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.

10 Responses to “Culture clash, child-rearing version”

  1. rswb on April 20, 2010 9:11 am

    I don’t really remember all that clearly for the first few school years either. I know I walked to school, with my (2 years older) sister and her friend who lived across the road, possibly with my mother as well, but you should also note that my first school was practically in the street that we lived in.
    When I was 5 or 6 we moved to a small town in the country, and I definitely walked to school (which was about 15 minutes walk away) just with my sister from then on. Some years later I started riding my bike, which usually involved going via a friend’s house to collect her on the way. I think kids walking to school on their own was pretty common, but then again so was kids being driven to school (or taking a bus, although that was mainly for farm kids). Certainly the school never tried to tell anyone how their children should be coming to school. It’s interesting how it seems to be such a big deal here.

  2. kristen on April 21, 2010 2:49 pm

    Oh my, I’m nearly afraid to comment. My son is 8. I still walk him to school and see that he gets into the schoolyard, or even, sometimes into the building. I can see the schoolyard from my upstairs windows–that’s how close we live, less than a block away. BUT, I’m not alone. Most parents do the same. For those who live driving distance, it’s the pull up to the curb drop off at the gate; for walkers, it’s kisses goodbye at the door.

    I have started to tell my son that he’s getting old enough to walk on his own (we really are that close…) but he resists. Maybe having to do with his need for routine, keeping things safe and familiar, or maybe he just can’t bear to leave me (!!!).

    At our elementary school, until the kids reach 5th grade, the school requires a parent/adult to meet them in the schoolyard at the end of the day. A kindergartner would never be set free to walk home, even if home was literally next door.

    That said, I think the Swiss might be on to something. I think we tend to overprotect our kids in the US, and we worry about all the things that are not very likely to happen. Check out the FreeRangeKids blog. Lots of good discussion about this sort of thing on that site.

  3. Bethany on April 21, 2010 5:53 pm

    We live only a few blocks from Natalie’s kindergarten, but those blocks are incredibly hilly and involve crossing a busy road AND braving a short stretch of a blind downhill turn without sidewalks. Even if children her age customarily walked alone here, ain’t no way I would let her. 🙂 Fortunately for my neurotic need to fit in, all the other children are walked by the parents or grandparents. I’ve seen older elementary-aged children walk home by themselves, but all the young ones are accompanied. However, my husband grew up in a school system near Venice without any hills, and all the children rode their bikes to and from school by themselves. I suppose being a “good” parent often depends on the area and local customs. (P.S. – Kudos to you for walking that whole way with your little ones!)

  4. Jennifer on April 23, 2010 9:47 am

    I have mentioned to SB that he will have to do this walk alone if not next year then by 1st grade. He’s not ready to do it now – “what if I get stolen?” he asked me. Gah!

    @ rswb – I’m pretty sure the teacher knows I get SB with the car a decent portion of the time and she’s never said anything to me about the car, (perhaps because she also knows how far away from the school we are and on the day he has kindi all day I literally do not have enough time to walk him home at lunch time, make him lunch, and walk him back again. It’s crazy. I always get him with the car on full day kindi day). The boy I have overheard her encouraging to walk is, interestingly, a little bit overweight.

    @ Kristin: wow, that must make it hard for two – worker families. What about at lunch-time?

    @ everybody: Full disclosure: I pick him up with the car in crappy weather. I’m not interested in walking 3.5 kilos in the rain with a stroller. I also take the car if it looks like Boychen would fall asleep in the long walk with the stroller, which would ruin both his ability to eat lunch and his afternoon nap and, thus, would explode my head.

  5. rswb on May 2, 2010 10:12 am
  6. Jennifer on May 3, 2010 8:07 pm

    Oooh, interesting article rswb, thanks for the link.

  7. kristen on May 4, 2010 12:14 am

    Lunchtime? Our kids eat lunch at school. Only have to worry about morning drop-off and afternoon pick-up. And, in our little corner of Mayberry USA, if both parents work, the kids go to the school’s after-care program.

    On a related note, my dentist today was telling me a story about when his 14 year old son visited family in Germany and wound up riding the train alone from Zurich (I believe?) to Stuttgart. We were kind of laughing about how that would not be likely to happen here, how the Europeans seem much more at ease and relaxed about giving their kids independence. He said it was a life-changing moment for his son. It empowered him in such a good way. *sigh*

  8. Jennifer on May 5, 2010 3:28 pm

    Kristen, ahh bless the American lunchroom! Bless it bless it bless it! I forget what I’ve ranted about here and what I’ve ranted about on Facebook, so I guess you haven’t been subjected to my WHAT DO YOU MEAN HE’S GOING TO COME HOME FOR LUNCH FOR THE NEXT TEN YEARS rant. Most Swiss kids come home over lunch. A lot of schools simple have no facilities for dealing with the students over lunchtime (that appears to be the situation here in Village); those that do often charge on a sliding scale (that probably would have been the case in City Neighborhood where we used to live); and it is socially frowned upon to have your kid eat lunch at school (like I care – I would TOTALLY have Small Boy stay for lunch if I could!). Really, it makes it near impossible for the stay-at-home mom to EVER rejoin the workforce or, you know, complete a poetry manuscript.

  9. Lisa on May 19, 2010 11:20 am

    Sorry I’m going to be the voice of gloom and doom here, but also hopefully of realism, and not too late to make a difference.

    My experience: During my lifetime I’ve come into contact with three pedophiles that I was aware of, one of which I was the victim of for nine years. The second was a brief encounter, and the last tried to get me into a car on my walk to school. I lived in a small farming community of about 1,500 people in northeastern Kentucky.

    Knowing monsters like this exist in the world makes me certain that erring on the side of safety when it comes to my children is of the utmost importance. After all, your local pedophiles aren’t going to introduce themselves and tell you they too are waiting for the day you consider your children old enough to walk to school on their own, or travel alone, and the younger the better.

    Nor do I think it’s a country/culture problem. I live in Germany for the past eleven years and we just moved further east from a small farming community which has the sad history of having two young children taken from a seemingly safe neighborhood where everyone was watching, where everyone knew each other. They were taken while playing together near their own homes, into a nearby forest and raped and murdered. I believe the boy was older, around 9 or 10, and the girl 7 or 8. The girl was taken because two pedophiles wanted to molest her, and the boy was murdered because he wouldn’t let the men take his sister without a fight. For me that effectively blows the ‘safety in numbers’ theory out of the air.

    My youngest son is six and starts grade school here in Germany this year. Either I or his father have accompanied him to Kindergarten every day he attended, we’ll be taking him to school as well, and we’ll do the same for his younger sister when she begins. Even when he hits that “Oh, mom…” stage and it’s uncool, mom will find a way to melt into the background even while she keeps watch.

    In summary, I would love to live in a world where my children were free and safe to assert their independence, grow and mature without my watchful eye but unfortunately that just isn’t the case. I feel compelled to do everything in my power to protect my kids until they’re mature enough to understand this danger and what to do about it if it ever presents itself.

  10. Jennifer on May 19, 2010 8:06 pm

    Lisa, thank you for stopping by and for having the courage to share your story and don’t say sorry about being the voice “doom and gloom.” I am so sorry you know the things you know as viscerally as you know them. I think it’s important to realistically assess situations and dangers, and maybe sometimes some of us (me) think we are being realistic/worldly when perhaps we are not, and then your voice is a good reminder to think again: Am I sure? Am I comfortable? How much does my child know? It’s good to always be re-assessing that. Just today one of Small Boy’s 6 year old friends who always walks home alone was met at the corner by his mother because there is construction on a road he has to cross and she doesn’t think it’s safe right now. So paying attention, and reassessing and changing the rules sometimes, that’s good.

    Our own experiences deeply affect the way we parent; it’s inevitable. I was a free-range child who stayed lucky so it’s easier for me to believe it’s possible for my sons to have that, and, possibly, more important to me that they get a taste of that than it might be for other parents with other histories.

    In mountain climbing, it’s possible to be walking across the seemingly solid snow covered ground when really it’s a thin crust of snow across a chasm. Some days that’s what parenting feels like for me – am I on solid ground, or is it a thin crust? (And if I”m on a crust, does somebody have my rope-line?)

    Thanks for sharing and for disagreeing with me so respectfully when you probably wanted to say “are you a bleeping IDIOT thinking your kid can walk that far alone!”

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