Walking to School

This generation of children is the most pampered and protected of its kind in all of history. Of course, that’s probably been true of every subsequent generation of the past 150 years, if not longer. Still, some instances of helicopter parenting are particularly exasperating. One is the radical change in children being restricted from walking to and from school on their own.

The Saturday New York Times took on this provocative issue:

In 1969, 41 percent of children either walked or biked to school; by 2001, only 13 percent still did, according to data from the National Household Travel Survey. In many low-income neighborhoods, children have no choice but to walk. During the same period, children either being driven or driving themselves to school rose to 55 percent from 20 percent. Experts say the transition has not only contributed to the rise in pollution, traffic congestion and childhood obesity, but has also hampered children’s ability to navigate the world.

The article, as it happens, describes an incident from “a Vancouver suburb”:

Lisa Reid, who lives in a suburb of Vancouver, British Columbia, had signed a permission form, but when her first-grader proudly told his teacher he was walking home himself last spring, a distance of six houses, the teacher was incredulous. She took him to the office and called Mrs. Reid, who didn’t hear the phone. That was because Mrs. Reid was pacing at the end of the driveway, waiting for her son, her worries climbing exponentially as the moments ticked by.

The article goes on to explain that–the math here is mine–a child is more than 2000 times likelier to be injured in a car accident than be abducted by a stranger. There are the 62 million American children under the age of 14, and only about 115 of them are abducted by strangers every year. In Canada, there are about 40 to 50 stranger abductions a year.

I wonder why it’s so much higher, per capita in Canada? Maybe there are differences in how the crime is defined? In Canada, a stranger is apparently anybody other than a parent or guardian–“a close friend, neighbour, uncle, grandparent or another family member”. I wasn’t able to find a definition for ‘stranger abduction’ in the US.

In short, the odds of a particular child being abducted are extremely small. Not to be all “when I was a young’un”, but the truth is that the abduction risk hasn’t changed since I walked about 500 meters home from elementary school in the eighties.

I should recognize that there are still many levelheaded parents out there. Derek, for example, lets his kids walk to school (and take other risks). It’s a little sad, if not surprising, that our the majority’s perceptions have so overruled the very safe reality.

While writing this post, I remembered the excellent map that accompanies this Daily Mail article.


  1. You might enjoy reading Free Range Kids, which is a blog all about doing things like letting kids walk to school by themselves. I think I originally started reading it when I saw this ridiculous story linked from Metafilter or somewhere like that.

    While I’m not a parent right now, I’d like to think that if I ever do become one my kids will be “free range.”

  2. I was just about to suggest FRK myself.

    It’s hard to explain why we parents become so irrational. I would argue that media terrorism has something to do with it.

    The other is just plain unconditional love for your child that is just unstoppable.

  3. I’m curious about how much the distance to schools has changed in the same time period. A lot of the kids I know no longer go to the closest school to their house. My sister, for example, goes to a french immersion school, 2km from home, as opposed to one of the 4 schools that are much closer.

    2km is a little far to expect a 7 yr old to walk. I went to the same school (it used to be a junior high) almost 20 years ago and walked/biked to school… but I was 13 at the time.

  4. Hey, didn’t all our grandparents walk five miles uphill in the snow both ways to school?

    At least in our neck of the woods, schools are the same distance they always were. In our case, my daughters (9 and 11) are going to the same school I did, and we live in the same house, so the distance is EXACTLY the same.

    I expect them to make their way home in about half an hour.

  5. Looking back through my old post, I feel I should re-post something I wrote there in the comments:

    “An analogy is when, as occasionally happens, a cougar or a bear comes into one of our Vancouver suburban neighbourhoods, and maybe attacks pets or people. Residents are afraid, and vigilant, and don’t go walking near the woods or where it’s been seen. And then it’s caught, or killed, and we go back to normal, with some extra awareness. We learn what to do if we see one, and we don’t wander into cougar country unprepared, but we also don’t spend decades barricaded in our homes and cars in case there’s a cougar. More pointedly, people living in places where no one’s ever seen a cougar don’t do that either.”

  6. Maybe my brothers and I (or more precisely, mom and dad) were unusual, but I used to go to a private elementary school halfway across Burnaby. I took the bus, a plain old public bus, with my younger brother. We were in Grades 4 and 2 at the time, and I think we took the bus in Grade 1 and 3 as well. I think a year-or-two older schoolmate was commissioned to chaperone us, but I think by Grade 4 we were on our own.

    It was great! We’d sit in the rear exit’s stairs, just behind the last seats before the steps, where there was a little space for a 10- and 8-year-old.

    In Grade 5, I started going to a school less than 1 km from my house. The next-door neighbours drove their kids there and back. Everyone else in the neighborhood thought they were crazy. This would have been around 1985.

    Reminiscing is fun, sure, but I do think this is a dreadful trend. Never mind the health-and-sanity outcomes, the kids deserve FUN!

  7. I’ve been trying to get the media to cover the issue of schools in downtown Vancouver, but there are few bites. Tons of parents are unhappy with the local school or unable to get into the over-crowded from Day One Yaletown school. So they drive their kids over the bridge and out of downtown Vancouver to get to decent schools. Many Yaletown kids were told to go to a DTES school 4 km away. We’re the families who opted into a walk everywhere lifestyle, but someone forgot to get the School Board on track.

  8. Without going into the details (which would be deemed ‘sensational’ and thereby distract from my point), I’ve seen the danger up close. It’s real. It’s the reason you wear a seatbelt, buy insurance, and stay indoors during a thunderstorm. When your child is involved, you hate to play the odds.

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