Picking up my younger daughter from a summer camp, we passed a middle school camp where cars were double and triple parked. A familiar sight and one that has always surprised me. Here’s what happens: school or camp gets out at 3:30 p.m. and parents that miss a spot in the parking lot, patrol the area at 10 mph until they catch sight of their child dawdling down the street. Then they punch the hazard lights, exit their vehicle and wave their child into the backseat. These kids are ages 11 to 14.
As one who walked to and from school years before they reached their 11th birthday, this seems like helicopter parenting at it most extreme. True, times were different when most of us parents were middle-school students. Times were actually significantly more dangerous back then. FBI statistics show that the homicide rate in New York City was 414 in 2012 -- the lowest since at least 1963 when reliable statistics were first kept. Similar drops in murder and violent crime have been reported throughout the nation. So what exactly are we worried about?
Algebra, literature and thermal energy
Our school is in a quiet residential area of the city, where crosswalks and traffic lights punctuate the major intersections. In sixth grade, our kids are studying algebra, classical literature and poetry. They are learning about ancient civilizations, the earth’s surface and thermal energy. (By sixth grade I could no longer help my elder daughter with her homework.) Are we really afraid that our middle school-aged kids are not capable of navigating a crosswalk or understanding pedestrian signals?
What surprises me more is that at least some of these parents who are hesitant to have their children walk even a couple of blocks to meet them after school -- thus avoiding the traffic tangle -- say that they are eager for them to learn to drive as early as legally permissible (that’s 15 ½ in our state, California, after completing a 30-hour driver’s education course). It seems that some of us have contradictory expectations for our children. At middle school, our kids are too vulnerable to scarcely set foot on a sidewalk without a parent present, but just a couple of years or more later, they are theoretically sophisticated enough to be relegated to the driver’s seat where, provided they are accompanied by a driver over 25 during the provisional permit phase of licensing, they are allowed to take on multilane highway traffic at 75 mph.
Not right for all kids
Of course not everyone lives in a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood. Some of us don't have walkable access to any amenity. And not every family lives in a safe neighborhood where it is reasonable to allow an 11-year old to walk to school solo or run an errand. In these situations, shepherding our children through the DMV’s licensing process might be more mandatory than optional.
But for myself, I’ll be putting the brakes on my younger daughter’s aspirations to learn to drive as soon as legally possible. I’d like her to be comfortable walking around the neighborhood without an adult for years before she thinks about driving. I’d like her to be competent at maneuvering our city’s passable public transit system first. And I’d like her to acquire a pedestrian’s street savvy that will enable her to sense the difference between a safe neighborhood and a dodgy one. Oh and one more thing, walking is definitely healthy and sort of fun at least some of the time, isn’t it? There’s nothing healthy about driving and I worry about a teen that describes it as fun.
Suzanne Leigh is a health reporter and Huffington Post blogger. She blogs about her family at: www.themourningafternatasha.wordpress.com