Stop the press. Hold the camera. Aim it at something most Americans in the 21st century have apparently never seen before: a first-grader with enough independence to call walking to school alone “pretty great.” In Switzerland, where I became a parent, children as young as 5 walk or ride the public bus to school unaccompanied. There are no parents hovering — or driving their children four blocks to school in a minivan. It’s a culture of free-range parenting — not that a Swiss would ever call it that. Helicopter parenting doesn’t exist in the alpine nation, but rational parenting decisions that teach personal responsibility do.
Even on playgrounds, children resolve problems themselves while parents sit on benches and drink coffee — if the parents are even there. There are no shouts of “Be careful!” or “Let that other boy have a turn.” The only shouts you hear are from children enjoying something many American children will never know: freedom.
We call our country “the land of the free,” yet most children — at least if our suburb is representative — have no freedom at all. Their parents (or nannies) walk or drive them to school, pick them up, and drive them to scheduled activities. There may be the development of piano skills, soccer skills or freestyle strokes (and for some of these kids, it’s all in an evening’s work) — but time for free play and time to develop independence, there is not.
Somehow, when I moved away more than a decade ago, a culture of fear and overprotection moved in while I was gone. Because growing up in a western Chicago suburb in the ’80s, I knew the wonders of roaming without supervision — as a child I built treehouses (with hammers and nails, oh my!) with the neighborhood kids for hours in the woods near our house. I walked to the bus stop alone. I even walked to Kmart on missions to buy a pound of popcorn, a full mile from our house, with friends.
My husband, who grew up in the suburb we live in now, also waxes poetic about his grade-school days, when he and his fellow grade-school neighbors walked the 0.7 mile to elementary school together every day, in any weather. Naturally, with visions of both 21st-century Switzerland and 1980s America in my head, I imagined my daughter walking to first grade with throngs of children from our block and others. On our street alone, there are seven children who attend her school, and I looked forward to my daughter developing a camaraderie with them, especially since due to the lack of anyone ever playing outdoors, this seemed to be her best opportunity to do so.
So why, every time I wave goodbye to my daughter from my front door, do I find myself wondering, Will I be arrested? Could I be arrested? Because when I look out, all I see is the father who escorts his sixth-grader to class. All I see is the endless line of parents in minivans driving their children four blocks to school. And all I see are the crossing guards, still doing their jobs, even though the swarms of parents escorting their children render them mostly useless, relics of a forgotten American past.
Today’s news, filled with stories of mothers (and it’s always mothers) being investigated for allowing their 8-year-old to walk the dog alone or being arrested after leaving their child in a car alone for five minutes, weigh on my mind, no matter how ridiculous they seem. So when my daughter runs, unaccompanied, to the neighbor’s house, two houses down, to play with her first-grader, I can’t help but cringe. After all, this mother drives her kids the four blocks to school. She allows her children to ride their bikes only on her driveway — not down the sidewalk as my daughter does. And she always escorts my daughter home from her house, making me feel both utterly dismissive of my daughter’s safety and completely guilty for not going over there to walk her home the 100 yards myself.
Like this mother, most American parents seem to have forgotten the world we grew up in. In the local hardware store the other day, I ran into another one of our neighbors. He has four kids — two my daughter’s age and two older ones that all go to her school.
“Hey,” he said. “I noticed your daughter is walking to school alone. That’s like a European thing, right?”
“I guess,” I said.
“Well, if she ever wants to walk with us, she’s welcome,” he said. “Except since it’s so cold now, we’re driving the kids.”
“Thanks, I appreciate that,” I said.
But inside, I sighed. Inside I thought, well, along with a coat, make your kids wear snow pants and boots and gloves and a hat, and the weather’s fine. Inside, I lie in bed at night and dream of parades of children walking to school unaccompanied by parents. I dream that rather than being known as the “crazy European mom,” I become a model for how to teach our children to be independent, strong and weather-appropriate. It’s my new American Dream, one I never imagined I’d have.
As well-meaning and kind as these fellow parents are, I refuse to give in to their ongoing offers of overprotection. Instead, I continue to parent in the way that teaches my child to be personally responsible — and I wish more American parents, especially those of us who grew up freely roaming our neighborhoods in the 1980s, would parent like it’s 1989 instead of 2019.
Even though culture is hard to change, our determination to hold on to our American tradition of freedom and independence shouldn’t be. So the last time my daughter ran over to our neighbor’s house, two houses down, I texted the mother: “You can let her walk home alone this time, it’s fine.”
“Okay,” she wrote. Victory! I thought. But then she added, “I’ll text you when she leaves.”
I shook my head, because by the time I saw the text that my daughter was on her way home, she was already home — a first-grader can run 100 yards faster than a parent can text, “She’s on her way.” But I replied, “Great, thank you!” because that seemed like the proper American parent thing to do.
But then the parent who I really was took over: “Before you take off your coat and shoes, go walk the dog,” I told my daughter. “Okay, Mommy,” she replied. And then she skipped down the sidewalk with the dog, the tassels on her Swiss-made knit hat bouncing freely.
Chantal Panozzo is the author of “Swiss Life: 30 Things I Wish I’d Known” and is at work on the sequel, “American Life: 30 Things I Wish I’d Known.”
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