Thursday, September 17, 2009

Risk your child's safety, for the sake of their sanity - Part 1 The Long Walk Home

I hate it when my anti-commercial stance is put to the challenge. Such is the case with the documentary that my mom recorded for me called "The Lost Adventures of Childhood". My mom frequently records things she thinks I may like and I watch them at my leisure. None of them have ever made me want to get even basic cable. This one, however, makes me think that I am missing out on something. I am probably really biased in my view of this documentary because it reaffirms my parenting style. A parenting style that has people accusing me of being too relaxed and borderline negligent. A parenting style that has a movement behind it called Free Range Kids.

I am in complete awe that what I have felt instinctively is what experts in psychology are now recommending for our kids: Less structured play and the freedom to take risks. The focus of the documentary was unstructured play, but it touched on the lack of freedom in general for the kids growing up in this generation of paranoia. The feedback from acquaintances on my parenting style ranges from incredulous to horror. Here are a few things I allow my kids to do that I get the response "I would never do that!". I will be posting one at a time over the next few days.

Negligent mother example #1

The risk: Letting my kids walk to and from school alone when they were 7 and 5.

Lilly was 7 when I first let her walk home from school alone. Madeleine was in kindergarten and on her school days I would pick the both of them up, but on the days Lilly was alone, I let her make the 25 minute trek to school and the 25 minute trek home. When Madeleine was in grade 1 (she was 5), I let them walk to and from together. The main reason I walked them when Madeleine was in kindergarten is because she was not there daily and I didn't want Lilly to forget Madeleine - Lilly being the sort who would do just that. Had that not been the case, I would have let them walk together starting when Madeleine was in Kindergarten. When I did pick them up, I would often drive. The school day ends at 2:40 for the girls' school and it was right in the middle of the nap time for the younger two, so the car was used often to go pick them up just to squeeze an extra 10 or 15 minutes of napping in.

The precautions: Making sure the kids knew the way and making sure they knew what to do if the crossing guard wasn't there.

I made sure Lilly knew the way home before I let her solo it. I waited until she was out of sight one day before I started walking home with the rest of the girls to make a sort of test run for her. When she was home waiting for us on the front porch, I knew then that she was comfortable and knew the way home.

The crossing guard we had was less than reliable. When I walked with the kids, there were some occasions where he wasn't there in the morning and a couple of times where he showed up after the bell had gone in the afternoon. I drilled it into their heads that they were to come back home if he wasn't there in the morning even though it would make them late, and that they were to go to the arena right behind the road crossing and to give me a call. It is a busy street with no lights at the crossing and I didn't want the kids to cross it without the crossing guard.

The reaction from other parents: Horror mostly

There was one parent who lived down the street from me at that time whose daughter was in grade seven and was not allowed to walk home from school alone. She was picked up every day because we lived too close to be eligible for the bus. This girl started to tutor Lilly at the school twice a week and her mom had her older brother from high school pick her up to walk home. When I told this woman that Lilly had been walking home alone since she was 7, I was informed that it's a bad scary world out there and I should be more responsible as a parent. Other parents reactions, while not quite as direct and offensive, were pretty much the same. A horrified look.

Why it is worth the risk: Increased exercise, less likelihood of injury and it shows my kids that they are trusted.

With the amount of driving around that kids get these days, adding in more exercise is never a bad thing. I don't think even the most hardcore critics of my parenting style would ever argue that more exercise for kids is a bad thing.

According to an article by Ygoy from July 2009, "nearly 75% of the parents in U.S fear that their children might become victims of abduction." I don't know what the stats on that are for Canada, but we have very similar cultures and so I would imagine that the number would be very close. It is this fear that is the main reason why many parents choose to drive their kids to school. However, the likelihood of a child being abducted by a complete stranger is much smaller than the likelihood of a child being injured or killed in a vehicle collision while a passenger in a car. According to the RCMP, in 2007 60,582 children were declared missing. Of those, 56 were kidnappings not involving a parent and 33 were considered an accident where the child was not found and no body has been found. Compare that to the three children per day who end up seriously injured in the hospital due to being in a vehicle collision, with an additional 100 per year dying according to Safe Kids Canada. 30 kids per year die due to pedestrian/vehicle accidents, while an additional six per day are injured. However, the addition of crossing guards at busy intersections reduces the likelihood of a child being hit by a car to almost zero at that intersection. Studies have shown that more people out and walking on a street increases driver caution and awareness while on that street. The likelihood of a child being abducted is greater if there is a custody dispute. I will never promote dangerous parenting and so if a child is at a greater risk of being taken, then a parent must be cautious. But to the average kid, walking home presents less of a risk than driving home if crossing guards are present at dangerous intersections.

The first day Lilly walked home by herself was the start of a new relationship between us. She now had freedom to travel as slow as she wanted (my goal was to just get home!). She stopped and picked flowers, stood looking at the "happy tree" for a few minutes and got lost in thought about her day (and possibly her life). It was the first time that she was really alone in the world at large (let's face it, the backyard doesn't count). There were days that Lilly and Madeleine didn't get home from school until 3:30. That is almost an hour past the school bell for a 25 minute walk. What they did for those extra 25 minutes, I would love to know! I wanted to be there to see what they do when I'm not around, to hear their conversations when I'm not in earshot. But those moments of freedom that the girls experienced walking to and from school were more important than my desire to experience every moment with my children.

To take this risk: Ensure the school district has crossing guards at all busy intersections (including ones with traffic lights) and teach your children basic road safety.

If your city does not have crossing guards, start a movement to get them. Walk 21 is a good place to start as is iWalk International. In the mean time, you may want to start by walking with your kids if the route is not safe. Help them cross the dangerous intersection and let them go it alone from that point on. You could also try starting a walking school bus in your neighbourhood to get more people interested in it. Teach your children to walk facing traffic on roads with no sidewalks and to stop at each intersection to look for cars no matter how safe it looks. And always model proper road safety yourself.

Part 2 tomorrow - Alone in the park.


  1. I don't get it. Parents have issues with this? I don't understand. Seems logical to me. I would have been walking to school in 1st grade had I gone to the local school. 2nd grade I would have gone alone since my sister would have been at the jr high. I mean, there would have been other kids walking too, but I doubt mom would have gone with me, unless she wanted the exercise!

  2. I'm a radical, it would seem. I waited until Lilly was seven before letting her walk simply because no one else walks to and from school. They are all driven. I wasn't comfortable with the idea of her walking alone until she hit seven. Don't know why that was that magical age... Anyway, now that we live right behind the school and right beside the path that leads to the school, I would let Victoria walk home by herself. But the school won't let me because she's only five. There are no streets to cross and pretty much as soon as she leaves the school's property, she's home. It's a different world for our kids, and sadly it's sucking their childhood from them.