The first time your child crosses a street solo is a rite of passage — a symbol of growing independence for him and a nail-biting experience for you. Here's what you can do now to make that passage a safe one. 

Crossing together

For preschoolers and early elementary-aged children. “It’s important to break a complicated thing like crossing a street into steps,” says Benjamin Hoffman, MD, a Portland, Oregon-based member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Injury, Violence and Poison Prevention. Tell your child: I am going to stop now and look left, right, then left again. The road looks clear now in both directions, so it’s safe to cross.

Repeat the series of steps that they need to take before crossing — stop, wait, listen, look — out loud each time, until eventually they become automatic for your child.

You should also use every street crossing with your child to model good behavior, says Beth E. Ebel, MD, MPH, a member of the Harborview Injury Prevention & Research Center and associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington & Seattle Children's Hospital. For instance, don’t jaywalk and don’t cross the street at a red light even if no cars are coming.

While walking on routes that your child will travel regularly, such as to school or a friend’s house, show your child the safest crossing sites. Let her know that the safe crossing locations have a clear view of traffic from all angles, few cars, and ideally, a crossing guard or an intersection with crossing aides that signal “walk” or “don’t walk.”

Wherever you’re going, try to leave on time or even a minute or two early to avoid having to rush. “We want to set good examples and be patient as we walk,” she says Ebel.

Crossing solo

It’s impossible to pinpoint an age at which a child should be permitted to cross the street solo, says Hoffman. There’s a tremendous variation in terms of children’s developmental progression. “Anyone who’s spent time around 10-year-olds, for instance, knows that some are thoughtful and some are super impulsive,” says Hoffman.

However, in general, parents should wait until their child is around age 10 before allowing him or her to cross a street alone, says Hoffman. “Prior to about age 10, kids are not cognitively ready to handle all the thought processes that are involved in doing something as complicated as crossing the street,” he explains. Crossing a street means encountering and managing all kinds of distractions in a fairly abstract way, he says. Besides moving cars, there are parked cars, bicycles, other pedestrians, and traffic light and signs.(Of course, if you live in a small town with very little traffic and one stoplight, you’ll probably start preparing your child to cross the street on her own when she is a little younger.)

You can try to gauge readiness by paying attention to your child’s concentration and attention-switching skills as she crosses a street. Can she tune out distractions while also noticing an oncoming car or biker? Additionally, let your child know that it’s not enough to assume “all clear,” and then dash across the street. Tell your child that he must continue monitoring traffic as he’s crossing the street.

It’s also important that your child knows that drivers don’t always follow rules. For instance, “No one should be under the illusion that a car will stop for you at a crosswalk,” says Ebel. If you notice a car sailing right through a pedestrian crosswalk, use it as a teaching point. Let your child know that even though pedestrians have the right of way, distracted or hurried drivers don’t always yield. Tell her that her responsibility as a pedestrian is to make sure that all is clear or that cars are fully stopped before stepping off the curb.

Finally, if your child has a cell phone, tell him that in no uncertain terms he is never to use the phone while crossing the street. “We have learned that people who are crossing the street while texting are four times less likely to follow pedestrian safety rules as those who aren’t texting,” Ebel says.