Something on the internet caught my eye. It talked of a 1979 first grade readiness checklist – and how one of those things was “Can he travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to store, school, playground, or to a friend’s home?”
This, of course, was followed by a slew of “I wouldn’t let my 7 yr old walk down the block alone!” and “If I tried that, someone would report me to CPS!” type comments.
I was a first grader in 1979. I wasn’t allowed off the block alone – I was tiny for my age and my mom was afraid cars wouldn’t see me. I could go places with my brothers (who were 10 and 9 when I was 7) and eventually, I was tall enough to leave the block alone or with my best friend in tow.
And so it was.
When we moved to a small town in Michigan, we decided to let the boys – who were in fourth and second grade – walk to school by themselves. We had established a route that they weren’t to stray from, told them what to do if they thought a stranger was following them (go into a local store and explain this and ask to call home.) By 9 a.m. the first day, I had heard from three friends about how they saw my boys walking. They loved the freedom and didn’t test our trust. Nothing bad happened. Yet so many of my friends who lived elsewhere were astounded that I’d let them walk to school.
Except if you lived in town, walking to school was normal. You’d see herds of kids, some with parents, walking home. There was the story of the person who saw her neighbor’s girls talking to a “stranger” in a car and immediately went over to investigate – only to meet the girls aunt. But it was that sort of thing – everyone looking out for everyone – that made it safe for our kids to do the once normal thing of walking to school. They could run up to the store that was a few blocks away, or walk down to the library. So many times, I would wave my trio off as they walked the two blocks to the library.
And then we moved to Dublin. There, it was completely normal for everyone to make their way to school by foot or bike or scooter or bus or tram. At 11 years old, my daughter was getting herself to and from school a mile away, and Maura knew how to travel on the Luas (Dublin’s light rail). We had a corner store down the block, and another four blocks away. During a school meeting for our 4th year students (think high school sophomores) we were told not to drive our boys anywhere, they could make their own way to different off-site venues, we shouldn’t coddle them – they had to learn some time.
I’ll admit, I didn’t go about this easily. My husband talked me off various ledges as the kids ran out the door towards these ever-expanding freedoms. There was one moment when we first moved to Ireland where I realized I’d set my sons off on their own in a foreign country.
It’s a growing process, one I’m glad they’ve gotten to experience. In a way, they’ve been able to experience part of my own childhood, those freedoms that these days seem hard to come by. Doesn’t mean I don’t worry – I am Anxietywoman, I’m going to do that anyway. But I have the security of knowing that every other step of the way, they’ve managed. In this case, it’s better to let go gradually than do the proverbial “rip the band aid off” routine.
Meanwhile, Maura’s still not leaving my sight. I will be helicoptering around her for a long time.