Rant 26 September 2005: The worst mom ever

For many folks, September remains the psychological “start of a new year”. After all, most of us spent 15 to 20 years (or, in my case, even more, argh) living by the rhythms of the school year. Labour Day is past, we’re mentally off vacation, the days are cooler and our heads are clearer, and we’re ready to sharpen all our nice new pencils to write in our lovely empty ruled books.

For those folks actually in school, as well as the folks who supervise them, school also brings a new round of activity and challenges to time management. Except for a few years of my life when I was bussed to a “special school” for so called “gifted” children, which really meant “putting all the nerd rats in a cage and watching them fight for dork supremacy”, or when I lived out in the country and the nearest school was a 25-minute drive, I always walked or biked to school, year round. A few times, when the weather was really snowy, I even cross country skiied. No shit. By 7 or 8, I was the one sent out to the corner store a half-mile away if we needed milk. Before my age had barely crested double digits, Mom also made me find my own way to camp, doctor’s appointments, the library, and the mall — all at least a 15 minute bike ride away, and often more. I loved it. I had a sweet three-speed and two working feet that were my ticket to freedom and independence, and although I didn’t realize it at the time, a lifelong fitness habit. I remember thinking how lame my classmates were, standing out waiting for the bus to take them only a few minutes down the road, while I tromped or sped past, enjoying the morning sun. Guest ranter this month, Wendy M. (shown in action below), shares a similar story of walking her child to school.

walking to school

By guest ranter Wendy M.

My children live 0.6 miles away from our local elementary school. With few exceptions, every one of the 400 children in the school lives within walking distance of this neighborhood elementary school.

My first grader is the only child walking to elementary school. I’m only barely exaggerating. He’s the only one walking from our direction, the only one crossing with the crossing guard at Main Street. The only one. The crossing guard is irritated because she doesn’t see why she has to be there. On Main Street. The busiest street in town.

For the time being I’m walking him back and forth to school. I figured we’d meet up with older kids who were walking and arrange for him to walk with them in the future. I also figure I’ll walk with him 100 times and then he’ll have crossed the street 100 times and be ready to do it on his own. (And even if 100 isn’t the right number, I can’t expect the moment to magically arrive in second grade, either, unless I put in the time walking with him first.)

We’re having a spate of nice weather: sunny and in the seventies, and all the parents are lining up to drop off their kids by car and lining up to pick up their kids by car. (Need I mention how overfat these people are? No, of course I don’t have to say that.) I’m not saying I’ll walk every single day no matter how rushed we are or how bad the weather, but I just can’t believe that none of the other kids are walking on these beautiful days.

I’ve had people tell me that they are worried about abductions. They say this gently, trying not to criticize my parenting, but they obviously think I’m being too laissez-faire with my kids. And I’m pretty sure they mean stranger abductions, although I know (even if they don’t) that custodial interference abductions are the main threat to our kids, and it’s not like the parent has to wait to snatch them off the street if that’s going to happen. They also raise the specter of the bogeyman child murderer. I’ve got an answer for that one: the person statistically most likely to kill my children is me. Time they spend walking home is time they spend away from the person most likely to murder them, as well as time spent out of a car (their most likely place to die.)

I could expand on that, but my previous sentence is usually a conversation killer. I’d add that my kids get a lot of benefits from walking. Not just from the fresh air and exercise, but because they meet people and smile at people and wave at people as they walk. People are much more connected to their communities when they’re outside of a car. That connection between my kids and their neighbors is valuable to them.

Another benefit is self-confidence that comes from being able to do for yourself. I don’t want them standing on the playground worrying and wondering where their mother is when I’m five minutes late (still with a client I can’t shoo out the door). I want them to feel confident that they can take matters into their own hands – to the greatest extent possible. Walking 0.6 miles seems like one of those matters they can manage on their own.

The other benefit is time on their own. It’s carefully circumscribed time, but still time away from teachers and parents. They can dally (a trait I value in measured amounts) and they can whisper curse words and they can concoct stories about what they saw on Mulberry Street. (Which, by the way, is near here.) I’ve even known my kids to take detours by a local bakery or the Library from time to time. I like that they’re venturing off on their own a bit. I’m expecting them to take on the whole world when they’re 18. Why not four blocks when they’re 6?

I’m fighting convention, propriety, and approbation by not coddling my kids more. I’ve told my 7th grade son that he can walk to the bus stop OR ride his bike three miles to middle school. But my best friend and near neighbor drives her middle-school children to the school every day. She’d be happy to car pool with me. I don’t want to car pool. I want to conserve gas, not waste 20 minutes of my life in a car every morning, and I want my kid to be able to manage three miles on his own with the aid of public transportation. He’s 12.5. This seems appropriate to me.

The horrors continue with my teen-aged daughter. I made her – gasp – walk 0.8 miles home from piano lessons the other day. No one else’s mother does that.

How come?

Update: From the folks at the Department of Obvious Research, a shocking revelation that kids who play outside are less likely to be obese.

Cleland, V, et al. A prospective examination of children’s time spent outdoors, objectively measured physical activity and overweight. International Journal of Obesity (2008) 32, 1685–1693; doi:10.1038/ijo.2008.171; published online 14 October 2008.

Conclusions: The more kids are outdoors, the more likely they are to be engaged in active play. And the more they are active, the less they are obese. Ergo, turning off the TeeVee and booting the little bastids outdoors, like my mom did, means everyone is better off.