It is no surprise to me that our family's '73 station wagon is dying from a serious case of city driving; 53,075 miles of dropping off and delivering children would break anybody's cylinders. Fortunately, this expensive and impending death has led me to some serious soul-searching, not on the energy crisis, but on children and their self-sufficiency problems.
Why is it we selectively raise our children inside out and upside down from our own upbringing? Thirty years ago when my mother drove a "Silver Bullet" Studebaker she took it out of the garage only for her errands, not her children's. Her seven children depended on bikes, buses, streetcars and their legs to get them wherever they wanted to go.Now, my children depend on two things for their transportation -- me and my car.
Driving my children wherever they need to go is not entirely their fault. For years I have supported, even promoted this masochistic transport system. And I'm not alone. My homemaker and working-mother colleagues in the area clock hundreds of miles a month driving their children to soccer practices and games, art lessons, ballet, movies, music lessons, orthodontist, library, tutors, even friends' houses, especially friends' houses.
The country may think we mothers are home at 5 in the evening preparing pot roasts; actually we're zooming around town trying to outsmart the rush-hour traffic. When we finally do stop and rest it's usually in a school parking lot where we crack the "I'm-nothing-but-a-taxicab" jokes. While we wait for our children, we roll our eyes, make tired faces and lean against our station wagons, like drunk cowgirls with their dusty horses.
We mothers may be tough, but we're martyrs, for we moan, but do nothing about our predicament except to plan carpools that exasperate our friendships and work only on paper. Our days revolve around 3:30 violin lesson, 4:15 haircuts, 5:20 soccer carpool, 6:30 dinner, 7:30 tutor. By 9 o'clock we are ready for the "loony bin," as a child would comment from the back seat.
Why do we do it? The easiest answer is that everything the children do is so far away. There are no longer small central neighborhood activities to keep the kids occupied. Neighborhood children of the same age now attend different and distant schools, and no one asks or knows what church or synagogue their neighbor belongs to for services or for square dancing. Common neighborhood recreation went out with the corner drugstore and marrying the girl next door.
We say a child just can't walk to a gym that is three miles away. Okay, but can't he bike to it, or take the bus? Any suggestions of bikes and buses stir up all sorts of bogymen in parents' imaginations. The streets are too dangerous, we cry, and the buses are full of strangers.
Granted, our main streets and traffic circles confuse adults driving sophisticated machines. Who is going to watch out for a 10-year-old on two wheels? But are there side streets to get to the gym? Can the child ride his bike on the quieter streets, then walk the bike when he gets to heavy traffic? Simple questions we rarely ask.
That fear of "strangers" on the bus, or the sidewalks, goes a little deeper than bikes in heavy traffic. A 16-year-old who has never taken the bus to the Smithsonian, or walked around downtown without parents, is in for a cultural shock when the apron strings are loosened. The city is full of strangers, but they are also real people who cannot be ignored when you live and travel within the city. A child has to learn the technique of who to speak to and what about. Speaking to no one, or tunnel-visioning your way to your destination can be very boring.
A child can't even begin to learn this art of city survival by looking through the tinted glass of the tailgate window.
When I was 15 my mother allowed me to travel alone to visit my godparents who lived in Chicago. I took the train from Milwaukee and carried a lunch that could have fed two rows of passengers. I had two instructions whispered to me by my mother at the station: "Don't talk to strangers" and "Don't use the bathroom on the train, you know about those sailors." I spent most of the trip wondering what she meant about the sailors, and needless to say, I was very uncomfortable by the time I arrived in Chicago.
There is a way out of this overprotection mess. We can make choices. When your child comes home and says he "has to" take karate or pottery, discuss the location and transportation before you even begin to talk about costs and supplies. If it is physically impossible for the child to get to his lesson or activity on his own, then discuss if the lessons are as valuable as your time and energy.
The first time I applied this, my daughter was surprised that I would allow her to ride her bike four miles away to get her ears pierced. She was more thrilled than I.
Of course, a carpool-reared child may go into shock or put up a good fight when you begin this type of questioning and reasoning. But eventually, the child should realize that you think of him as a responsible, self-sufficient individual. And if he doesn't, you can always get rid of the car.