Why Can’t She Walk to School? in Today’s New York Times

Another disturbing sign of the times: This article in today’s Times about parents who are so afraid of stranger abduction that they drive a child 5 houses down (yes, you read that correctly) rather than let them walk, or even walk them themselves. Also in the article, a town in which people called 911 at the sight of a 10-year-old walking alone, resulting in a police reprimanding of the parent.

Something is extremely wrong with this picture! The areas of bizarreness and loss include: the dominance of an extreme and unfounded culture of fear, the complete absence of community, and the loss of independence for young people.


I wrote a comment on the New York Times site, which I’ll repost here. It goes to the heart of what Slow Family Online is really about:

“This article both saddened and outraged me. Something is deeply wrong with a society in which children walking or biking short distances to school and to play is not only not the norm, but is actively frowned upon and even criminalized. There are so many things wrong with this picture: Parents are living basically alone, completely car-dependent, with largely unfounded fears and guilt that they are passing on to their children. What is going to become of this generation of children when they go off to college and to jobs and are unable to navigate their surroundings or do anything for themselves?

Children should be given reasonable increments of responsibility, and adults should be there to participate with them and teach them. We biked with our child and taught her road safety. We walked with her to elementary school and taught her how to be aware, use her good judgment, and which neighbors and shopkeepers to call on for help if needed. She is now a relatively independent teen who can navigate our town, call on her own sense of self-reliance, and have a little well-earned space away from hovering parents.

I live in a very safe small town, as I suspect do most of the people quoted in the article. I think that speeding cars pose a much greater hazard than stranger abductions. To that end, our town has a very active Safe Routes to Schools program, which is a model for others, with bike lanes, crossing guards at hazardous intersections during school hours, community involvement and interest, and continuing efforts to make the roads safer for walking and biking. Each year, for the last several years, the amount of children walking or riding to schools here has risen, and many children do this in groups. (Perhaps some parents can channel the energy they spend fretting into organizing walking groups.)

When adults and older children are out on and using our streets, they also become safer for younger children, and we all reap the benefits that come with slowing down, spending quality time together, observing things, greeting neighbors, having fun, gaining independence, being outside, getting exercise, learning about our surroundings, and getting from place to place without a car, when possible.”

This page about Slow Family Online illustrates more of my family and scout troop’s adventures in walking and challenges getting people out of their cars.

Photo by Susan Sachs Lipman

6 responses to “Why Can’t She Walk to School? in Today’s New York Times

  1. Suz, wonderful thoughts and ideas. Your comment about speeding cars being more a danger in town than abductions made me think about how, in both our towns, speeding bicycles are probably the biggest danger of all! But that tells us two things: good for people out of their cars and on bicycles; applause and gratitude for them. But, better for them to remember that walkers like me and your daughter and my children might not retreat to our cars to be safe from the hazards of speeding bicycles if they obey lights and speed limits, and make eye contact with pedestrians like drivers need to do.

  2. Thanks, Heidi. Very good points! “Share the Road” is more than a slogan, and it’s one more important piece making up the puzzle of getting people out of their cars, into community, and enjoying better health and quality of life.

  3. Suz:

    i saw that article and share your concerns. however, we do need to accept that the world has changed since we late baby boomers were kids growing up in the aftermath of the turbulent 60’s. in our world the threats were to political figures who were being assassinated, and to the high schoolers who were older than us (while we were in grade school) who were dying or going to the hospital to have their stomach pumped for drug overdoses, and razor blades in candied apples at halloween. (this btw is, i believe, and urban myth: did anyone actually know someone personally who had this happened to them? it was always some guy in some other city that nobody actually knew, kind of like the Kentucky Fried Rat). the threats weren’t to other kids like us.

    those were relatively naive times, not the post 9/11, post Columbine, post JC Dugan world we find ourselves in now. I remember being quite surprised 10y ago when my then 8 year old niece informed me that she couldn’t go to the bathroom alone that was 50′ away from us at the quiet swimming area at the Russian River, CA. She already knew that there could be a bad person in there (child molester).

    the NY Times article was in response to the JC Dugan episode. she was at the bus stop, with in sight of her step father standing in her front yard when she was abducted. Apparently cute blonde girls are targets. (that’s one consolidation to being a brunette. though i no longer personally worry about this sort of thing since they are looking for younger targets).

    like you, i was surprised by the article, but in reflection, i can understand the concern and precaution. abductions do happen, and often not far from home. high schoolers get raped and classmates can set them up. msnbc or cnbc recently aired an interesting and horrifying special about high schoolers who had been gang raped. in all cases, someone they knew and trusted set them up to the perps.

    we didn’t worry about these things. our world was simpler: no computers, telephones were attached to the wall by a cord, so the idea was to get a long one and to try not to knock everything off the kitchen counter with it if you paced, and tv only had 3 channels.

    your prescription of walks to school on safe blocks where the child knows where to go if there’s trouble, wouldn’t have helped JC who was standing at the school bus stop and abducted while her step father helplessly watched. i agree that getting around with your own transportation makes for an independent person, but i also understand the modern parents fears and precautions.

  4. Hi Kath! It’s good to see you here.

    The world has indeed changed since we were growing up — it’s more crowded, hurried, scheduled, and complicated. Children live a greater amount of their lives in homes and cars and behind screens, and are even further removed from nature, their neighborhoods and free play. One of my favorite books, Richard Louv’s “Last Child in the Woods” notes that from 1970 to 1990, the radius in which an individual child was allowed to roam from his or her house shrunk to 1/9th of its size. It’s probably down to near nothing today.

    “Last Child” also notes that crime rates have stayed relatively flat for decades. I’ve heard the child-abduction rate quoted at around 115 children in the US per year, and just a tiny fraction of those are by strangers — most abductors are estranged parents or other relatives. Even J.C. Dugard, who has made so much news lately, was abducted 18 years ago. Yet, abductions are big news — they create buzz and fear and are reported in the media in numbers completely disproportionate to their occurrences. A 1990s UCLA study put the actual crime rate vs. the crime rate on televised news at 1 to 30. That’s 30 times the violence, fear and hype that goes into each family’s life than is actually happening — and of course, do we really need to see it all, even at 1:1?

    Children, sadly, are 40 times more likely to die as passengers in a car than to be victims of an abduction. And yet, we all keep driving. In fact, some people in the New York Times article were so wedded to driving that they drove a few house lengths rather than even walk with their children, which would certainly have done the same to prevent a child abduction. (Lenore Skenazy, in her blog, Free Range Kids, does a good comparison between driving and stranger fear.) The Halloween myths you mention were also proven to be just that — there was no truth to them at all — yet they got repeated and were acted upon.

    Of course, we need to be safe and practice and teach common sense. Ironically, it is excessive, unfounded fear that is making people and neighborhoods less safe — less people enjoy their neighborhoods and form community, less people teach their children independence and skills. The very things that would contribute the most to safety and quality of life are the ones that disappear when people act only upon fear. I’m sorry when any person suffers any crime, and I would like to see efforts and funding put toward reducing it. I don’t think the remedy is to lock children up, to make them fearful people, and to rob them of community, independence, exercise, knowledge of their surroundings, peer friendships, and fun.

  5. well, i can see that you have some strong views here, which you have thoroughly articulated and backed up with factual references. believe me, i am not advocating for locking up kids, and i share your views on how to allow them to become well adjusted adults. nicholas kristoff wrote a august oped piece in the nytimes about backpacking, noting that in our indoor life, where kids are plugged into the video games and computers, the joy of playing in the fresh air and nature is getting lost. he mentioned that all kids in his generation knew what happened when you stroke the belly of a banana slug, a long forgotten tidbit in our plugged into the wall socket world.

  6. Thank you so much, Kath. I really appreciate you coming back and mentioning the Nicholas Kristoff article, which sounds terrific and which I didn’t see, but will now look for. I know I came off pretty strongly — I recognize that we all want to do our best to protect our kids, and all kids, but hate to see people so completely paralyzed by unfounded fears that they may be missing out and doing harm.

    There’s a quote in Richard Louv’s book that speaks to the exact phenomenon you mention: “A kid today can likely tell you about the Amazon rain forest — but not about the last time he or she explored the woods in solitude, or lay in a field listening to the wind or watching the clouds move.”

    Later in the book, and even sadder, he mentions the fact that that Amazon knowledge may come from a Rain Forest Cafe, and not an actual experience ..

    The conversation continues. Thank you again. I value your input and your speaking up for getting kids in nature, while recognizing the concerns parents have.

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