The Bus Stop Conundrum: To free-range or not to free range

Do You Let Your Kids Go Solo?

Do You Let Your Kids Go Solo?

Last fall, a new family moved into our neighborhood, and on the first day of school, there was a new girl at our little bus stop. They’d arrived at their house literally the day before school started. From Israel.

That first day, the father took his little girl, Hadar, 6, to the stop. She wanted to take the bus (even though her English wasn’t very strong), and he was planning to follow in his car to complete her registration at the school. There were two other children in the family besides Hadar: an 11-year-old girl named Tevel, and Albel, a baby boy.

I’ll be getting to my point here — which is about how today’s parents do roughly 100% more hovering over their kids than my parents did when I was my children’s age — in a moment, I promise.

But first a wee bit of geography. I live on a longish, curvy suburban street, with no sidewalks. Our bus stop is about a 20-second walk away, at a stop sign where a small cul-de-sac intersects my street. From my front windows, I can’t quite see the stop sign on the corner, thanks to a curve in the road.

Here’s Daniel, at the bus stop on his first day of Kindergarten, in 2007:

At the stop, with both parents and our camera.

At the stop, with both parents and our camera.

The Israeli family moved into a house in the cul-de-sac; from their front porch, it’s a straight shot to the bus stop, with no need to cross the street. On the second day of school, and nearly every day thereafter, little Hadar left her house on her own (though sometimes her big sister Tevel walked out with her). And when the bus returned the kids in the afternoon, she walked back home on her own.

I tried to picture the scene from Hadar’s mom’s point of view (she was usually just inside her door, with baby Albel): Why, she must have thought, were those other three moms standing there? But from our perspective, she was the one who looked off to us. (This, a woman who’d served in the Israeli army).

When I started first grade, I walked with my sister down the street and around the corner to our stop, well out of sight range of our house. My mom, who had not served in any country’s army, but who had grown up in Brooklyn and walked to school every day, watched as long as she could see us, then went back inside.

These days, bus stops are coffee klatches and meeting spots for moms, dads, grandparents sometimes, and of course the kids. Our bus drivers are not allowed to let kindergartners off the bus for anyone but their parent or guardian, and even my neighbor and I can’t get each other’s kids off the bus without clearing it with the school first. Back when I was a kid, bus stops were lawless places. Anything could happen there, any many things did (none of which our parents were told). Like the time, for the space of an entire winter, an older boy made it his mission to steal my hat and hold it up just out of my reach. I fought that battle (not well, I have to admit; I still get hot tears just thinking about it) on my own.

One of my mom’s often-repeated stories from my first school year is how she would watch for me to round the corner in the afternoon, with my plaid jumper skirt (this was Catholic school) just grazing my knobby, bony knees, my green knee socks clinging to my stick legs (I was kinda on the scrawny side). “Your book bag seemed bigger than you! I wondered how you could manage it.”

But did it occur to her to run out there and meet me at the corner, grab my book bag for me, make sure I walked carefully on the sidewalk, protect me from the big boy hat stealer?

No. Nor did it ever occur to me to want her to.

A wonderful writer I know named Lenore Skenazy started a blog a year or two ago, called Free-Range Kids (she’s since written a book by the same name), after she let her young son take the New York City subway home by himself one day, at his request. She got a lot of flack — but plenty of kudos, too. I’ve talked about this before — that kids can’t just roam free anymore, because the world’s not set up for them to. My kids play on that cul-de-sac as much as they can, just as I played on my dead-end street for hours on end. The difference? I walk them there and stay with them, whereas we just went outside by ourselves (hearing, as the door slammed behind us, “Don’t come back until you see your dad’s car in the driveway!”).

I have no solution to the free-range-or-not conundrum. Lenore’s blog’s tagline is “Giving our kids the free reign we had without going nuts with worry,” and that is the tall order today’s parents face. Some, in fact most, of the moms I know don’t even bother worrying about the “range” they give their kids; they just don’t give them much at all, beyond the PVC-fenced confines of their yards or the carpeted expanses of their playrooms, and consider themselves to be doing the right thing.

But that doesn’t feel right to me, and I’m struggling with what does feel right.

I am not naturally fearful on my children’s behalf (I refuse to cower to scare-tactic news stories about danger at every turn, from pedophiles in white vans to head trauma from improper biking). Yet I still can’t just let my sons wander up the street on their own. For one thing, who’s home to watch them out the window? (Not the same number of semi-watchful parents who, village-like, kept an eye on all us kids). And for another, cars are bigger and, I swear, go faster down the street than they did when I was growing up in a similar suburban area. And back then no one was distracted by their cellphones.

My children are still too young for solo subway riding, but I’m looking forward to the day I can lengthen the distance between myself and them, and let them try things on their own. Like walking to a bus stop. Or going to a party: Just last Saturday, I dropped Daniel off at a birthday bash and left. Felt weird — but felt good, too.

I took a lesson from little Hadar, who was the only guest at my boys’ party last fall who showed up parent-free. Her sister walked her up the road, and seemed mightily puzzled (or probably just amused) at all the parents huddled in the rain on my deck. “I’ll come back for you later,” said Tevel.

How free-range are your chickens?