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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Journey Our Kids Are On

If you don't know the trees you may be lost in the forest, but if you don't know the stories you may be lost in life. -- Anonymous (Siberian) proverb

A few months ago our Waldorf school hosted a master teacher from Denmark to advise the school on our early childhood programs. In an open forum with parents, this teacher was asked “What is the biggest difference you see between European parents and American parents?”

Without hesitation she replied, “Fear. American parents are full of fear.”

She went on, “Look around you. This town is beautiful. You have natural places and safe streets. This is a perfect place for children. What is there to be afraid of here?”



In my chair beside her in the circle I did a silent “hear hear.” To be fair, however, I had helped stack the deck in favor of her opinion. I had offered to host her in my home, which I had chosen because of its proximity to school. She had spent a week walking the autumn leaf-strewn sidewalks of our neighborhood between my house and the lower school (grades 1-8) and the preschool a few blocks away. It was only necessary for her to get in a car when she went to the Forest Kindergarten in the big state park a few miles distant.


As I said, one of the reasons I chose this house was so that K. would be able to walk or snowshoe to school by herself (or ride her bike or her scooter) and walk the dog on longer and longer walks. This is not a trivial concern. It’s not just so that I don’t have to get dressed in the morning to drive her or otherwise see she gets to her school. It is because I’ve observed that unchaperoned transport is one of the first ways our children can truly learn to be independent and one of the most useful.

As evidence, I offer every piece of classic children’s literature! In story, the hero can’t be handicapped by needing a ride from mom. In story, the hero has to jump on her bike or run around the block.

Classic children’s stories are frequently set in a walkable town, so that kids have a decent shot at getting around on their own. Fantasy, historical fiction and science fiction are popular genres for children’s book authors, I believe, because they are free from the constraints of the minivan and the subdivision, where children are marooned in a state of infantile dependence until earning a driver’s license. (Several years ago I wrote an essay on this subject, “Navigating the Neighborhood” for a children’s literature journal called the Riverbank Review, sadly defunct.)  Heroes become heroes by acting, not by waiting for a ride.

In my opinion, the rise of the “safe” housing subdivision has been mirrored by a rise in parental paranoia, and we have generations of children who have never learned to do anything on their own, including reading a street sign to figure out where they are.

But I digress. When other parents in town or in our school community say to me, “Your daughter is so lucky, she gets to walk to school,” I can think of no polite reply. Where you live is a matter of choice, and of the priorities you set, not a matter of luck. If it’s more important to you to live in a subdivision close to the interstate so that your commute is a few minutes shorter, then your child will be challenged to learn how to navigate independently. On the other hand, I am sometimes met with an incredulous, “You really let your daughter walk by herself?” I wonder how safe those parents will feel when their own child experiences unchaperoned transport for the first time at 17 or 18 – behind the wheel of a car.

Do I let K. wander unknown streets? No. Do I have her call me when she has arrived on foot at Lisa’s house to visit B.? Yes. Have I taught her what to do if she feels threatened by a stranger? Yes. Have I walked our neighborhood streets with her again and again and pointed out the street signs to her? Yes. Have I made a game out of letting her navigate when we are driving around town? Yes. Yes, yes, and yes, I have tried to teach her how to navigate our neighborhood, and I have given her opportunities to do it without hovering over her shoulder or even tailing her in the car at a distance. Did I feel like throwing up the first time she walked away from me down the street by herself? Yes. But in allowing her space to learn courage and become the hero of her own story, I am trying to learn it myself, as well.

Lisa and I live 8 zig-zagging blocks apart from each other, so our girls are getting lots of practice, and they are strengthening their courage each time they make that journey on their own.


(strolling boy photo: Arvind Balaraman, FreeDigitaPhotos.net)


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8 comments:

  1. great post, thanks Jennifer! Sometimes I just have to distract myself when I worry about my kids' steps towards independence. Look the other way and let them get on with it. This includes not only "venturings out" in our city, but also things like climbing on top of the swingset and walking across the top rail. My daughter has excellent balance and physical strength; why should I inject my worry into her physical confidence? I never explored enough that way as a kid and now I regret it. - Betty T

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  2. Thanks for the post Jennifer! The more we can get the word out that what we feel as a group is paranoia, the faster we can overcome it. However, there are reasons to live in the country too. I wanted our children to be more in touch with where their water comes from (the well) and where the toilet water goes (the septic and then the garden) and see the connection between the earth and how we can manage to live on the earth. But that doesn't mean I kept them from walking the roads. When my daughter was 12 she was having a boring summer. (I believe every child should have at least one BORING summer) so she decided she wanted to go into town to the library every day. That was 7 miles away. She got up every morning and packed a lunch and started walking to town. I did agree to pick her up in the afternoon. There were no sidewalks, these were country roads. But violent crime is pretty nonexistent in our town, and she certainly had the same ability that I had to manage to not get hit by a car. (Better, actually - much quicker reactions) So I just tried to put it out of my head that I didn't know exactly where she was on the road or if she ever made it to the Cooperstown library. She was on an adventure, and when you are on an adventure you don't check in or call home or carry a cell phone. And every afternoon there she was at the library, full of stories of dogs that chased her, and neighbors that stopped to ask her if she needed a ride. She still talks about that summer. (She is 18 now.) It was the summer we were both very brave. And it paid off.

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  3. I love the spirit of this post and agree with 99 percent of what is said - but forgive me, I have to nitpick one point. Where you live is only a choice for those of us with the economic power to make it a choice. Financial status limits the choices of many, many families. I spent parts of my childhood in neighborhoods that certainly were not my parents' first choice, but the best choice they could afford. Now, my parents did also teach me the skills to navigate those neighborhoods safely and I do agree that children need to learn those skills and explore and all that. But at times we required an adult to walk us to school, where security guards were on duty not because of parental paranoia but because of very real violence rooted in economic disadvantage. I vividly recall walking one morning and my mother grabbing my jacket and yanking me backward as a rock whizzed by my head. In jurisdictions with public housing, the only choice people have is accept the location offered or see what you can afford on your own (which is usually unsafe in a whole host of ways). I get that this is not the demographic you are talking about, but I think it's important not to forget that in many people's reality, choice is often a privilege, even in matters where it should not be. Peace.

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  4. Thanks, Jennifer. I remember well the looks I got from the folks at school when they found out that my son, then in sixth grade,was allowed to ride his bike by himself. I live in an upscale urban neighborhood near a major university. There are sidewalks and houses with families everywhere. Crime, especially in the daytime, is nearly nonexistent. On his bike, he could get to a grocery, the post office, the bookstore and an ice cream place. And, of course, the university was like a playground to him.

    Each year on his birthday, we would get out the map and decide how much farther he could go on his own. He never had a cellphone, but, the one time he had an accident, he knew exactly what to do.

    I am reading fairy tales with my class right now and it is interesting how many of these kids are afraid,no, terrified, of strangers. When I ask why...they have no idea. I remind them that talking with strangers is polite, going anywhere with strangers is dangerous.

    Thanks for this excellent essay.

    Robin

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  5. I couldn't agree with you more, Jennifer! (And love, love the blog!) When we chose to relocate to Saratoga it was because this is such an extraordinary place to raise children on foot. I asked my husband, "Don't you want our kids to walk to school if they can? Don't you want them to learn to cross a busy street alone, to deal with strangers?" And truly, I can't imagine anything better than a teenager not NEEDING to get into a car to stroll around town with friends on a Friday night, or to get to an afternoon job, for that matter. (Now if only I could get speed bumps installed on Circular, life would be perfect...Talk about courage for parents... oy vey.)
    Fantastic blog! I'm sharing with everyone I know...

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  6. Well, this post certainly hit a nerve--and a tweet from www.freerangekids.com founder Lenore Skenazy didn't hurt! Barbaloot, thanks for the socio-economic reminder...much appreciated. After my parents' divorce, like many single parents, my mother too had little choice about some of the neighborhoods we lived in. Though she certainly always tried to find the best possible neighborhood we could afford! I've also worked with a number of families where having what I prefer to call the "looking out for strange behavior" talk is necessary. Instead of unnecessarily instilling "stranger-danger" fear in children, I coach parents to teach their children to listen to their own gut feelings, survey their surroundings, know safe people/places to reach out to if needed, etc. Lucky for you, your parents taught you to navigate your neighborhood safely and clearly inspired you to be assertive, speak your truth, and learn some valuable self-defense. We are hoping to appeal to all demographics, as every child deserves the kind of parents you had! Keep your thoughtful comments coming. All our best!

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  7. I love your approach and I practice it myself in a big city. I have a talk I give to parents called "How to let your child walk around the block--alone." Autonomy and trust are great gifts to children. As Dr. Wendy Mogel says, have them take risks and make mistakes now when the stakes are lower. I think you reference that when you wonder how other parents will feel when their teen gets behind the wheel of a car. Another good quote on this subject is, how do you get trustworthy kids? By trusting them.

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  8. Thank you for your comments, Miven, and I'm so happy to hear that parents are listening to your talk - it means not all parents are afraid to trust their kids. Did you also take a look at our 5-Minute Courage Workout: Navigating the Neighborhood? It has tips for every age child. And I love the quotes! Thank you very much for sharing.

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