Leaving the Flock

The Scene
We had a big birthday party after school on Thursday. Avery was celebrating turning six. We had an uncountable number of children in the house at any given time between 3:30 and 7:00pm. There were neighbors, school friends of various grades, siblings, myself and another mother and her newborn. There was also the forgotten violin lesson for London (10yo) at 4:45pm and my husband was at work.

Plan A was to have London stay home. It was her last lesson of the semester. I had forgotten about it, being focused on the party, and not having moved the appointment on my calendar from Tuesday to Thursday.

Plan B was to send her and Elliot (8yo) on their bikes together. Elliot would wait out the lesson with a book and they would return home together. It would be a 1 mile ride, each way. They’d have to cross Hal Greer Boulevard, a busy five lane (one turn lane in the middle) that recently changed their posting from No Turn on Red to No Turn on Red between 7&8am and 2&3pm. Every morning for months, when school returns to session there is a police car with his lights on at the corner across from the school. More often than not, there is car debris in the middle of the road from a recent accident. Everyone was turning right on red there anyway, so I guess they thought that it might be easier to just change the sign than to enforce the law? That corner sees most of their car and walking traffic during those hours, so part of me understands. The part of me that wants my children to be able to get safely across that street at anytime doesn’t.

When the children are on their own bikes, we use the cross walk. Riding up onto the side walk at the entry to the gas station also on that corner, and pushing the button. When the walk signal comes, it posts a red light to all directions of traffic and gives a walk signal to all directions of traffic. When drivers are permitted to turn right on red, their heads are often turned left to see if traffic is coming, not looking right to see if anyone is cross the street. I have issues with this, as you can read, but we choose to use the cross walk with our children at this intersection, and we are not the only ones. When we have the children on our cargo bikes, or we are riding solo, we use the traffic lane.

That aside, Plan C is what took place. Elliot refused to leave the party, and I couldn’t blame him. Despite me explaining my needs for him to be with his sister for safety, that I would have to ask his friends to leave the party, that he may not have friends over during the weekend, or any other “trick” I could pull out, he wasn’t going to leave the house. Having the option of independent transportation can lead to one not transporting themselves. London needed to get to her lesson. I couldn’t leave the party, despite Elliot trying his best to convince ME that I would only be gone 20 minutes and that HE could keep an eye on a dozen plus children.

Having the power of independent transportation can lead one to transporting themselves. London went to her violin lesson, on her own bike, under her own power, all by herself. She carried her violin on her back, in its case with the strap. She had a second bag with her notebook and my cell phone, which Brent insisted I have her take along (I have opinions on this for another time). She said she didn’t want to go alone, at first. Then she said she couldn’t decide and that I should decide for her. Then she just went. She was down the driveway before I could get to the front door to see her off and make sure all her lights were on, that I reminded her to look left and right often, to signal only if she felt safe to lift her hand from the bars, to use the cross walk at Hal Greer, and all those other “worrisome reminders” that parents often recite as their children go out in to the world alone.

Wow. What an enormous milestone. She’s walked a couple blocks away by her self in the past. This time, she was riding in traffic, on her own vehicle, with the power of her own body, a mile from home. There were no bike lanes, no sharrows, no paths. Besides using that crosswalk light, there were no sidewalks. She immediately returns to the lane when the light permits her to cross. There was no one there to remind her what the yellow lines mean, or stop at the signs, or keep an eye on cars backing from driveways. All those behaviors we had been modeling for the past year, all those instructions we had been calling out, were being utilized.

She called when she arrived at lessons. Brent stopped by on his way home from work, with party pizzas, to escort her back in the dark. One mile was a huge accomplishment for her (although she really is nonplussed by the whole event), but a really great test of our own strength to let her go. Maybe you can imagine that Brent and I have different ideas of what our children should be able to do, or what we should allow them to experience. We do. We just come at this parenting thing from different childhoods of our own. We have different fears.

Imagine all of that one more time. Our 10 year old has the means and the ability to travel on the streets without an adult, along side and between vehicles driven by adults (and teenagers). Elliot could have been out there with her. He’s actually the far more responsible, aware and capable one of the two. An 8 year old on the road, on a vehicle that has every legal right to that space as a driver, but does not operate in the same capacity.

It was with these ideas meditating that I read Chicargobike’s recent post that reminds the powers that be, that we must be thinking about complete streets and bike lanes with the intention of having 8-80 year olds get from where they are, to where they need to be, safely and efficiently.

My attitude that Huntington, WV is a bicycle friendly community, remains. However, as we watch our children grow and begin to consider all methods of transportation, we see so much need for improvement. Taking notice of these needs, I spend time writing down my thoughts and expressing my concerns to the agencies that can implement those changes. I encourage you to do the same, where ever you are. It’s one thing to wish things were different, and another thing to let someone know who can do something about it.

Before riding bicycles, we were happy enough to let others make decisions on our behalf. Hurray for a representative democracy! After riding (this could be a BB, before bicycles, and AB, after bicycles thing) we realized “our theys” were not making fully informed decisions. Most of those involved with the planning and  implementation of laws and infrastructure are not riding bikes, walking, in wheel chairs, etc. I am grateful for their attention to the matters, and deeply in love with those who are riding and who are making decisions and creating action, but they are not the majority. They are also experiencing something unique, and so are we.

The thought of asking London and Elliot to go to lessons on their own had been rolling around for a while. I felt like all I was doing was escorting her to practice and coming home. I wasn’t transporting her. She didn’t need me. Brent always met her for the pick up. Other than crossing Hal Greer, the rest of the trip was side streets that may not have had sidewalks and all but one of them didn’t even have paint lines. Very slow, casual roads, where you often found joggers and dog walkers sharing the road with you. The courage to finally send her on her own came from her violin instructor. It had nothing to do with violin. Their family is car-lite too. They ride bikes for transportation to school and work, but do other errands with their van. Hannah mentioned to me that they have been encouraging their 8 and 10year old to ride to school unaccompanied, and they have handled the 1.25mile commute very well, on sidewalks, their preferred riding style. Knowing someone else was out their doing what we wanted to do gave me some confidence to try it.

Does that sound familiar? I started cloth diapering after being around some parents who did so. We began composting after seeing a few friends incorporate this into their lives. We, as people everywhere, often want to see the actions we desire reflected in those around us. We also want to see what we are doing being reflected back. This is why we have social circles and social media. This is why some people move, choose certain schools, wear styles of clothing, practice their faith. We are trying to align ourselves and feel comfortable in our choices. Had Hannah not told me what they were doing, I might not have had London attempt this quite yet. She’s capable, but I don’t know that I was ready, socially, to let her go. While certainly, not everything I do, has to have been done before, or being acted out by others around me (ahem…cargo biking?!?), oftentimes, when it is, it serves as great encouragement.

The Hat Tip
The title of this post is a reference to Travis Wittwer’s Transportland post, Empty Nest. He discusses the discretion made to transition a child from the cargo bike to their own independent wheels. I am not sure where Travis is on having his children ride without an escort. I do know that this is not the start of regular independent child commuting for us, only a foundation.

Where are you in your family bicycling journey?

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12 thoughts on “Leaving the Flock”

  1. I loved reading this, Stacy! Our 11 y/o rides part of the 4ish mile route to school by herself (the rest she rides with friends). It scared me at first, but it is such a relief for me to not have the responsibility to get her where she needs to be. As we’ve let her ride select other places too (sometimes with her 9 y/o sister), I’ve started worrying less about the possibility of her getting hit by cars (the very scariest thing about biking, I think) and more about her getting lost…. a very real possibility since there are often many backstreet options to where she is going and she doesn’t have much experience reading maps.

    1. Kimberly, thanks, as always, for sharing your experiences. When we let L walk, we reviewed the map, drew a map and sent her on her way. This bike route we had taken a dozen or ten dozen times before. Yet, this is an excellent point to make! When children ride, either with parents or solo, do they pick up directions with more detail? I think mine do. My 2yo even knows when we are not going toward the place he wants to go. With or without maps, they seem to understand spacial relationship and direction better than their peers, or do they? Secondly, Care to dialogue on the cell phone issue? I couldn’t imagine equipping each of my children with a cell phone. Where are you on this?

      1. Whenever I would be gone for long periods or driving far dad always let me borrow his cell phone (mind you it wasn’t an iphone). It gave me a sense of comfort that he was a call away if I ran into trouble.

  2. It is great that you are able to dialogue with other parents who also live in your town. I think location is huge part of the equation. Here in Berlin, kids younger than London (and Elliot) walk and bike to school on their own. Yes there are sidewalks, but there are also lots of busy streets to cross. The social environment is a big part of it – it is ‘normal’ here to give kids this much independance.

    As for their sense of direction and orientation – I suspect that riding in the front seat like Oliver has (and our youngest has) contributes a great deal to developing that awareness. I am amazed by how well our 3 year old can orient herself when we are out and about.

    1. You know how much I want to know all those nitty gritty details about life in Berlin! I was even wondering this morning if you cook more “German” style food because of the grocery/cultural influence, or if you stay the course with what you know and like? That aside, do you think you could bring some of the culture back to FL? After having the experiences you and your family have enjoyed would they transfer back to state-side? Could introductions like these help shape a new culture, a new social norm?

      1. cooking is a whole other story – I hope to blog about that soon… As for the independance that Emma is acquiring here, I do hope we can build on it in the States when we go back. There will be obstacles, mostly social ones, but I think every effort and example does make a difference. Will we have the courage to make that effort and be an example? A year ago I would have thought so…

  3. Thank you for the shout out. I was eager for my sons to bike themselves as it allows for greater travel ability. This way I do not have to carry thei weight and it does two additional things: (a) teaches them bike confidence and (b) sets them up to see bikes as a viable option for transportation. I grew up with a bike but it was more about playing than transport so when I was older, a car was what I drove. My kids will be different. They will be drawn to a bike for transport.

    And to answer your question, I would be comfortable with my eldest son, Kael, age 12.8, biking places without me. He has a cell phone and a good sense of road safety and bike confidence. For his 13th birthday, he will get a cargo bike with all the trimmings–I will post on this later next week.

    Each kid is different. My youngest I would also be good with for a shorter distance, but more than my middle two.

  4. About the cell phone thing… Usually our daughter doesn’t carry one. We may eventually purchase a cell phone for her (or hand down mine and get me a new one :).. but I’ve been holding off. I think it’s really important to see the cell phone as a “convenience” thing and not a “safety” thing and I don’t want to fall into the trap of relying on it to keep my daughter “safe”. If my daughter gets lost or has a flat tire or something, she needs to be mature and smart enough to figure out what to do. (Ask for directions? Walk the bike home? Head to a bike shop?). I have given it to her once though, so that she could call me upon arrival at her destination. I’ve also asked her to call me from a friend’s house upon arrival too (just using their house phone)… I guess I’m still figuring out the issue.

    1. Thanks. That’s where I am, but Brent is not. I don’t even like the phone I recently acquired. I enjoy it as a computer, a tool, but not as a source of constant contact. More to think on.

  5. I really enjoyed reading this!! We are just starting to realize, as our kids are getting older, especially, that we don’t want them thinking that driving is the only option of getting around. My husband and I used to ride bikes everywhere before kids, and I would love to start again. My main concern is that I can peddle my 2 and 4 yr olds in a trailer, but my 6 yr old would be on his own. I’m not okay with that, yet. Thanks for sharing your experiences and for encouraging to advocate for better laws and infrastructure.

    1. Thanks Sally. There are many many people in your situation. I think the best (inexpensive) start would be a trail a bike/train combo. Here is my favorite bike train: http://familyride.wordpress.com/2012/07/03/engine-engine-engine/ Another option would be a front jump seat for the 6yo, or a rear seat. Here are front seat options (and one more in the comment): http://humofthecity.com/2012/12/19/a-front-child-seat-for-older-kids/ And rear seat options would include but not limited to the Bobike Junior and Yepp Junior seats. There are all rated for the 4-10yo crowd, keep them close and off the street, until you and they are ready. If there are more factors than just keeping the 6yo from riding independent (my 6yo can’t ride a bike), and you would like to discuss options, I do love hearing about unique situations. Cheers.

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