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Parents aren’t soft for not letting their kids walk to school

Mike Hosking’s latest ‘modern parenting’ whinge is about children not walking to school. Jacquelyn Collins explains exactly why he’s wrong, and why parents are right to be concerned for the safety of their children on the school run.

Mike Hosking is a keen and frequent participant in the popular modern pastime of reminding parents that they’re halfwits, and we’re blessed to have his insights to keep us from getting all cocky about our collective performance.

Yesterday, he’s told us that we’ve all gone soft because, according to an AA survey, very few of us allow our children to walk or cycle to school. Mike, being a man of the people, urges us not to think he’s ‘all high and mighty’ (trust me, Mike, none of us are thinking that about you), because he’s as ‘soft’ as the rest of us and also drives his kids to school.

He, like us, has believed that our children may be at risk from things like strangers and traffic. Gosh, imagine us all being concerned about our children’s welfare! I’m so embarrassed for us.

To prove his point, this 53 year old man does what many of his generation are inclined to do: hark back to their own golden childhoods and conveniently disregard the reasons why you can’t really compare many issues across a 40-year period.

Mike walked or cycled to school every day from the age of five, and nothing bad ever happened to him, so he’s confident that today’s children should also be fine. But he’s wrong, because the world has changed since the 1970s. For starters, our population has grown by more than two million people, increasing the number of cars on our roads.

Also, national journalism standards have slumped, given what passes for insightful commentary on his show.

A few months ago I contributed to a piece of research regarding children’s access to play opportunities in suburban neighbourhoods. As part of that work I explored general attitudes towards ‘independent mobility’, the term to describe kids being allowed to travel unaccompanied.

I read more than 100 studies from around the world, and learned that travelling to school unaccompanied is often a child’s first taste of independent mobility: if they can achieve that safely and competently, they’re more likely to be given freedom to play outside as well.

The studies discussed the parental attitudes and experiences that prevent us all from merrily shoving our young children out the door each morning. These can be summarised as exactly the things Mike totally disregards as ‘soft’ concerns: fear of traffic, and fear of strangers.

‘Stranger danger’ tends to be a slightly irrational fear. Very few children have a scary encounter with strangers on the street, and most young people are more at risk from family members, friends, and acquaintances. But occasionally we do hear reports of weirdos in panel vans parking near schools and accosting unaccompanied kids, so parents shouldn’t be blamed for their concern.

A contributory factor is the gradual erosion of our local sense of community, which – back in Mike’s day, and also when I was growing up in small town New Zealand in the 1980s – ensured that we saw familiar faces throughout our neighbourhoods.

In the 1970s and 1980s people stayed in the same house for much longer, many families had one stay-at-home parent, and kids were actually free to play on their local streets.

Those conditions rarely exist now, and when you can’t be confident of those friendly ‘eyes on the street’ benignly watching out for all kids, it’s not surprising that we’re more fearful about our children’s safety in public.

Several studies discussed parents’ concerns that they’ll be viewed as neglectful if they allow their children to travel anywhere unaccompanied. My sister experienced that: when she tried to teach her eight year old daughter how to walk safely to school in their quiet small town, other parents intervened and tried to help my niece, because it was assumed that something must be wrong if a kid was walking without an adult present.

Parents are judged if they don’t give their children freedom, and may be even more harshly judged if they do.

The biggest issue is surely traffic though. There are more cars on the road and that makes things dangerous for pedestrians.

In 1970, when plucky little Mike started his school commuting career, fewer people meant fewer cars. Car ownership patterns were also different – when I was growing up, many families had only one car. This made for quieter roads, and safer trips to school or pedestrians and cyclists.

Pedestrian crash statistics show that more than 90% of accidents occur on 50 kph roads, and children and older people (who often can’t cross the road quickly) are at greatest risk. Younger children in particular lack the ability to make sound judgements about how fast vehicles are moving, so their ability to scamper across a busy road is often compromised.

Modern kids walking to school are also at risk from cars leaving driveways. The Kiwi passion for subdividing residential sections didn’t really kick in until the early 1970s onwards, and now you’ll struggle to find many full sections left in a lot of Auckland suburbs, in particular. This means there are twice as many driveways crossing the pavement, and twice as many vehicles exiting and entering. The risks are amplified by the predominance of high fencing on many properties, which further reduces driver- and pedestrian-visibility, especially when you’re dealing with small people.

However, the biggest problem is the total lack of recognition that pedestrians and cyclists are also road users, and that they’re not trespassing on motorists’ territory.

My twin five-year-olds walk to school on any day that isn’t raining (and I know that Mike will scoff at my softness, not wanting my young children to sit drenched and shiver through their school day), and I do intend for them to do that unaccompanied in a few years’ time. But before that’s possible, I’m going to need Auckland Transport to put a safe crossing point on a busy road.

It’s classified as a ‘primary collector’, which means that it brings cars from a nearby arterial route and into the local community, and according to New Zealand Transport Agency records it typically carries more than 5,700 cars a day.

It also transects our local school zones, making it a barrier for children’s independent mobility from every angle – but there’s no pedestrian crossing. There isn’t even a crossing island, despite Auckland Transport clearly knowing that cars race down the road (they’re installed one of those LED ‘slow down’ displays).

I figure that I’ll start campaigning now, and with a bit of luck we might have something sorted by the time my kids are old enough to travel independently. And my kids can only walk to school now because, with my husband working full-time and me at uni full-time, we have an au pair to help us out.

If I was a single parent, there’s no way I would be able to walk them to school each day.

If Mike wants us to stop being ‘soft’, he could start by actually supporting the development of widespread pedestrian and cycle infrastructure to make our streets safer. His curious brand of cognitive dissonance, whereby he both criticises the status quo and resolutely resists any attempts to improve things, is becoming so tiresome.

I do think Mike adds value to New Zealand’s journalistic landscape – whenever I need cheering up, I remember his face when the NZ First/Labour coalition government was announced – but he needs to wake up to the fact that we’re not living in the 1970s anymore.

Modern parents make rational decisions about their children’s lives based on the evidence around them. I look forward to Mike advocating to be part of the solution, but mostly I hope this piece has comforted Mike, because I sensed his column was a cry for help: a plea for understanding from a man who acts irrationally by criticising other parents, and can’t explain why. Kia kaha, Mike.

Jacquelyn Collins is an Auckland-based mother of twins studying full-time.

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