Culture clash, child-rearing version

April 19th, 2010

And this, my friends, is why social services will end up at my door in twelve minutes if we ever move to the states while the boys are still small. In Rochester, New York, a mother is discouraged from leaving her five year old alone in the children’s room of the local library for three minutes while she goes to check out a book (link via A Little Pregnant’s Twitter feed). The overwhelming response among the commenters falls into the “I would never leave my child alone in a public place” camp. Meanwhile, I think nothing of leaving the two and a half year old Boychen in the play area of a certain book store I frequent while I search for books; he’s not always in my line of sight, though I circle back frequently to take a peep. Ditto the toy section of the department store: the boys can look at the Playmobile while I go across the aisle to the stationary section. Again, not always in my line of sight. The escalator, however, is so there’s no way out that I wouldn’t see. (Now that I think about it, the same does not hold true for the book section.) 

Here in Farming Village, Switzerland, Small Boy’s kindergarten teacher is encouraging me to encourage Small Boy to walk part or all of the way home from kindergarten alone or with some friends who live in the same direction – the point being, he should not need an adult to pick him up from the school house door and walk all the way home with him; perhaps I could meet him half-way? Frankly, I’m very much looking forward to the time Small Boy walks home for lunch alone; going to get him at noon-time is a pretty inconvenient round trip for The Boychen and me. However: we live 1.8 kilometers (1.1 miles) from the school house door and we have to cross the main road, the road that cars use when the traffic on the highway is too heavy, to get to the school. For the last half kilometer (last if he’s walking home; first if he’s walking to school) there are no houses around. The sidewalkless and narrow – and I mean narrow, in the European sense of the word – but hardly ever trafficked road runs between my brother-in-law’s fields and during the winter can be seen from my in-law’s balcony but when the corn is up, the road is obscured from view. (As an aside: wow, there’s a sentence that I never imagined would apply directly to my life.) So I’m torn about this. Much as I want him to make the walk himself, he’s five and a half, after all. Culturally, however, I am seen to be coddling him a bit with this walking him home from Kindergarten business. Said in an entirely different tone of voice: he’s five and a half, after all.

What’s the current status on getting kids to school and from school where you live? I’m especially interested about how it stands with the younger grades in the US. Are your Kindergarteners getting to school by themselves, or are you all thinking the Swiss are crazy? Here in Switzerland they pretty much all go alone; at this point in the school year there are only about five parents who routinely pick their kids up from Kindergarten (out of a class of twenty), and they’re all the parents of the young Kindergarteners like Small Boy; the six year olds ALL walk without an adult). Younger school kids – Kindergarten, first grade – get their Leuchtweste on the first day of school (in the city Small Boy would have gotten a triangle; here in the suburbs they get vests) and they all wear them and get scolded if they don’t and the kids walk it in all sorts of weather. 

I have no memory of how I got to kindergarten. Although my family was pretty firmly blue-collar (father, cop; mother, receptionist when my brother and I were older; college degrees, neither of them), we lived in a very white collar suburb* of Chicago, one of those places that people with children choose for the school system, a neighborhood that certainly would have been perceived as safe** enough for kids to walk to school. There were sidewalks the whole way, and the streets were pretty quiet. I do remember clearly that in the later grades, say 3rd and 4th grade, I walked the half-mile to and from school together with H, who lived one block closer to the school than I did, and L, who lived one block further away. I walked to and from Junior High as well, a distance of .8 miles, sometimes with friends and sometimes alone. Only to get to the high school, a distance of 4.5 miles, did I start riding the school bus. This was also (mumble mumble) thirty years ago and I’m well aware that the world has changed. How do kids get to school these days, and what is the reaction when parents go against the grain? (Here in Switzerland, driving your kids to school is frowned upon and the teachers come right out and tell the kids it’s better to walk.) If your kids walk alone, how far is it, and how old were they when they started to do it alone? Is there a lot of biking to school in the older grades? (That’s very popular here.) I’m really curious about this; talk to me.

* Said suburb is routinely one of the ten wealthiest zip codes in the state and is shockingly high above the statewide average income and we never kept up with the Joneses. To this day I believe that the feeling of never fitting in far outweighed the benefits of the admittedly excellent public schools. I think my parents were only able to manage getting a house in this neighborhood because my grandfather must have helped them with a down payment. How they kept up with the property taxes all those years; well, our family financial situation was one thing my mother never discussed with me, to the point of me not knowing what colleges I could afford to apply to, but looking back it’s all a bit of a wonder that my parents bought that house when my brother was born and that my brother and I sold it only after my mother died and that there was money left in the estate.

** This didn’t happen until I was in college. My father was on duty that day and took the first emergency calls.***

*** I’m making a mockery of my vague attempts to be coy here, aren’t I? I grew up in Glencoe.