It's About my Children's Independence

As children across the country return to school this month, we asked long-time dedicated Strong Towns member, George Linkert, to talk about his own experience teaching his daughters to walk to school—an increasingly, and unfortunately, rare occurrence these days. We’re so pleased to share George’s story today.

George's daughters walking to school on a snowy day

George's daughters walking to school on a snowy day

We have two beautiful daughters that have very different life journeys before them. Maeve, who is ten years old, is a happy social little girl. She loves to dance, play games, and watch TV when she can get away with it. If you met her, she would make you smile the moment you met her. Having Down syndrome entitled her with bus rides to preschool at the age of 3. The little bus pulled up to the end of our driveway to pick her up and drop her off. By the time she was in first grade, I was itching to get her to walk to school on her own.

Cecelia is our tomboy and is an awesome nine year old girl. She’s smart, remembers everything, and is marvelously independent. She loves soccer, music, and spends as much time as she can playing minecraft. She started reading completely on her own at the beginning of Kindergarten, forcing herself to read Harry Potter that year. When she accomplished this, we had the school assess her and she was allowed to skip first grade, and started second grade with her sister. So both daughters are going through school at the same grade level.

In our home, there was never a question about how the kids would get to elementary school. It was part of a bigger picture in our head about how our children would experience childhood. My wife and I wanted strong, independent children that would be able to get where they wanted. We lived only three short blocks away from the elementary school, and I yearned for my daughters to have the same experience of walking to school as I did when I was their age. There were a couple obstacles to deal with, but they would be manageable.

When our daughters were still preschool age, my wife and I talked with other parents in the neighborhood about the choices they’ve made in getting their children to school. We learned a lot. A couple of other families just drove their child to school every day, despite the fact we were so close. I believe they felt they were being "safer" with this mode of transport. Other parents did have their kids walk to school.

The route the girls took to school

The route the girls took to school

A common concern was crossing Bartlett Blvd which borders the south side of the school property. This is a posted 30mph collector for our neighborhood, and a short cut through Mound for others, and often had cars driving 35mph. Another parent in our neighborhood had lobbied hard with city officials to put a crosswalk where our local kids actually walked without success. She had also attempted to get the school patrol to work this intersection. We learned the school had a school patrol, but not for this street where our neighborhood children crossed. They only provided patrols at crosswalks, and the crosswalk on Bartlett was not convenient for our neighborhood. So the few children who did walk to school from our street were left to their own to cross Bartlett without support from the school or city.

My wife and I talked with the girls at length before our daughters entered kindergarten about how they would walk to school. We practiced walking to school when we would walk to other destinations like the library or the grocery store. We talked all the time about how to approach intersections, or how to walk on the shoulder or sidewalk of the streets. Even when walking through parking lots we talked about being alert and conscious for cars. As they got older we let go of their hands, and we would find safe places on the streets where they might run ahead or let them lag behind so they would gain independence. We started playing in the street in front of our house at times and got comfortable with being able to have fun while acting safe.

So in second grade we easily have successful walkers to school. The only issues that occurred were run-ins with two unchained neighborhood dogs and negotiating snowy streets on a snowy late start day. A call to the police had the dog owners quickly fixing their fence. The late start day really demonstrated to me our society's priority of getting streets cleared for automobile traffic, leaving my little walkers little space to reach school.

Towards the end of their second grade year, I found employment at a building on the north side of the school. This worked great for us, as it was easy then for my daughters and I to connect at the end of the school day. There were times when I would have my daughters either walk to school from my work location, or they would need to walk to my work from school.

McKid Drive Thru

McKid Drive Thru

There were two interesting complications about working so near the school. The first was that there was the school parking lot between the school building, and my work location. The second was the school's drive-up/pick-up line (McKid Drive Thru) that went through this parking lot, which spilled on to the street. When I had the girls walking through this obstacle after school, the school staff and co-workers of mine insisted the kids had to walk completely around the car line because it was "safest". As I recall early on, they walked the kids most of the way, sometimes even to the door at my work. I had always told my kids to tolerate and respect adults when they did this because my wife and I were giving the kids a lot more latitude than their peers, and the adults would eventually figure it out.

I give the school a lot of credit for learning to trust my kids. I know there were a lot of wrinkled brows when we started this adventure of having our children crossing parking lots, and in particular, having a child with Down syndrome walk to school. I had always hoped our walking adventures would inspire other families to walk to school, but it's difficult to know.

It is with fondness that I look back at those years now, as my daughters have begun fifth grade, which in our school district means they move up to middle school. A different building a little more than a mile away makes walking more of a challenge.

For several reasons, including the distance, and the upcoming Minnesota winters, our daughters will be using the school bus mostly. When the school year started, my wife and I dutifully walked our children to the bus stop to take pictures, and was pleased to see a couple other older neighborhood kids waiting for the bus there too. We watched two other families drive by, starting their daily routine of driving their child directly to the school themselves, and not using the bus service.

Over the last couple summers, we've given Cecelia, who's quite a biker, the opportunity to take on the rights and responsibilities of biking independently in the neighborhood. This culminated in multiple successful rides on her bike to middle school this last summer. Once again, before this, we had practiced and discussed biking independently the last couple years, and knew this time was coming. We talked about where and how to cross the busy streets, and being mindful of the other traffic. Now that school has started, she has taken the opportunity to bike a couple times so that she can participate in before-school activities.

During the neighborhood picnic in August, my wife was sharing Cecelia’s achievement to one of those families who dutifully drive their child to school every day. They couldn’t believe we were allowing our daughter to undertake such a “dangerous” journey. The dad must have been impressed, because he remarked that he didn’t believe his child would even know how to get to the school.

I think it is safe to say my wife and I have a good start on our goal of having independent children. Cecelia’s instances of biking to the middle school (and even further) puts me at ease in her ability to take care of herself. Maeve, at her own level, makes us proud. She can walk independently to her Elementary school playground to play and come back on her own. That’s a big success for a ten year old girl with Down syndrome. Now we are looking to expand her independence. The closest retail store for us is a Dollar Store, about 3 blocks beyond her Elementary school. Perhaps we will have her walk there independently, buy something, and come back?

Cecelia and Maeve on their last day of walking to school last spring

Cecelia and Maeve on their last day of walking to school last spring

The biggest obstacle in attempting to produce independent children is the fact we are so alone in this venture. So few parents are willing to allow their children to go out and play alone, much less leave their home independently. And being alone makes us feel vulnerable.

Yet, we don’t regret anything! In that vulnerability we find strength. It is a wonderful thing to be able to ask Cecelia to bike to the grocery store and pick up the missing ingredient for supper, or send Maeve out to play, knowing she can take care of herself, both today, and in the future.

How do your children get around in your community? Can they walk around the block by themselves? What lessons are they learning about how to get groceries or to meet with friends? Can they accomplish what they want on their own, or do they need your help? These are important questions all parents should be asking themselves.

George Matthew Linkert IV is an "idea guy" working to make Mound, MN a better place for everyone. He blogs at A Place in Mound and has been a dedicated member of the Strong Towns movement for several years.