In 1991, 11-year-old Jaycee Dugard was kidnapped while walking to a bus stop on the streets of California. Now 29, Dugard was recently discovered living in the backyard shed-system of her captors — one of whom had fathered her two children.
The young woman’s reemergence has New York Times writer Jan Hoffman wondering how parents feel about allowing their children to walk to the bus or to school these days.
One source, Katie, says her friends have voiced concern about her 7-year-old daughter walking to school, which is located just one-and-a-half blocks away:
“ ‘She’s just so pretty. She’s just so … blond.’ A friend said, ‘I heard that Jaycee Dugard story and I thought of your daughter.’ And they say, ‘I’d never do that with my kid: I wouldn’t trust my kid with the street,’ ” said Katie, a stay-at-home mother.
Although Katie admits to being horrified by the threat of abduction, she says she is also trying to encourage her daughter to be independent:
“Somehow, walking to school has become a political act when it’s this uncommon,” she said. “Somebody has to be first.”
Her intent may be noble, but — and I speak as a non-mother here — 7 seems a slightly premature age upon which to heap independence. Especially in light of such events as the abduction of a young boy named Etan Patz from the streets as he walked two blocks to his bus stop. The Times reports:
It has been 30 years since the May morning when Julie Patz, a Manhattan mother, finally allowed her 6-year-old son, Etan, to walk by himself to the school-bus stop, two blocks away. She watched till he crossed the street — and never saw him again. Since that haunting case, a generation of parents and administrators have created dense rituals of supervision around what used to be a mere afterthought of childhood: taking yourself to and from school.
Many parents are choosing to be safe rather than sorry: They take their children to school or to the bus stop by car; they wait in the car for the bus to arrive. Buses, too, are being equipped with safety devices, like surveillance cameras.
Of course, the autonomy that comes with walking oneself to school is important for confidence. It is also a rite of passage that ZL readers, like myself, were probably excited about. But this experience is dwindling for our children, as Paula S. Fass, a history professor at the University of California, Berkeley, says fear of kidnapping “has become a norm within middle-class parental circles.”
The numbers support this statement:
In 1969, 41 percent of children either walked or biked to school; by 2001, only 13 percent still did, according to data from the National Household Travel Survey.
Driving our children to school may give us (deserved) peace-of-mind, but according to the Times article, the trend has also contibuted to pollution, childhood obesity, and has “hampered children’s ability to navigate the world.”
So what’s the answer? A few options have arisen that aim to satisfy the desire for safety and the importance of exercise and independence:
The federally funded Safe Routes to School program has been working with communities to address problems that impede children from walking or biking to school. Particularly since last summer, when gas prices rose and districts began cutting budgets, some districts have been turning to “the walking school bus,” where parent volunteers walk groups of children to school.
I would like to think that, should I have a child, once she or he reaches a certain age — and especially if she/he has friends to walk with — I would feel comfortable allowing she/he to walk to school or a bus stop. I’m thinking 12, early teens maybe? Naturally I second-guess that plan, especially after reading about one Mississippi woman’s run-in with the law after she allowed her headstrong son to walk to school:
Last spring, [Lori Pierce's] son, 10, announced he wanted to walk to soccer practice rather than be driven, a distance of about a mile. Several people who saw the boy walking alone called 911. A police officer stopped him, drove him the rest of the way and then reprimanded Mrs. Pierce. According to local news reports, the officer told Mrs. Pierce that if anything untoward had happened to the boy, she could have been charged with child endangerment. Many felt the officer acted appropriately and that Mrs. Pierce had put her child at risk.
Do you think the officer was in the right? It’s hard to say, as we know very little about the neighborhood the boy was traversing. We do know that only about 115 children a year are abducted by strangers — is that enough to justify the officer’s actions? And is it enough to make you a wary, protective parent? Like the article says, is there any arguing with “Just in case”?