That’s what a mother I know here in Chicago told her daughter when she asked, grudgingly, “Why does Elias get to walk to school on his own and I can’t?” I found her answer rather amusing – but also accurate.
Elias is the eldest of my two sons. He is now 11 and he has been walking to school without my supervision since he was 9. We live only 3–4 blocks away from his school, it’s not exactly a long journey where he needs to dodge big trucks or cross major intersections. I also let him run errands such as going to a grocery store (usually when I’m in the midst of cooking and I realize I’m missing something). In Finland this level of freedom is not only common, it’s basically a default expectation even for kids much younger than my son. But in here in our neighborhood of Lakeview, Chicago, Elias has been more of an exception rather than the rule.
“I aspire to have the same mentality as you do but I’m not there yet”, another mom told me over a year ago. I brought up the topic again recently and she said she still doesn’t let her now 12-year-old son walk to school on his own. “My biggest fear is kidnapping although I know its is completely irrational.”
She’s correct: the legitimacy of her fear is not supported by statistics. According to The U.S. Department of Justice, of the 800,000 children reported missing in the United States each year, only 115 are the result of “stereotypical kidnapping” — a stranger snatching the child. While I can relate to the primal fear of having your child go missing (isn’t that fear installed in you the moment you become a parent?) I just can’t bring myself to be concerned about my kid being abducted on the street at random.
My worries are furthermore lessened by the fact that Elias is not exactly a small, frail child. Any (undoubtedly clueless) kidnapper would be in for a surprise if they ever tried forcing him into that ubiquitous white van, the default vehicle of choice for all child predators. Give it up. You might as well try snatching a gorilla from the zoo.
Some other parents I’ve spoken with have said they feel their kids just aren’t ready to navigate the streets on their own yet. So how, then, did Elias initially learn his navigation skills? By spending his summers in Finland, of course. As he witnessed local kids in the suburbs of Tampere walking and biking around without a parent in sight, he it dawned on him: “I could do that, too!” I certainly didn’t have to push him. He was ready. After that first time I let him walk to a local playground at age 7 he has not looked back. It was a hurdle he practically flew over and making it safely to the other side made him visibly proud of his accomplishment.
Once Elias’s 7-year-old brother Leo feels he is ready to make a similar leap I am not going to try slowing him down. His personality is a bit more hesitant though and hence I’m guessing it will take him a bit longer. Which is fine by me too. I have no plans to drop him off in a middle of nowhere and say, “figure it out, you are old enough now!”
Of course we can’t quite apply a similar measure of freedom here in Chicago. While our neighborhood is relatively safe I realize it’s not the same as suburban Tampere. But yes, I let my kid walk to school alone, go visit a friend, or run errands nearby. He can manage. I know he can, and most importantly, he knows it too.
Some people have been a bit baffled by my lax attitude regarding my son’s whereabouts at times. This sort of dialogue is not uncommon between other parents and me:
“Where is Elias?”
“Uh, not sure. Maybe he went home?”
“Haha, you are such a Finn!”
Yes, yes I am. And it sure comes handy when you are cooking dinner and realize you forgot to buy the garlic.
Text by: Annika Drosos