babies to stay babies forever, but the truth is, they're ready for independence sooner than we may think.
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As parents, we often have to fight the urge to be overprotective of our kids. Once they get to a certain age, especially in the tween years, a bit of autonomy is actually good for them—riding public transportation alone and surpassing what age can kids stay home alone can teach kids a lot of responsibility. But how do you know when it’s the right time to let them walk home from school without an adult?

Roughly, experts say when they’re around 11 or 12 year old, but it’s not that simple. “You want to consider the developmental level and maturity level of your child, which can vary widely during the tween years,” says John Duffy, Psy.D, Chicago-based clinical psychologist, and author of the upcoming Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety (To buy: $19; amazon.com). “Often, it comes down to a judgment call and instinct as the parent.” Still, when it comes to a lot of these new responsibilities, you need to consider the safety of your child and set parameters that’ll give all of you peace of mind. Here, some advice from tween parenting experts.

Tip #1: Consider the environment

Not all neighborhoods are created equal, so you really need to think about the local area, and the walk, before determining whether your child is ready to take those steps alone. “Walking home from a suburban school bus stop is different than crossing busy roads in an urban area,” says Jennifer Powell-Lunder Psy.D, a clinical psychologist in Westchester, New York. “Also, how far is the walk? School bus stops are usually just a 10- or 15-minute walk from area homes due to state laws, but your child’s school may be further than that. City schools often are a shorter trip. It comes down to what you’re comfortable with.”

Tip #2: Take it step-by-step, literally

There’s no way you’re going to set your kid loose on the streets without a bit of prepwork. “You’ve been driving them everywhere all of their lives, so they might not actually have a solid sense for how to get home,” Dr. Powell-Lunder says. “Do a few dry runs with them on the weekend when they can get a sense for the walk, without their school friends seeing.”

Next, you can ease into the process by meeting your child halfway on the walk home for about a week, Dr. Duffy suggests. “Should all go well (and it typically does), the following week they can do the full stretch home.” He also suggests giving your child positive feedback as he or she gets used to walking home alone, to encourage a feeling of pride and confidence in the fact that they’ve got this; emphasizing the benefits of walking might be a good place to start.

Tip #3: Have them travel in packs

Safety can be a major concern, so experts suggest that your kids never walk home without a friend or two. “The ideal number for safety is three. Two is still good, but three is ideal, and the more kids in the group, the less statistical chance of abductions,” Dr. Powell-Lunder says. If your child doesn’t really know the other kids on the bus or on his route home, you can strike up a conversation with some of the older kids you see one afternoon. “If your child is comfortable with it, you can casually engage the older kids in a conversation about whether or not they’re walking home and see if your child can maybe tag along,” Dr. Powell-Lunder says.

Tip #4: Get them a cell phone

As much as we hate the idea of our kids being saddled to devices, if they’re going to be walking home alone, they’ll need one. “You don’t need to hand them a smartphone loaded with apps, but they should definitely have a way to communicate with you,” Dr. Powell-Lunder says. “You can set up a call with your child so that he calls when he gets off the bus or leaves school, and you can stay on the phone with him. Then, as he gets more comfortable, you can just have him text when he leaves so you have a sense for when he’ll get home.” With the right tools, you can all feel more secure in your child taking these major steps alone.