Walking to School

I’ve got a Bee in My Bonnet again about walking to school. That’s because I heard that my kids’ former elementary school is actively discouraging families from letting their kids walk to school, even among those who live a block or two away.

Here’s a quote from a letter parents received about beginning-of-school-year logistics:

“Traffic becomes congested on Cornelius Avenue and other roads leading into the school in the morning. Walking on streets without sidewalks near the school is discouraged. Having your child take the bus is highly recommended. Nonetheless, if your prefer to drop off your child, you may do so. . . .”

For those of you who don’t live in my neighborhood, Cornelius Avenue is the road that leads directly into the elementary school. It’s a fairly wide residential neighborhood street, but it doesn’t have sidewalks. It looks like this:

Almost all the time, Cornelius is a lovely street for walking. But, just prior to the starting bell of elementary school, the street becomes a drag strip full of parents who are so intent on dropping their children at school in a timely manner that they are willing to risk the lives of other people‘s kids as well as random adults and dogs and cats who happen to be out for a morning walk.

Let’s be clear about this: the problem in this scenario is the people driving cars too fast, not the kids who are walking to school. Walking to school is an activity that builds and supports a delightful community while speeding through a neighborhood is harmful to that same community. In my opinion.

But even if you don’t agree with my (obviously true and completely accurate) opinion, there are numerous studies saying that walking to school is absolutely beneficial to kids in a variety of ways. Sure, it’s good exercise, but in terms of mental health, there’s this: “Children who walk to school have been found to have higher academic performance in terms of attention/alertness, verbal, numeric, and reasoning abilities; higher degree of pleasantness and lower levels of stress during the school day; and higher levels of happiness, excitement and relaxation on the journey to school. Walking to school can further foster personal growth by developing a sense of independent decision making, emotional bonds with peers and the natural environment, and road and traffic safety skills.” It can also help with the symptoms of ADHD.

Does walking to school make kids cuter? It’s unclear, but the anecdotal evidence is compelling.

There are a variety of reasons why walking to school is better for kids physically, emotionally, and academically. Schools should be encouraging kids to walk to school. But even if there weren’t all of these benefits, let’s think about the supposed downside, safety. Have you ever seen kids waiting for the bus? Where are they waiting? That’s right: pretty dang close to the street. So if you’re concerned about safety, how much safer is it, really, to stand along the curb vs. walking along the side of the street? Google “child killed at bus stop” and you will find way too many hits.

Here, J’s waiting for the bus. She was in kindergarten and excited about riding it.
The thrill was short-lived.

So, this school letter pisses me off. It especially pisses me off because my kids walked to school for years (as you can see from that header photo), and when M first started, she was practically alone. As time passed, more kids started walking to school, and I felt our decision to walk to school helped make a positive impact on the community. Years back, a school staff member told me that she thought our family helped start the trend, and I was so thrilled and flattered.

And here’s where I’ll share something I don’t think I’ve shared here before (have I?). I talked to a reporter about letting M walk to school back when she was in 2nd grade for this New York Times article. At the time, I was stressed about it. I did get criticism–those are real quotes of things people said right to my face. And of course there was that tiny sliver of fear that there could be a Horrible Tragedy And It Would Be All My Fault. I distinctly remember the reporter calling me back and reading the first part of the article back to me to see if I felt like she’d gotten anything wrong, and I said something like, “It’s all true and correct, but it sounds so ominous, like something terrible is going to happen at any minute.” Now that the girls have made it into their teenage years alive and well, I can feel confident about the decisions I made then, and the independence, self-sufficiency, and other benefits the girls reaped from walking to school.

J’s all business on her way to the toughest Hillside year, 4th grade, while M exults in the freedom of extra time before she’s due at the middle school later.

I also have the confidence, finally, to look at all of the comments from that long-ago article. At the time, I felt really vulnerable about the decision to let M walk, but I’d made the decision and I didn’t really want to hear about a bunch of random strangers questioning me. So I just didn’t look. Earlier this year, I finally did read the comments, and most of them were very supportive of my choice. But then there was this one:

What sort of useless, degenerate parent in this day and age lets their 7-year-old walk to school by herself while she stays at home? Yes, things have changed since we were kids, but for the better. What next? Is this stupid woman going to reject booster seats, preschool, pediatric dentistry, and Amber Alert as some sort of political statement because they weren’t standard when we were young?

Even if she personally cares nothing for her child and is fine with taking unacceptable chances, think of the consequences for the rest of us. If something does happen to her child, think of the massive cost to society: the size of the police, other law enforcement, and volunteer effort that would be spent on searching for her child.

I think if a parent lets a child this young wander around by themselves and something ends up happening, they should 1) be charged with neglect and child endangerment; and 2) be sued by their local police department and tax payers for creating a cost to society that was completely avoidable.

Oh my gosh! If I had read that back in 2009, I probably would have been intermittently weepy for 3 to 6 days. Really. Now, looking at my almost-a-grown-up kid who is completely awesome and absolutely better for having walked to school for years, I find it pretty hilarious that this rando is so deeply outraged and convinced that I am a useless, degenerate, stupid, and uncaring parent. Bwah, hah, hah!

Anyway, in the interests of being a useful and caring community member, I am more than willing to join some sort of Volunteer Morning Parent Patrol of Cornelius Street if current elementary school parents want to get something started. I am happy to shame speeders and promote a more walkable community.


  1. Maggie

    Honestly I think it’s fully recognized by the girls’ old school that it’s NOT the kids walking who are causing problems, but the families who for some reason are really having a hard time following the new drop-off procedures. Even though their disregard endangers the lives of other children. It would be a shame to lose our walkers—there’s only one other school in the district that allows it!

  2. Ugh, Maggie, I am fully ready to get out there and join a neighborhood patrol if it would help. Heck, I’ve even got a reflective vest for the wee hours of winter!

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