by Risa Green
Last week’s New York Times article about why kids can’t walk to school anymore has, I must say, been the talk of the town lately. Everywhere, it seems, people are discussing what it means for our kids, and the general consensus seems to be that it’s a shame to have such a ritual of independence taken away from an entire generation. It’s true. When I was a kid, I walked four blocks – through a major, crossing-guarded intersection – to elementary school everyday. And though my middle school was too far to walk to, I took the bus, and I walked to and from the bus stop by myself every day, too. I also let myself into the house in the afternoon with the key that I kept in my backpack, made myself a snack, did my homework, watched tv, and sometimes cooked a frozen dinner in the microwave if my parents were going to be home late from work. All that, and I was only eleven.
Which got me thinking about this whole no-walking-to-school thing. I mean, for the record, there is no way in hell that I would let my kids walk anywhere by themselves, ever. Maybe I would feel more conflicted about it if I lived in a leafy suburb like the moms interviewed in that Times article, but I don’t. I live in Los Angeles, smack in the middle of the city. And while we live on a nice street, in a nice neighborhood, it’s still the middle of Los Angeles. Two blocks from my house is an intersection that was once rated one of the most dangerous in the entire country, and I’ve been woken up more than a few times by homeless people rifling through my trash bins in the middle of the night. So yeah, my seven year-old daughter walking down the block by herself is pretty much out of the question.
However, I consider the no-walking alone situation to be a sad result of the times we live in, and not a statement about my daughter’s ability to handle herself. I mean, if you transported her back in time to 1980, to the Philadelphia suburb where I grew up, I have no doubt that she’d be totally capable of walking to school, or riding her bike to a friend’s house. But do you know what makes me sad? It makes me sad that she has no idea that she’s capable of any such thing. If I were to say to her, hey, honey, why don’t you grab your scooter and ride over to Sophie’s house for a few hours – just be sure to be home by five! – I think she’d think that I’ve lost my mind. Me? Go somewhere by myself? Alone? But I’m only seven. I can’t do that. I swear, I think she’d probably call child protective services and report me.
But here’s what’s really crazy: after I read that article, I started thinking about all of the other things that I used to do by myself when I was her age, and I realized that she doesn’t do any of them. It’s not just about walking places alone. It’s that, in always having some adult hovering nearby, her independence is being thwarted at every turn. Of course, my daughter has chores – she makes her own bed, she empties the dishwasher, she helps clear the plates from the dinner table – but doing chores is not the same as being resourceful, and figuring things out for yourself because there isn’t anyone else around to show you how. I mean, she doesn’t make her own snacks after school, and she doesn’t pour her own cereal in the morning, or get herself her own glass of juice. She doesn’t heat things up in the microwave, or use a key to get into the house, or walk her bike for three blocks because it got a flat tire. She doesn’t call a neighbor if something is wrong, or feed the dog, or wrap a towel around her younger brother’s finger when it’s hemorrhaging blood after getting stuck in the track of an Evil Knievel wheelie racer (okay, maybe I’m still a little bit scarred by that one). Not being able to walk to school is not the problem. It’s just another symptom of a much bigger problem – a problem that our generation of ‘helicopter parents’ has created.
And so, I have resolved that with the start of this school year, I will not hover quite so closely, and I will remove some the obstacles that stand in the way of my childrens’ independence. For example, I will take off the childproof latches from the cupboard doors, because the ability of my kids to get their own food outweighs the possibility that they might be killed by a sudden avalanche of canned vegetables. And on Sunday mornings, instead of getting up with my kids, I’m going to sleep in, and I’ll let my daughter figure out how to pour her own milk and cereal. And you know what? If she spills it, I’ll let her figure out how to clean it up. After all, I know she can do it. I just need to make sure that she knows she can, too.
Also on Mommy Track'd: Read Wendy Sachs' Overwrought & Overprotective.