“Only Bad Parents Make Their Kids WALK to School”

Hi Folks! I read this over at RixaRixa and asked if the blogger was game to let me reprint the whole thing. Yes! So here it is, in all its infuriating bureaucrat-brained fullness!

We’ve been walking Zari to and from kindergarten. It seemed the most logical of our three options (walk, ride the bus, or drive) since we only live 1 km away. If Zari rode the bus, she’d have to leave the house almost an hour earlier, and she’d get home 1 to 1 1/2 hours later. That adds up to over 2 hours on the bus per day. Driving was out of the question; why drive when our legs are perfectly capable of getting us there?
So far we’ve enjoyed our twice daily walks. Eric and I switch off walking duty depending on who is teaching that day. We get time with Zari and we get extra exercise. Sounds like the perfect scenario, right?

Yes, except that we have to cross a Death Trap road on the way. It’s a state highway that runs through town, and there are no stop signs or stoplights in probably a mile either direction. There’s a flashing light that goes on during school hours. This means that cars are supposed to slow down to 25 mph, but no one does. Every time we cross the street, it’s like we’re inside a giant game of Frogger (this totally dates me!).

I first contacted the school transportation department to inquire about crossing guards. After all, the road where we’re crossing is the main entrance into the elementary school and to the county fairgrounds. The reply? They used to supply a crossing guard at that intersection, but not any more. They told me to talk to the police department.

So I met with the chief of police and explained my concerns–that the school no longer provided a crossing guard and that I was having real troubles getting us safely across the street, especially during the morning rush. He sympathized with my situation and said he’d send some patrol cars out in the morning, but otherwise he coudln’t do much else. He suggested talking to someone in the state transportation department, since traffic signs on that road are regulated by the state, not by the city.

This morning I spoke to a woman at the state transportation department. I explained our difficulties crossing the road and asked if they would consider doing a traffic survey to put in either stop signs or a stop light. I told her I’d already met with the school transportation coordinator and the police chief, and they both told me they couldn’t do much else to help me. Her response:

“You really should have your daughter ride the bus.”

I explained that this option made no sense in our situation. We live close to the school, and riding the bus would take an extra 2+ hours out of my daughter’s day. Her reply:

“Well, you’re the one who’s choosing to put your daughter in danger. You’re choosing your convenience over her safety. She has a safe option, and that’s to ride the bus.” 

Excuse me?! When did walking your child to school mean that you’re a bad, selfish parent? I abandoned any niceties and dropped my polite tone. I said that it was not just a choice between convenience and safety. After all, we’re facing major obesity and pollution crises in this country. I feel very strongly that it’s an irresponsible choice to put my child on a bus for 2 hours a day, or to drive her to school (as many parents at this school do), when we’re perfectly capable of walking. The solution isn’t just to put my daughter on a bus; it’s to help us find a way to safely cross the street.

Her reply:

“In my town, I have several friends who live across the street from an elementary school, and they all have their children ride the bus because it’s safer than crossing the street.”

The then told me that she likely couldn’t do anything to help me, and to talk to the school and the police again.

Can anyone else see what’s wrong with this picture? Is there anything else I can do? (I do have something really subversive up my sleeve…more on that later!)

Lenore here: I like the sound of ‘something subversive.’ Please keep us looped in! – L

Play or Decay, Kids!

Hi Folks! Here’s a spankin’ new study that won’t surprise you:

Children who spend more than three-quarters of their time engaging in sedentary behaviour, such as watching TV and sitting at computers, have up to nine times poorer motor coordination than their more active peers, reveals a study published in the American Journal of Human Biology.

The study, involving Portuguese children, found that physical activity alone was not enough to overcome the negative effect of sedentary behaviour on basic motor coordination skills such as walking, throwing or catching, which are considered the building blocks of more complex movements.

“Childhood is a critical time for the development of motor coordination skills which are essential for health and well-being,” said lead author Dr Luis Lopes, from the University of Minho. “We know that sedentary lifestyles have a negative effect on these skills and are associated with decreased fitness, lower self-esteem, decreased academic achievement and increased obesity.”

The authors added that kids they studied — random kids, that is — spent about three fourths of their time being sedentary. Remember this when people look at you askance for letting your kids walk to school or spend time at the park without you. If you have to supervise them all the time they’re outside, they won’t be outside that much because — face it — adults have other things to do with their time. Let them OUT and you are being a GOOD parent, helping them develop the motor coordination they will need their entire lives. So THERE!  – L.

Free-Range Kids Town Thriving!

Hey Readers! You’ll like this — L.

Dear FRK: Thought you’d appreciate some good news for Free-Range Kids (who are so Free-Range here no one would even consider the term meaningful). Our local paper came this afternoon and the front page photo was two boys goofing off at the local park. They’d tipped a picnic table up on the skateboard ramp and were balancing on it. The caption: “Tyler GIllespie 13 and Brennon Sleuth 12, attempt to balance atop a picnic table after tipping it on its end at McNair Skate Park, Thursday afternoon.” Not even a hint of, “Ooh! so dangerous!” or even, “Bad kids!” — just two boys goofing off.

On the same front page was this story about a girl who got stuck in a swing.  Note — the parents weren’t publicly scolded for letting the 9-year-old go to the park alone. Everyone, including the girl involved, seems pretty clear that it was a dumb move, but there’s no alarmism. Just another kid, goofing off, getting in a little trouble and getting out of it. (And giving an adult male stranger a hug!)
Then, at the back of the front section (it’s a small paper, only 2 sections) was this nice story about another two boys who started an egg business to buy stuff they wanted.
So if folks are becoming downhearted, they should know there are places out there where kids are still allowed to do things. It’s one reason I wanted to move here — Livingston, MT. When I came to visit I saw kids riding bikes without grownups, walking to school, even goofing off in the creek without anyone getting all up in their business. Helps that it’s still a pretty rural area — oh, and the paper is usually delivered by middle-schoolers. It’s an afternoon paper, and seems to be a classic learn-how-to-work job around here.
Cheers! —  Charlotte McGuinn Freeman, who blogs at  livingsmallblog.com.

School Alerts Parents: Local Man SeenTalking to Kids!

Hi Readers! This is the kind of story that makes me bite off little pieces of my own arm in frustration (almost. Ok, let’s just say it makes me nuts.)

An elementary school in Toledo, Ohio sent home a note that said a stranger had been speaking to some of the students at a popular bakery on their way to school.  According to this story on WTOL:

The letter said, “The situation is now in the hands of the police. Fortunately for us today, all of our children are safe.”

The letter also tells parents to remind their kids to report suspicious people. Parents were shocked.

“That makes me nervous. I want my kids to come to school and be safe,” said Gail Hodson, a Harvard Elementary parent.

Excuse me, m’am, are you shocked by the idea that your kid might someday encounter an adult male you did not personally vet first? Maybe it’s time to move to another planet.

But wait — the story gets a little weirder. Turns out that the man is a regular at the bakery and it was when he was there that he offered some kids some donuts.

Pretty terrifying!

School administrators left those facts out,  and defended themselves later by saying that the alarm was, if nothing else, a “teachable moment,  and they sent the letter home to be proactive, before misinformation spread.”

Um…doesn’t that sound like exactly what they made happen? This letter WAS the misinformation, and the school spread it! As far as teachable moments go, this one taught kids to be suspicious, scared and unfriendly no matter how unwarranted. Worst-first thinking in action!

Then again,  just maybe it taught them that their school has gone absolutely ape with fear and can’t tell the difference between a sweetroll  and Sweeney Todd. If so, that letter has done some good. – L

ADDENDUM: While we’re on the subject of stranger danger, here’s another little tidbit: A man in a van asking a little girl if she’d seen his puppy turns out to have been (sit down) LOOKING FOR HIS PUPPY. Here’s the story. Weird,  right?

Donuts! Men! Arghhh!!!

Reprint: “Walking to Kindergarten Should Be Child’s Play”

Hi Folks! One of you sent me this wonderful oped from the Sydney Morning Herald. Then I got in touch with its author, Karen Malone, and found out she is an academic studying, among other things, how to make cities more child-friendly. Which is exactly what I’m going to be talking about in Bendigo, Australia early in May. So here’s to serendipity — and kids walking to school. — L.

Walking to Kindergarten Should Be Child’s Play, by Karen Malone

Picture this. It is 2005, I arrive for the first time in Tokyo. I am making my way across the busy city to attend a meeting when I encounter a small group of kindergarten children walking home from school. They are oblivious to my presence as they busy themselves crossing streets, picking up autumn leaves, straddling low brick kerbs and chatting. There is not a supervising adult in sight, no older siblings. As a parent I feel a sense of foreboding – I worry about their safety.

I recount my experience to a Japanese colleague and exclaim ”there were no adults watching out for them”. He is a little taken back. ”What do you mean, no adults? There were the car drivers, the shopkeepers, the other pedestrians. The city is full of adults who are taking care of them!” On average, 80 per cent of primary age Japanese children walk to school. In Australia the figure in most communities is as low as 40 per cent. Why? What happens in Japan that makes it so different?

At a community seminar recently I asked the audience to imagine themselves aged eight in a special place and to describe it. Most recounted being outside in their neighbourhood, with other children, out of earshot of parents: ”I had some bushes where I would play and hide with my brothers and sisters and sometimes friends” (Wilma, 43); ”My friends and I would go to this vacant lot and build our own cubbies” (Richard, 36); ”We used to get all the neighbourhood kids together and go out on the street and play cricket” (Andrew, 39).

Tim Gill, author and play commentator, would call this parenting style ”benign neglect” and for many of us, growing up in baby boom suburbia, this was our experience. It made us independent, confident, physically active, socially competent and good risk assessors.

I next asked the audience to consider if they would give these same freedoms now to their own children. They all said no.

The question is, then, are we killing our kids with kindness? Is our desire to protect our children actually making them more vulnerable?

The big issue pervading the psyche of parents around children’s independence in the streets is ”stranger danger” and child abductions. The irony is, when you look at the statistics on abductions, almost all are by family members, and the numbers have been going down for a decade. When I tell my audience the odds of a child being murdered by a stranger in Australia is one in four million and their child is at a much greater statistical risk of drowning in the bathtub or being hit by a car at a pedestrian crossing, they answer like Andrew, 39: ”I want to and I wish we could. I know the chances are slim but I just couldn’t forgive myself.”

So is there a middle ground between ”benign neglect” and ”eternal vigilance”? There is in Japan and Scandinavian countries, where children’s independent mobility is high. While parental fear of strangers is still high in these countries, rather than driving children to school or other venues, parents and the community have initiated and participated in activities to increase their safety.

In inner Tokyo, a neighbourhood has parent safety brigades that patrol the streets around schools; shopkeepers who are signed up as members of the neighbourhood watch program; and the local council has provided a mamoruchi, a GPS-connected device that hangs around a child’s neck and connects them instantly to a help call centre.

These concrete strategies, while unique to each neighbourhood, are reliant on one critical cultural factor: a commitment to the belief that children being able to walk the streets alone is a critical ingredient in a civil, safe and healthy society.

So while we might criticise the policeman who decides to take it on himself to deliver a child back home, as reported in the Herald recently, it is heartening to know someone is watching over us. It was reassuring when recent results from a historical comparison in suburban Sydney showed children’s independent mobility in the past 10 years has remained stable and in some cases increased, with many parents looking to get children out of the house and back to parks and playgrounds. So it is timely to have these debates, but if we want to start claiming back the streets and local parks for children then it’s our role as community members to step up to the plate and let parents know we are willing to support them and play our part.

Dr Karen Malone was recently appointed Professor of Education in the School of Education at University of Western Sydney. Dr Malone is also Chair and Founder of the Child Friendly Asia-Pacific network and a member of the UNICEF International Research Advisory Board for Child Friendly Cities.

Help Save Safe Routes to School & Public Transit!

Hi Readers: This just in from the Safe Routes folks! – L.

Double Your Impact—Act Now on Key Senate and House Transportation Votes

Next Tuesday both the US House and Senate may vote on new transportation bills that could destroy transit, bicycling and walking funding, including the popular Safe Routes to School program, which is now getting kids moving safely again at over 12,000 schools around the US! A national coalition of groups including the Safe Routes to School National Partnership and many, many others, are asking you to help to make streets safer  for kids.

This vote will take place early next week, so please take action now!

·         Safety matters. Bicycle and pedestrian deaths make up 14% of all traffic fatalities, but only 1.5% of federal funds go towards making walking and biking safer. These programs provide funding for sidewalks, crosswalks, and bikeways that make streets safe for all users.

·         Active transportation is a wise investment. Walking and biking infrastructure is low-cost, creates more jobs per dollar than any other kind of highway spending, and is critical to economic development for main street America. A University of Massachusetts study of 11 cities found that bicycling and walking infrastructure projects created over 11 jobs per million dollars spent, whereas road-only projects created less than 8 jobs per million dollars spent. And since bicycling and walking projects are more labor-intensive than road projects, they mostly create jobs right in the local communities where the projects are located, not in other parts of a state, the US or overseas.

The current Senate transportation bill dilutes Safe Routes to School, walking and bicycling programs. It gives your state department of transportation the power to decide whether or not to make any funding available for these critical programs. Local governments deserve a voice in transportation. To improve the bill,  Senators should  vote for the Cardin-Cochran amendment on the floor to guarantee local governments a voice in transportation decisions, allowing them to build sidewalks, crosswalks, and bikeways that keep people safe.

In the House,  Representatives should oppose the House transportation bill. Despite the fact that walking and bicycling infrastructure is a low-cost investment that creates more jobs per dollar than any other kind of highway spending, the House bill eliminates dedicated funding for walking and bicycling and repeals the Safe Routes to School program.

The House bill also brings to an end 30 years of dedicated transit funding, increasing the unpredictability of transit funding for communities already suffering from a lack of federal commitment to public transportation. The bill also guts Amtrak, High-Speed and Passenger Rail funding. At a time when ridership has steadily increased to its highest point in Amtrak history, the bill will cut Amtrak funding by over $300 million.

The House bill takes us back to the 1950s by eliminating dedicated funding for bicycling and walking AND kicking transit out of the highway trust fund. We need a transportation bill to meet our needs in 2012 and beyond.

Congress needs to know that finding effective, efficient transportation solutions to keep people safe on the streets should be a national priority. Will you contact your Representative and Senators today and ask them to save our streets?  By taking action, you can easily contact both your Senators and Representative in one simple step.

And, if you want to do even more, get your mayor, your school principal, or other community leaders to call their Senators too.

Thank you for all that you do for Safe Routes to School!

A Child Visitor to America Asks: “Where Are All The Kids?”

Hi Readers — This note was originally a comment on the post below this one. Its poignancy hit me particularly hard because today’s New York Times has a piece by Jane Brody — “Communities Learn Good Life Can be a Killer” —  about the effect of sprawl on health, autonomy and, of course,  childhood. I’m not sure how to suddenly re-urbanize vast swaths of suburbia, but I’m glad that city planners are looking into it. — L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: Before moving to my current home in Germany 6 years ago, I lived in a small town (about 5,000 people) in a different part of Germany. It was very Free-Range. Kids of all ages played outside in the smaller streets without adult supervision. The older kids watched out for the younger ones when a car drove by. Kids were always out playing in the neighborhood, either in the streets or at a local playground.

When my son was about 4 or 5, my family (husband, son, me) took a trip to California to visit family. In all of the neighborhoods where we stayed, nobody was on the streets. My son finally commented, “This must must be a really lonely place. Nobody is here.” He was so used to seeing the German streets in his neighborhood alive with kids playing and adults walking, cycling, or running. The empty streets in nice neighborhoods in California really threw him off.

During another CA trip, when my son was 9, he commented that he wouldn’t want to live there because you have to drive everywhere. He likes being able to walk or ride his bike over here and doesn’t really know anything different.

Kudos to Lori for making her town less of a “lonely place.” She is a beacon of hope for the Free-Range movement.  — Sue Biegeleisen

Helloooo? Anyone NOT home?