I’ve been terrified to let my kids walk to school by themselves.
I’m having a really hard time coming to terms with the fact that technically, my two eldest children are old enough to make the trip to school without me. I walk all three of my kids to school everyday, but lately, I’ve sent the two oldest out the door a couple minutes ahead of me to allow them to feel a little independence.
It’s really silly on the surface, because although it’s a 15-20 minute walk, we live in the suburbs, and they only have to cross one busy street outside of our neighbourhood to get to school. It’s not the fear of getting hurt that worries me, or even running into trouble with other kids – it’s the fear of one of them not making it to school one day.
I grew up under the dark cloud of Paul Bernardo. Girls just a few years older than me had been kidnapped and their bodies discovered in the cities surrounding mine. It was terrifying at 12 and 13 years old to wait alone, far from home, for my school bus everyday. Only a year or so before, my family had moved from a rural area to the city, so it was a real crash-course in street smarts for me.
The overwhelming majority of days passed without incident. There was a creepy old man who walked by me every morning, who would stop dead in his tracks, slowly turn to face me and start talking about seagulls. The repetition of his behaviour over time let me know that he was harmless.
Sometimes, a group of kids would walk by and one of them would say, “What are you looking at?”, to which I would quickly look away, hoping they would just continue on.
One time, I was slightly hit by a car as it was making a right and I was in the crosswalk. It was my turn to cross, but I guess the driver didn’t see me and was about to make a turn. The car hit me hard enough in the leg that it knocked me over, but I weighed 58 pound in grade six, so a strong wind could have done the same thing. I popped back up really quickly and continued on my way. Everyone stopped to get out of their cars to ask if I was okay, but I remember just feeling embarrassed and wanting to get out of there. I don’t think I even mentioned that story to my mom.
The most frightening of times, and the one that has stayed with me, was right at the height of the search for Paul Bernardo, before they knew who they were looking for. It’s all anyone was talking about – including all the girls at school.
There I was, standing alone at the bus stop. It stood on a long laneway which ran parallel to several backyards. It was early enough that the businesses across the street wouldn’t be open for at least another hour.
I don’t remember exactly what was said, but my attention was drawn to my immediate right. Standing about six feet away from me in one of the backyards, was a man staring right at me, gripping the fence with one hand and pleasuring himself with the other.
I knew for certain that this man didn’t belong in that yard because I had waited there every school day for three years by this point, and had never seen him. I was absolutely convinced that it was the kidnapper that everyone was looking for. I stood there paralyzed by fear. I couldn’t go anywhere for help. There wasn’t another soul in sight and in my juvenile mind, if I left I would miss my school bus! I didn’t have any money to take a the city bus back home anyway. So all I could do was close my eyes, turn away from him and hope that someone would drive by and see him.
I had never felt so much relief as I did when my school bus finally arrived. I remember that once I got on, I immediately burst into tears. I was sobbing, trying to explain to my friends what had just happened. I really thought that I was going to get kidnapped that day and I couldn’t pull myself together.
By the time we got to school and I had settled, I went to class, but was called down to the office shortly after. My bus driver had overheard me telling my friends what had happened and told the principal. They had called my parents, my dad had left work and was on his way to come get me. It was more serious than I had ever imagined, because my dad never left work in the middle of the day. We drove to the police station where I had to give a description of the man and fill out a police report.
It wasn’t Bernardo. And I doubt this particular man was ever caught, but I never saw him again. To this day I have a heightened sense of fear anytime a man looks at me for too long.
So….that’s how I frame the idea of letting my kids walk to school without me. So far, I’m only comfortable allowing them to walk a street-length ahead with me and my youngest trailing behind. The first few times, I would hold my breath when they would turn a corner and be out of sight for a few minutes. Now, I’m a little more confident that they’ll still be there by the time I catch up.
I promise you that I’m not so paranoid in every area of their lives. I allow them plenty of space to make their own mistakes, get hurt, make decisions for themselves and resolve independently.
I’ve had a gazillion conversations with them about strangers and not-so-strangers; about road safety and confrontation with other kids. My daughter usually rolls her eyes at me and says, “I know Mommy!” in exasperation. My son still listens eagerly, taking stock that he knows all the rules by heart.
I know I have to let them feel independent and use their own problem-solving skills. I am well aware that the experiences that I had are so very rare in the big scheme of things and very unlikely to happen to them. I also know that I was pretty street smart because I had to face those situations on my own. On the other hand, I think of the tragedy of poor little Victoria Stafford.
As old as this is going to make me sound: it’s a different world out there today. It’s hard to imagine that I can’t always be there to keep them safe. I guess I can only hope that I’ve given them the proper tools to be able to deal with any situation that they are faced with and be careful to ensure that they don’t inherit my paranoia.
How do you avoid being an overly-cautious parent?