If you don’t know the trees you may be lost in the forest, but if you don’t know the stories you may be lost in life. — Anonymous (Siberian) proverb
A few months ago our Waldorf school hosted a master teacher from Denmark to advise the school on our early childhood programs. In an open forum with parents, this teacher was asked “What is the biggest difference you see between European parents and American parents?”
Without hesitation she replied, “Fear. American parents are full of fear.”
She went on, “Look around you. This town is beautiful. You have natural places and safe streets. This is a perfect place for children. What is there to be afraid of here?”
In my chair beside her in the circle I did a silent “hear hear.” To be fair, however, I had helped stack the deck in favor of her opinion. I had offered to host her in my home, which I had chosen because of its proximity to school. She had spent a week walking the autumn leaf-strewn sidewalks of our neighborhood between my house and the lower school (grades 1-8) and the preschool a few blocks away. It was only necessary for her to get in a car when she went to the Forest Kindergarten in the big state park a few miles distant.
As I said, one of the reasons I chose this house was so that K. would be able to walk or snowshoe to school by herself (or ride her bike or her scooter) and walk the dog on longer and longer walks. This is not a trivial concern. It’s not just so that I don’t have to get dressed in the morning to drive her or otherwise see she gets to her school. It is because I’ve observed that unchaperoned transport is one of the first ways our children can truly learn to be independent and one of the most useful.
As evidence, I offer every piece of classic children’s literature! In story, the hero can’t be handicapped by needing a ride from mom. In story, the hero has to jump on her bike or run around the block.
Classic children’s stories are frequently set in a walkable town, so that kids have a decent shot at getting around on their own. Fantasy, historical fiction and science fiction are popular genres for children’s book authors, I believe, because they are free from the constraints of the minivan and the subdivision, where children are marooned in a state of infantile dependence until earning a driver’s license. (Several years ago I wrote an essay on this subject, “Navigating the Neighborhood”
for a children’s literature journal called the Riverbank Review, sadly defunct.) Heroes become heroes by acting, not by waiting for a ride.
In my opinion, the rise of the “safe” housing subdivision has been mirrored by a rise in parental paranoia, and we have generations of children who have never learned to do anything on their own, including reading a street sign to figure out where they are.
But I digress. When other parents in town or in our school community say to me, “Your daughter is so lucky, she gets to walk to school,” I can think of no polite reply. Where you live is a matter of choice, and of the priorities you set, not a matter of luck. If it’s more important to you to live in a subdivision close to the interstate so that your commute is a few minutes shorter, then your child will be challenged to learn how to navigate independently. On the other hand, I am sometimes met with an incredulous, “You really let your daughter walk by herself?” I wonder how safe those parents will feel when their own child experiences unchaperoned transport for the first time at 17 or 18 – behind the wheel of a car.
Do I let K. wander unknown streets? No. Do I have her call me when she has arrived on foot at Lisa’s house to visit B.? Yes. Have I taught her what to do if she feels threatened by a stranger? Yes. Have I walked our neighborhood streets with her again and again and pointed out the street signs to her? Yes. Have I made a game out of letting her navigate when we are driving around town? Yes. Yes, yes, and yes, I have tried to teach her how to navigate our neighborhood
, and I have given her opportunities to do it without hovering over her shoulder or even tailing her in the car at a distance. Did I feel like throwing up the first time she walked away from me down the street by herself? Yes. But in allowing her space to learn courage and become the hero of her own story
, I am trying to learn it myself, as well.
Lisa and I live 8 zig-zagging blocks apart from each other, so our girls are getting lots of practice, and they are strengthening their courage each time they make that journey on their own.