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By Erin Glanville

It?s Not About The Officer Or The Mom?It?s About All Of Us

Uploaded: Sep 17, 2014

Recently, The Almanac reported on a Menlo Park police officer who noticed a fourth grade boy walking home from Encinal school and felt so concerned that the busy street conditions were too dangerous that the officer escorted the boy home. The boy's mother, who clearly felt that the boy was old enough to navigate the trip home by himself, felt that the interference was misplaced, that her judgment was being called into question, and worst of all, that the experience with the officer had instilled an overwhelming sense of fear in her son. In reading the story, it's easy to get caught up in questioning whether or not the officer over stepped, or whether a 9 year old is ready to navigate a walk home alone. But the root of the problem doesn't lie with the officer or the mother's decision; the problem is the rest of us who contribute to making a walk to school unsafe.

We don't mean to do it, but sometimes we are busy, late, distracted, listening to squabbling kids, or talking or texting on a cell phone. We speed, try to make lights, and sometimes make turns that we shouldn't. We don't watch out for bicyclists or pedestrians (and sometimes bicyclists add to the chaos by running through stop signs). We park in bike lanes when we shouldn't. (This last one I have never done, but I admit to having committed some of these driving sins myself.) The end result is that an officer who has seen too many accidents feels compelled to act.

When it comes to getting to school, the Menlo Park School District participates in a Safe Routes To Schools program and encourages families and students to walk or bike to school. After 4 years of attending school, this mom felt her son was ready for the responsibility of walking home on his own. She broke no policy?this is a judgment call only a parent can make based on their particular child's age and maturity, the location/environment, and the distance.

In my experience, getting myself to and from school was a huge leap in my personal development. I was a latchkey kid. I had two working parents and either took the bus or walked home from school starting at age 9 or so. (A lot of us did that; according to the National Center for Safe Routes to School, back in 1969, 48 percent of K-8th grade students walked or bicycled to school. Today, only about 13 percent do which may be partly why a child walking home alone today might stand out.) The independence thrilled me; I felt trusted to make, safe decisions and wanted to prove that I was responsible enough to deserve that confidence.

I recognize, however, that I'm not in proverbial Kansas anymore, and our streets are much more chaotic than those I grew up navigating. My middle son, who is a 5th grader, enjoys riding his bike to school, to martial arts, and to swim and baseball practices which are all within a mile or so. Despite his excitement for the independence and maturity he feels getting himself places on his bike, whenever he walks out the door, I cringe. I worry about distracted and new drivers, and his not paying attention on his bike or making reckless decisions. I occasionally follow him and check to see that he's following the route we've mapped out, using the bike lanes correctly, stopping at stop signs, etc. He started riding his bike last year and his biking skills and confidence have steadily improved through the experience, but it has been a stressful process because we know that accidents can happen even to the most cautious, prepared and experienced of adults.

There is no "danger-proofing" our kids (or ourselves for that matter). However, I do believe the only way for our kids to hone their "Spidey-sense", to improve their situational awareness and to make more thoughtful decisions is to let them have some experiences on their own after we've done all the educating, practicing and "what-do-you-do-if-this-happens? -ing" that we can with them. After that, it depends on us?all of us?to take care of each other.

Let's all try to slow down. Follow the rules. Put aside the distractions because they will be right there waiting for you once you stop the car. Enjoy the calming powers of classical music. Love those people on bikes or walking as though they are your own family members. Let's make sure that all parents have the ability to give their children that first little step of independence without the terrified stress of worrying that they won't hear the sound of a door opening and a familiar young voice announcing that they are finally home, safe.