Let The Kids Ride The Bus

From the day we moved into the neighbourhood, we walked with our kids. The girls—there were only two then—would walk with the mister most days while I was working in my home office.

Rain or shine, the three of them would toddle off down the driveway to see what adventure they could find, and find they would. They would come home with tales of sea otters eating fish on the dock, eagles swooping down overhead, neighbours who invited them in for cookies, friends made and feats overcome at the playground. They were getting to know their neighbourhood and the people in it.

This was the goal.

We moved into this neighbourhood in part because we wanted to live in a place where our girls could explore it on their own, when they were ready. Our parenting choices were influenced by stories like Free Range Kids‘ and an increasing recognition from sociologists that helicopter parenting is making kids less confident and more anxious. By walking them daily throughout the neighbourhood, they would get to know their surroundings better than most, and as I put it to them still, “So the neighbours know you in case you have a problem—or they can identify you if you are the problem.”

After years of this, the mister and his now three little ducklings were well known to the neighbours, so much so that people would stop him in the street and tell him what a great job he’s doing as a dad.

Their first step towards unsupervised freedom was going to get the mail. Our post box is about 100m away from the house and we can see the journey but for a few blind spots. I can’t remember when our eldest managed to get the nerve to venture out alone but it wouldn’t have been too young; she’s always been cautious. In fact, it’s likely her younger sister by two years was the instigator and so the eldest followed. We watched the whole expedition—through binoculars—from the front window. The two of us standing close together trading the binoculars back and forth, excited and nervous, saying things like, “Can you see them? Look at those two. I’m so proud of them. My babies are growing up [sob!].” (I will not confirm nor deny the last statement was the mister’s.).

The next step was the candy store. We’d gone together to buy the occasional Kit Kat or Mentos (the selection is still the same after a decade) so they knew the drill. It meant speaking with an adult, which is a big step in a little one’s life. Unsupervised transactions like this teach kids many valuable lessons in finances, each one a layer of scaffolding building on the last until one day they make a big purchase, like a car or house, with confidence.

About a year ago the girls asked if they could go to the park on their own. We’d been encouraging them for a while to try going alone but they weren’t ready. I agreed and said I would drive up after 20 minutes to make sure they were okay, and, of course, they were. In fact, along the way they’d picked up a couple of other neighbourhood boys. Our girls and those two boys got into the routine of after dinner park time: the girls would walk up, pick up the boys, and head to the park. The mister and I would follow with the dog a little while later and we’d walk home together. Such joy.

We have taught them to put safety first (if I had a dollar for every time I said those words!). Once there was a skinned knee and they did exactly the right thing: youngest stayed with injured party (middle) while eldest found help with the boys’ parents. They were all so proud of themselves, as I was of them. If I’d been with them that perfect learning opportunity would have been missed. Otherwise, in over a year, there have been no injuries other than squabbling about who is ‘it’ in their game of tag (which somehow resolves itself better in my absence).

Someone stopped me in the street to check in about the girls walking alone on the road. I explained the reasons I’ve just written and he seemed okay with it. I appreciate him asking; there are likely others who are wondering about their safety, for which I’m grateful. That’s the point: it’s up to all of us to raise our neighbourhood kids into responsible adults. If my kids are doing something wrong, I expect to be told and consequences will follow accordingly (“No park for you tomorrow!” “You’re the worst mom in the world!”). So far only the opposite is true: we are often complimented on how well behaved the girls are, and how nice it is to see kids in the neighbourhood again.

To think this could all be taken away by a well-meaning person who thinks what we’re doing as parents is wrong. In his recent (viral) essay, Adrian Crook illustrates the outcome of a complaint made about his parenting choices to BC’s Ministry of Children and Family Development. His children ride public transit to school (four of them under the age of 11). After the ministry’s investigation, he was told that while he prepared his children well for the travel, the legal advice the ministry had received was that “children under 10 cannot be left unsupervised inside or outside the home for any amount of time.”

Ridiculous and impossible. Am I to sleep in the same bed with them too?

This story is deeply upsetting because the consequences of that complaint are so dire: we hold our kids tighter for fear of losing them. For Adrian’s children, they have lost the feeling of empowerment—something Canadian youth are in short supply of, which is second only in tragedy to the potential that Adrian could lose custody.

There is a disconnect between what current psychology is recommending for parenting and what our government is enforcing. As Adrian learned, currently the potential consequences of adhering to the former is so terrible, so unthinkable, that we are forced to defer to the latter against our better judgement. Outside of unconditional love, our most important challenge as parents is to prepare our kids to venture out of the home and make a life for themselves. That government should determine—at risk of losing access to our children—when and how that should take place is, as Crook puts it, draconian. I say it’s unCanadian.

For now, our wandering children have not been reported. I am acutely aware of the risk of writing this essay: MCFD may one day knock on our door. If they do, our family will be devastated but it will only increase my resolve to join Adrian in his fight.  In fact, I’m not waiting. I’ve contributed to Adrian’s campaign to raise money to fight this ridiculous decision so that other parents—all of us—won’t be left wondering if it’s okay to let their 7 year old get the mail.

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6 comments

  1. About “Let the kids ride the bus”, Right on! There is a lot to be said for common sense, especially when it comes from parents with respect to their own children. Thanks for putting it out there so well.

  2. Totally agree. The freedom we enjoyed as children, wandering our neighbourhood without fear, is for the most part, not available to children now. Too bad.
    My own children, walked home from school with their older cousins, starting in grade one. Oldest cousin was in grade four, a responsible child then, a very competent kindergarten teacher now.

  3. Spot on Maeve & kudos to you & Richard for the way thoughtful way that
    you are empowering your girls! In North Vancouver parents have had to organize teams & ladders so that their kids are “able” to walk to their neighbourhood schools…

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