When I was a kid everyone walked to school. Everyone. If we didn’t walk, we biked. Even in kindergarten. Of course, this was the time Way Back When Before Things Were Safe, when we rode seatbeltless piled into the backs of station wagons and we all owned cap guns and we always had scabbed knees from learning to roller skate and we walked alone to the candy store every week with our Saturday allowance in hand and as toddlers we sported coffee table cornered bruises on our foreheads.
So what happened?
I’d like to think we can pinpoint one event, one moment in our collective social history that forever transformed kids from the independent little beings they used to be who’d run out the door on summer mornings wearing flip-flops, letting the screen door slam on the way out, not to return again until lunchtime, having in the meantime been up and down the street with neighborhood kids or out riding bikes or in somebody’s back yard with trucks in the sandbox or skating around the block. But it’s more complicated than that.
In the 1960s more than 90% of kids who lived less than a mile away from their school walked or biked there. Now? Only 30%. And I’m betting most of those are accompanied by a parent or other adult. We don’t let our kids loose anymore. We’re afraid.
And we’re afraid because of an overreaction to a danger that occurs far less than we think it does. We think — and the media has been great about whipping our fears into a frenzy — that dark-windowed vans lurk on every corner waiting to lure our kids in with promises of candy or pleas to help find lost pets. But statistically, a child faces a 40 times greater risk of being killed in a car accident while being driven to school by a parent than of being molested while walking, bicycling, or taking a bus to school.
Plus all that driving not only costs us time and money (at $4 a gallon) but it’s also a huge impact on the environment. 30% of our collective morning driving is to our kids’ school. Cough.
And let’s not even get started on the growing obesity problem … but, well, now that you mentioned it, between 1976 and 2006, childhood obesity tripled. Fat kids, skinny kids, kids who climb on rocks? There’s way more fat kids these days and way fewer climbing on rocks.
And meanwhile, we’re raising kids who are stifled. Overprotected. Lack independence. And who aren’t prepared for Real Life. Oh, I’m guilty of this as much as anyone. At 12 I was — with a group of friends — taking the bus and then the train to the Big City 40 miles away, but I can’t imagine my 13-year old doing anything even remotely close to that.
Which means that, as parents, we lack confidence in our own abilities to teach our children how to get by in the world. As a result, we close the doors, lock the windows, and hide from the world.
Today is National Start!Walking Day. It’s geared toward adults to promote health, encouraging people to walk on their lunch hours, but … what about our kids? Free-Range Kids is a website devoted to the concept of loosening the apron strings and letting kids grow up unfettered, the way we did. After all, we lived to tell the tale!
I let my kids play outside unsupervised. I know they’re in the neighborhood, somewhere. We have a walkie-talkie and they check in every hour or so, but aside from that they could be anywhere — riding bikes, riding scooters, climbing the big dirt mound, down at the creek — and it’d be okay. My only rule is that if they go inside someone’s house, I’d like to know whose. I’d let them walk to school if they could, but school is miles away and the bus is the only option. I’m the Bad Parent, though, who doesn’t wait with them at the bus stop. (Seriously, do we really have to wait with our kid in our car at the bus stop that’s 100 yards from the house?)
What about you? Where’s your comfort zone with your kids? Could you be a Free-Range parent?
[Photo: SEPpics, SXC]