With Wednesday, May 9th being the first-ever Bike To School Day, the biggest story circling the interweb has nothing to do with all the kids who will be riding to school tomorrow; it’s about the one kid who wasn’t allowed to.
“Why Johnny Can’t Ride” is an excellent feature article that was published online at Bicycling Magazine late last week. The author, David Darlington, was even featured on NPR Radio’s Talk of The Nation discussing his must-read piece. I highly recommend taking twenty or so minutes to read it in its entirety.
Darlington’s report chronicles the struggle of one boy and his parents against an intransigent school district in Saratoga Springs, New York. What would appear on the surface as a simple problem with an even simpler solution slowly becomes an onion-peeling session. What are all these layers that have caused participation rates to drop from 48% down to 13% during the last four decades?
While the article spends a fair amount of time introducing each layer - childhood obesity tripling since 1980, kids being involved in more extracurricular activities, school design trends, liability issues, parental safety concerns, diminishing physical education time, video game/computer/smartphone usage, and parent's work schedules - the reader is left with a myriad of variables to correlate based on his or her own experiences.
The statistic that stuck out most in my reading of the article relates to students living within one mile of their schools. In 1969, 88% of students living within a mile of school walked or rode a bike. Today, that percentage is down to 38%. Not even four out of ten kids that can get to school by way of their own two feet actually do so!
I just can't relate to this.
Back in my elementary and middle school days I lived within one mile of school for all but a year and a half. Unless it was below freezing, snowing heavily, or storming out, I had to walk or ride my bike. When it came time for my own kids to attend school, we selected a home within walking distance of both the elementary and junior high schools and they were responsible for getting themselves there and back. We had faith in our kids to look out for themselves. The school had faith in them, as well, making both part of the safety patrol.
"Why Johnny Can't Ride" quotes Lenore Skenazy, the author of Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry);
"Somehow, a whole lot of parents are convinced that nothing outside the home is safe. At the same time, they're also convinced that their children are helpless to fend for themselves. While most of these parents walked to school as kids, or hiked the woods—or even took public transportation—they can't imagine their own offspring doing the same thing. They have lost confidence in everything: Their neighborhood. Their kids. And their own ability to teach their children how to get by in the world."
This pretty much sums it up - it's a parenting issue.
My most helpless feeling as a parent came the day my daughter received her driver's license. I watched out the front window as she and her 12 year-old brother backed down the driveway and headed off to his soccer practice alone. They were on their own in the great big world - a world that had just expanded exponentially from where they could walk or bike to only the day before.
The feeling didn't last long. I was satisfied with her driving skills and knew she would continue to be as responsible for him on that day as she was walking him home from school on his first day of kindergarten seven years earlier. I had no control over the people either of them might encounter much the same way I have no control over whomever I may encounter on any given day. All I had was trust in their judgment.
As a bicycling advocate, I stress safety for all riders. Bicycles on the street are vulnerable. Riding defensively, behaving predictably, signaling turns, obeying traffic signals, and staying visible are all part of arriving at your destination safely. We cyclists can't control the driver coming up behind us, but we can control our own actions and reactions.
There is no reason to believe that a school-age child can't be taught to operate a bike safely.
The National Center for Safe Routes to School can help parents determine if a safe route has been established from their home to their child's school. If one hasn't, the parents are welcomed to get involved and develop one. If there is a route established, its up to the parents to determine if they trust their kids to walk or ride by themselves.
Tomorrow is a great day to determine if your child is ready to bike to school.
While your child's school may not "officially" be participating in the event, nothing is stopping you from mounting your bikes and riding to school together. If a safe route exists and you trust your child's bicycling skills, it should simply be a matter of making it happen. If either of you aren't ready, tomorrow may be a good day to analyze what you need to do to get ready.
Bicycling can provide a child with a number of lasting benefits; physical exercise, appreciation of the outdoors, and personal responsibility, to name but a few. Biking also encourages a child to become self-reliant - a growing concern for parents of Millennials. According to Skenazy;
"Along with kidnapping, parents' most horrifying fear is for a child to fall behind—so they always have some kind of supervised activity, like soccer practice or Mandarin class. We do these thing out of love. But when parents help or supervise you, it's a very different feeling from doing something on your own. Kids end up getting the message: 'We don't believe in you. You can't do it yourself. You'll only be successful if I'm at your side.'"
While there are still many reasons "Why Johnny Can't Ride", don't let yourself be one of them.
If you have or know school-age children, Bike To School Day is a great opportunity to share cycling with them. Its impact has the potential to last a lifetime!
Keep riding and be safe!
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