Parents often wonder, “When is the right age for a kid to commute on their own?” How do you prepare them to be independent?
I really think there is no right age for when kids should take public transport and that this decision should be based on different factors. I also think how a parent should prepare their child has a lot to do with where they live, their child’s personality and their maturity. For us, we felt there was no better place to prepare our kids than Singapore, with its safe and reliable public transport system.
Teaching kids to navigate and recognise landmarks
As early as when my son was 5 years old, we would always make him walk one to two steps ahead to see if he can remember how to go to school. We made it like a “memory game” making a buzzer sound whenever he forgot to make a turn to make it even more fun. But whenever he forgot to look for cars, we would make a louder sound like a “danger warning” as that is about safety, which always comes first!
We taught him to remember landmarks (e.g. how Far East Plaza looks like) since the bus sometimes skips a bus stop. After teaching him which buses to take, we let him hail and decide which ones to take. It didn’t take long for him to realise that there is a bus colour-coding system! One day he said, “did you know those buses with a green background go straight while those with a grey background turn right on the highway?”
Teaching kids to problem solve
We told him that until he is older, it’s best that he doesn’t read on the bus or use a phone so he can always be alert and check out for landmarks. One or two times, I purposely missed our correct bus stop and made him problem solve how to get back on the right track by getting off at the next stop, crossing over and going back to where we were, laughing along the way so he knew that he could take this problem in his stride.
Going to school on his own
3 months before my son turned 9, we were already allowing him to go to school on his own – in preparation for going completely solo. We would follow 5-10 minutes after him since we still had to take our 6-year-old to school. This way, even though our son had no phone, we were still able to make sure he got to school safely. He usually would be on the soccer field by the time we got there.
When my son finally turned 9, he and his almost 7-year-old sister wanted to go to school together on their own. So, they would take the bus and my husband and I would run ahead two bus stops to where they would change buses to make sure they got on and changed safely. During the first two times, we would run all the way to their school to make sure they had arrived at the school playground.
Memorizing phone numbers and knowing how to find a ‘safe adult’
We felt they were safe because there was only one instance where they would need to cross the street and by this time, there were a lot of other teachers, kids and their families crossing that tiny street to the school. By the second crossing, the school guard was already there, and he looks out for all the kids. They still did this without a phone, but both our kids have memorized our phone numbers and know how to ask a ‘safe adult‘ (a person in uniform or a woman with kids with her) to call us in case they needed help.
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We also taught the kids how to read maps… or rather my husband did! And we even did an orienteering event at Phoenix Park.
Before my son turned 10, we thought it was time to get him ready for more complicated bus routes and walking. By this time, he had mastered reading the bus routes not only to get on the right bus but even to know the different bus options. He has also learned how to use the SGNextBus app to see if the bus he needed was coming or not. This time, we gave him a phone as he needed to take a Grab/taxi going back home since it would be late and dark by the time his sport practice finished.
My son now decides based on the time he has if he wants to take the direct shuttle, or public bus plus some walking, to get to his soccer venue. He also knows how to call his own Grab and send me a message to track his ride.
In summary, my suggestions on how to prepare your kid to commute:
- Make sure your child is mature enough to know how to stop and look for cars, problem solve, read and understand directions.
- Find out what kind of learner your child is. Mine is a visual learner. He likes patterns and systems so he likes to read the maps and study the bus routes. My daughter is more about landmarks and signs. There are different ways to navigate.
- Instil confidence. Make it a fun adventure – not a stressful scary thing to do.
- If you feel the urge to trail them for a while (like we did in the beginning), try to hide. Do not make them feel you do not trust that they can do it. If you get caught, still pretend to hide, they will laugh and think you’re silly instead of not trusting them. Remember, trust makes them feel confident and independent.
- Start with easy routes. And choose destinations where you can ask or call someone (if your child doesn’t have a phone) who can let you know if your child has arrived or not.
I will be honest, I don’t think I would let my kids commute this young if we lived in Stockholm or Manila (where my husband and I are from). The safety here in Singapore and how reliable the public system is, makes it a perfect place to give our children independence at a young age. And because Singapore is also not so big, it doesn’t make me worried as it doesn’t take long for my child to reach his destination. I also find that culturally, a lot of Singaporeans are very kind in helping people find their way.
Good luck with helping your child on their journey of independence!