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Why Car Lines Shouldn't Exist
Why car line culture is terrible for kids and families, why mom-shaming is a real problem, and how to end this madness.
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Hello fellow Bar-Setters!
Last week I gave a presentation at an intermediate school (5th and 6th grade) located directly across the street from the high-school where I work. Given its proximity, I decided to walk there. But as I approached the street (four busy lanes of traffic—two going in each direction), I was shocked to find that there was no sidewalk in front of the school. There was a sidewalk on my side of the street and a crosswalk a bit further down. But it appeared as if the school was built with an expectation that there would be very little foot traffic.
That intuition was confirmed a few days later when I returned to the school to speak to the parents of next year’s incoming 5th grade class. Before I spoke, the principal went through a what to expect next year presentation. Among other things, she warned parents about the long lines they could expect at drop off and pick up. But these parents—savvy vets of the elementary car line experience—appeared completely unsurprised and unphased.
School car lines have become a central feature of the American parenting experience. Long lines weaving around schools in a very specific pattern. Mess with that pattern and the entire line comes to a screeching, angry halt.
The car line is a truly soul-sucking way to begin and end your day. It encompasses much of what is wrong in the modern youth development paradigm. AND it is a norm that can and should go extinct as soon as humanly possible.
Allow me to make my case…
The Land Before Lines
Dearest Millennials, Gen Xers, and Boomers, search your own recollections. Do you have any childhood memories of yourself sitting in rigidly structured car lines waiting to be dropped off for school? The answer is almost certainly: no.
Norms like car line pickup often feel as if they are the only way a society could do things. But there was a beginning of the car line and it was more recent than you think. For decades upon decades—even into the early 2000s—car lines were not normal. They were not even a thing. So how did society function?
According to Blue Zones, “Thirty years ago, almost 60% of children living within 2-miles from their school walked or biked to and from school; today, that number is less than 15%.” Those who didn’t walk or who lived further away likely found communal, self-dependent ways to transport themselves to school, like walking to the bus stop. I’m sure it was different everywhere, but the school transportation in my own upbringing looked like this:
Grades K-2: A bus picked me up and took me to elementary school in Clarksville, TN.
Grades 2-5: I moved to the University City neighborhood of St. Louis. There, I walked or bicycled about ¾ of a mile to school each day, as did all my friends. Often we walked to the park after school before heading home. None of us had any way of calling our parents to let them know we’d be home later. Somehow, that was just fine.
Grade 6: I moved to O’Fallon, IL. (a middle to upper-middle class suburb of St. Louis). No bus ran in my neighborhood (1.5 miles from school), so neighborhood parents set up a car pool rotation. We were dropped off a few blocks away so that parents could avoid any traffic. After school, we walked home.
Grades 7-8: I walked about ¾ mile to my designated bus stop.
Grades 9-10: My high-school was about 2 miles from my house. No bus, though (which is ridiculous), so I either drove to school each day with my older brother or was dropped off by my friend’s parents. I distinctly remember my parents complaining about how I expected them to drive me to school. A new and foreign social pressure was brewing. Still, no car lines, though.
Grades 11-12: I drove myself to school.
To summarize, in elementary, I either rode the bus, biked, or walked; in intermediate, I car-pooled and was let out a couple streets away; and in junior high I walked to the bus stop and rode the bus. These experiences were characteristic of the 90s and early 2000s. In fact, until recently, one of the chief characteristics of the American childhood was that you and your friends would walk and bike all over town. From an early age, kids were freed to walk to their friends’ houses, to local stores, or to the park. That was normal.
Don’t believe me? A prominent 1981 human development text, included a 12 question Is Your Child Ready for First Grade checklist. This was number eight:
8. Can he travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to store, school, playground, or to a friend's home?
As recently as 1981, parents not only allowed their first-graders to explore the neighborhood on their own, they demanded it. They saw it as a developmental necessity. So, what changed?
So, What Changed?
The typical response to that question is:
Times were different back then…
The world was safer….
Or, perhaps: Our parents just didn’t know any better.
But this simply is not true…
Crime rates of almost every kind have declined consistently since the early 90s when I began riding the bus to kindergarten. There was a mild uptick in crime following the Covid-19 lockdowns but, with very few exceptions, that increase did not last and it never even approached the already low crime rates of the 2000s.
Crime is down, but public perception is that crime is worse. This misperception of reality is rooted in the 1980s when cable television became normal. Suddenly the news was not just a public service offered once per day. It was big business. Media companies had to figure out how they would attract eyeballs all day. According to Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s The Coddling of the American Mind, a couple of high profile kidnapping cases captured the nation’s attention around this time. By the 1990s we were seeing missing children on milk cartons, pizza boxes, and everywhere else and then turning on the news to hear about other heinous crimes around the country. Gradually this warped our capacity for risk analysis and our concept of what was normal.
People seem to believe that the risk of abduction, in particular, is a greater risk than ever before. This is just not true. Missing persons cases have always been very rare and they may be less common than ever.
In the rare instances where a child is taken, it is almost always by a family member or a friend of the family. Such threats garner a lot of attention, but they are mostly a distraction from far more pressing concerns. As mother and author Kim Brooks writes in her book, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear:
“We read, in the news or on social media, about children who have been kidnapped, raped and killed, about children forgotten for hours in broiling cars. We do not think about the statistical probabilities or compare the likelihood of such events with far more present dangers, like increasing rates of childhood diabetes or depression (Bolding is mine. We will get back to this.). Statistically speaking… you would have to leave a child alone in a public place for 750,000 years before he would be snatched by a stranger. Statistically speaking, a child is far more likely to be killed in a car on the way to a store than waiting in one that is parked. But we have decided such reasoning is beside the point. We have decided to do whatever we have to do to feel safe from such horrors, no matter how rare they might be.”
When you consider all the trackable GPS devices we could strap to our children, all the flashing wearable gizmos we could dress them in, and the broad web of bored, neurotic adults who are anxiously scanning their neighborhoods for any possible threat, it seems likely that there has never been a safer time for children to transport themselves to school.
The world hasn’t gotten less safe. We’re just saturated in shock-focused media that leads us to believe it has. But it’s more than just media sensationalization. We’re also saturated in a parenting culture that tells parents, especially mothers, that they should monitor, plan, and smooth-over every moment of their child’s life.
Shame the Mothers
Much more than fear, culture is our problem. Cognitive scientist Dr. Barbara Sarnecka and her colleagues at the University of California Irvine demonstrated this elegantly in a recent study where they presented subjects with different scenarios where people were asked to estimate the amount of danger a child was in:
Sometimes the subjects were told the child was left unintentionally (for example, the parent was hit by a car). In other instances, they were told the child was left unsupervised so the parent could work, volunteer, relax or meet a lover. The researchers found that the participants’ assessment of the child’s risk of harm varied depending on how morally offensive they found the parent’s reason for leaving (bolding is mine).
More surprising, still, the researchers found that subjects seemed to believe that children were at a lower risk when fathers left them unattended than when mothers did. In other words, we are less likely to see anything wrong with a father letting his kids play outside while he works than with a mother who does the same. Cognitive bias is a hell of a thing.
It seems that this isn’t necessarily about risk so much as it is about judgment. Or as Dr. Sarneka put it, “It’s not about safety. It’s about enforcing a social norm.”
There is something in the water that has us convinced that mothers must go to the ends of the earth to keep their children from any potential for harm. Mothers feel a very real pressure to avoid the perception that they haven’t taken every possible pain to protect their children from harm. Because, as every mother knows, there is no shortage of other mothers chomping at the bit to judge moms when they allow their kids to explore the neighborhood on their own, to go outside without enough warm clothes, or to rough house without their constant redirection. As one mother told Kim Brooks, “I don’t know if I’m afraid for my kids, or if I’m afraid other people will be afraid and will judge me for my lack of fear.”
And that weird combination of unfounded fear and a founded fear of judgment explains much of our current car line culture. It explains why our kids aren’t granted the same respect, freedom, and opportunities for personal growth that we all were.
This isn’t just wrong to do to mothers. It is terrible for our children…
Choosing Better Fears
Many people will say that they don’t care about risk analysis. They’ll hear my argument and say something like, “I know you have all sorts of statistics, but I just couldn’t live with myself if anything ever happened to my kids.”
On an emotional level, I really do understand this. The thought of my kids falling victim to some monster is too much to bear. But there are two major problems with letting those fears dictate parenting norms:
I can’t emphasize this enough. There is a risk to every decision that we make. For example, your children are at a far greater risk in the time they spend driving to the store with you than they would be if you left them in your car with the windows down while you went inside. They’re at a far greater risk with you, road-tripping to the beach on a holiday weekend than they’d be walking to the park to play on their own. And there is nothing happening in my town that is more dangerous than the way high school students drive around our high school campuses. The worst offenders, by far, are the overgrown boys who have never developed a sense of personal responsibility but whose parents have now equipped them with a brand new Camaro.
The point is, there is no way to eliminate every risk and there would be giant costs to trying to do so. We’ve all made peace with the reality that some behaviors come with inherent risks. However, we are often very illogical about what risks we choose to accept. Which brings us to the second point…
By allowing ourselves to parent by emotion rather than reason, we open our kids up to a host of far more likely risks which are currently ravaging our children.
For example, according to Dr. Jonathan Haidt:
“The terrible mental health of Gen Z is caused by two factors. One is the vast overprotection. Kids need to practice independence—self-governance. From the time they are 7 or 8 they need independence, but they don’t get it any more… Kids must have free range childhoods. They must practice independence. And they had that before the 90s.”
The second major cause, according to Haidt, is social media. Kids are at a far greater risk of mental health disorder if you allow them to get a smartphone too early or to spend more than an hour online each day.
We’re seeing unprecedented rates of depression, anxiety, loneliness, and suicide among our younger generations. Despite this, most parents will give their child a smartphone when they are 10. Why? Because it is more convenient to get them a smartphone than a flip phone (AT&T will prod you to add another line for like $4), and this is what is normal.
Similarly, if you raise your kids on processed convenience food, as most Americans do, they are at a far greater risk of dying young. They are, also, far more likely to spend decades battling lethargy, diet confusion, lost movement capacity, lack of confidence, and all the other physical and mental pains that almost always accompany our current eating norms. And these risks are greater still if you allow your kids to participate in the typical sedentary, screen-saturated American lifestyle.
The typical childhood norms—being overprotected, saturated in screens, and subsisting on processed industrial foods—are far more likely to have damaging long term effects on our children than walking to school. Walking or biking to school would empower our children to develop greater self-governance and it would promote far more movement for this the most sedentary generation in human history.
As I expressed in the first point, there is a risk in every decision that we make, including the decision to not allow our kids to transport themselves to and from school.
Your Mission: Creating a Certain Kind of Person…
As usual, our problems mostly stem from a lack of clarity about the goals of parenting. Parenting has to start with a vision. You are trying to create a certain kind of person—someone who will contribute and make the world a better place; someone who is capable and confident in their capacity to weather a chaotic, unpredictable world; someone who takes responsibility for themselves and their community, who can rise to the occasion when the moment calls for it, and who will fight for what they believe in.
When we lose sight of our responsibility to turn our kids into admirable, contribution-oriented citizens, it is easy to fall into our current parenting norms—to spoil kids, wait on them hand and foot, and protect them from every potential pain.
The case for ending car lines is pretty cut and dry. Our children are far more capable than we’ve allowed them to be. We are starving them of the most important developmental lessons. We are stripping them of the experiences that would activate future interests and empower them to take on future adventures. As the psychologist Dr. Peter Gray explains in his book Free to Learn:
“Nothing that we do, no amount of toys we buy or “quality time” or special training we give our children, can compensate for the freedom we take away. The things that children learn through their own initiatives, in free play, cannot be taught in other ways.”
It is scary to let our children start to go off on their own! But that fear has to be balanced against how necessary it is for their own development.
Our kids need to develop a greater sense of personal responsibility, agency, and confidence in their ability to navigate the world…
They need to expect less concierging from the adults around them…
And they need to be expected to do more problem-solving on their own behalf.
Making our children responsible for their own school transportation is their first step towards becoming a capable, respectable adult. Let’s not forget that this is the point of parenting.
One Last Concession
There is one glaring oversight in my argument thus far…
In the past 15 years, more pedestrians and drivers are staring at their phones. Consequently, more people are getting hit by cars. This is a legitimate concern. It’s an even bigger concern if you live in a town like mine.
I began with a story about how an intermediate school did not even have a sidewalk in front of it. For some reason, my town does this sort of thing a lot. Where I grew up, every house had a sidewalk in front of it. But here in Mansfield, Texas only busy streets get a sidewalk and, even then, they are doled out sparingly and with random gaps.
This is unfortunate, but our children are still capable of much more than most parents allow. Pedestrian fatalities have gone up, but only to about where they were in the early 90s. If your children aren’t distracted by a smartphone, they are walking with other children, and they know to step out of the road when cars approach (which is more than runners and bikers do), the risks are low.
Every situation will be different, but we have to weigh the risks against the importance of teaching our children to govern their own lives.
As early as they are capable, we should expect students to:
Pack their own lunch
Wake themselves up with an alarm clock
Prepare their own breakfast
Dress themselves and brush their teeth
And transport themselves to school on their own
These expectations empower our kids and communicate important lessons about what it means to become an adult.
As early as we can make them ready, we should progressively put our children in charge of transporting themselves to school. That could mean riding the bus to school, or it could mean biking or walking to school. It certainly means that our kids don’t need to be hand-delivered to an adult at the door!
At the very least, please avoid the car line by letting your children off across the street and letting them walk the rest of the way. You can even watch them all the way to the door if you like. But they need this independence and you deserve it too.
If you agree that we should be trying to make kids more responsible for their own school transportation, then there is plenty that you can do.
Share this article with local parents and help your kids create a group of other kids who are walking or biking to school
Contact your school to see about making walking or biking groups
Contact your school board to discuss creating more access to bus routes
Contact your local government to see how you can make your town more walkable and bikeable. Fort Worth, Texas recently committed to doing this and they’ve seen dramatic community benefits.
Go to letgrow.com to learn more and get access to their legislative toolkit for changing local policy
Let’s do whatever it takes to make car line culture a thing of the past. Our kids deserve this freedom and empowerment!
Thank you very much for reading and sharing with any kindred spirits!
Carry the fire!
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