If you’re a Chicago parent, chances are good you’re in for two child-rearing milestones next week: the first day of school and the first day of kid commuting.

You know what your own urban commute requires: the steely resolve to make it onto packed “L” cars, the determination to walk in all kinds of weather, the catlike balance that keeps you upright on a lurching bus. It’s decision time: Is this the year your child is ready to commute on his own?

Each year, when Chicago schools open their doors, CTA buses and trains fill up, too, with kid commuters. Chicago’s public transit system provides more than 130,000 rides per school day to our city’s schoolchildren. And many of those children — some as young as 7 — will be riding without a parent.

Chicago, like many large metro areas in the United States, relies on public transit to get kids to school. But as commuting to school has become increasingly tangled in a wide range of issues, from child safety and parenting styles to the effects of school choice, what do parents need to know?

The independence debate

Recently, a mother in Wilmette reported being investigated by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services after allowing her 8-year-old daughter to walk the dog around their block on her own, highlighting the ongoing discussion about how much freedom to give young children, even as contemporary anxieties about safety are at an all-time high.

Lenore Skenazy, the founder of the free-range parenting movement, faced a public outcry in 2008 after she wrote about allowing her 9-year-old to take the New York City subway home on his own. Yet CTA policy allows children age 7 and up to ride alone. Skenazy, who now advocates that parents actively seek experiences their kids can master on their own, believes an independent commute can provide many benefits: “It gives kids confidence,” she says, “because they can do something on their own. It gives them mobility. They get a sense of neighborhood, and a sense of neighborhood is great in so many ways. You feel like a part of it.”

It also frees working parents to make their own commutes. “It’s freedom,” Skenazy says, “And if the parents feel they’re ready to do it and the kids feel they are ready to do it, it’s important to let them do it.”

She stops short of advising an age at which children should be able to navigate on their own. “I never give a specific age, I always say think back to your childhood, and whatever you were doing at your kid’s age is something your kid can probably do. It’s no more reckless or dumb to allow your kid the same freedom.” She points out, “If you grew up even 10 years ago, crime rates are substantially lower than they were when you grew up.”

The school choice effect

Though it’s true that crime rates across the board have fallen, Skenazy readily acknowledges that some Chicago neighborhoods are too violent for kids to safely play outdoors.

“If you, as a parent, know your neighborhood is not safe,” she says, “I’d advocate some other kind of independence for kids.”

The reality, however, is that children in the most violent neighborhoods frequently commute to school, often by themselves. In a research study published in 2017, Julia Burdick-Will, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University, found that children from safe neighborhoods in Chicago often travel to school in groups. But children from the city’s most violent neighborhoods were much more likely to travel longer distances without a group of peers from their neighborhood.

“In more dangerous neighborhoods,” Burdick-Will says, “kids seem to scatter. Some of them are commuting really far, and some are not, but there is a wide range of schools kids from the neighborhood attend, and they tend to commute alone because fewer kids are going to that school.”

This scattering, she says, “only happens in the most violent neighborhoods in the city. I think that it is the desire to get away from where they are, rather than being drawn to particular schools.” So far, there is no simple solution to help parents compare schools while factoring in the commute. “There isn’t a real easy right answer,” says Burdick-Will. “Access is important. Letting students go to the school they want to go to is important. But a lot of kids choose a school without thinking about how hard it’s going to be to get there. It’s a trade-off in trying to provide equality and access. There’s a cost, and unfortunately it’s not always equally distributed.”

The basic street smarts

Whichever neighborhood your child commutes from, you’ve no doubt already counseled her on the safety basics most adults follow when traveling on public transit. To that list, the CTA adds recommendations that a child traveling alone sit near the front of the bus or in the first car on the train, to be close to the driver. CTA station attendants can also help a child who needs assistance. David Nance, a personal safety expert who has developed training programs for both law enforcement and the public, notes that the walk to the train or bus might be the most dangerous part of a child’s commute. The Chicago Police Department’s Safe Passage and Safe Haven programs, which recruit adult volunteers and local businesses to provide safety for children walking to and from school, help address that concern. But Nance offers a few more ideas for training a smart, young commuter:

Practice the route: “Be sure to go on a test run with your child to ensure they know the correct route and you can point out safety considerations.”

Sit on the aisle: “This allows them to move to another seat easier if the person sitting next to the window makes them feel uncomfortable.”

Sit near the CTA call button: “Teach them to use the button to call for help if they feel their safety is in jeopardy.”

Know the emergency procedures: “Review the CTA website with your child, and then point out the emergency exits and tell them to look for the flashing blue lights.”

No technology: “Teach them to be engaged and reduce their chances of being a victim of theft by keeping any technology inside their backpack during their commute.”

cdampier@chicagotribune.com

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