Traffic Safety for Little Kids

We live on a quiet street, but just around the block is the main street of our neighborhood, which has lots of traffic, parallel parking along both sides, and lots of intersections where right turns on red are allowed.  Only some of the intersections have traffic lights and walk signals.  There are lots of useful places within walking distance, and the sidewalks are wide, but crossing the street can be risky.  A lot of drivers seem to think the traffic laws don’t apply to them!

When Nicholas began walking, I saw that he already knew (from being carried by a walking parent) to pause on the curb and look around before stepping into the street.  That was very helpful, but it didn’t mean he actually knew how to cross the street safely alone.  By thinking out loud, I taught him what we look for when we pause on the curb and how we decide when it’s safe to walk.  But informed decision-making ability isn’t the only thing you need to be safe.

In addition to looking out for your own safety, you need to be visible to drivers so that, if they go in a direction you didn’t expect and you’re in their way, they can see you and stop!  That idea got through to Nicholas just fine.  What he didn’t understand was that sometimes drivers could not see him.  Struggling with that concept is perfectly normal for a preoperational child, who is still learning that what he sees is not the same as what other people can see, and who is so certain of his own importance that the idea of being invisible seems silly.  But it is possible to teach him how this can be!

Of course, I started by explaining, many times, that Nicholas needs to stay close to me because I am tall and the drivers can see me even if they can’t see him.  Around the time he turned three, though, he became less willing to stick right next to me and follow my cues; he wanted to make decisions and take charge!  But he often started to step into the street without me, and I’d have to pull him back.  He kept arguing, “The cars can TOO see me!”  He may have been thinking their headlights were eyes. 🙂  He needed a clear, experiential demonstration at a time when he could think about it–not in the middle of a stimulating journey.

We did this on our street where cars are parallel parked.  First I explained that a car does not make any decisions; the driver does all the deciding about where the car will go.  Standing far back on the sidewalk, we both could see the driver’s headrest in our car, and we agreed that that’s where the driver’s eyes would be and that if you can’t see a person’s eyes, she can’t see you.  Then we stepped into the street between our car and the one in front.  Nicholas found that he could not see the headrest; thus, when he was right in front of a car, the driver could not see him.  I waited a minute to let this reality sink in.  Then I told him that I could see the headrest; I held him up to my height, and he agreed that the driver could see me.  Then I lowered him slowly to find the lowest point at which he could see the headrest; that’s how tall he would have to be before he’d be able to cross the street alone.

After this lesson, Nicholas understood the situation much better.  He still ran ahead of me sometimes, but he no longer attempted to cross a street or driveway before I caught up.

We still had occasional problems when he would stop in the middle of the street to look at something.  I prefer to hold his hand or keep a hand lightly on his shoulder so that I can feel if he’s lagging behind, but he isn’t always in the mood for that and will shake loose.  I found that the best response to dangerous dawdling was to rush back and get him, with some fuss about how worried I am that he could get hit . . . and then to tell several people about it in front of him: “Oh, we had a scary moment yesterday!  We were crossing Fifth Avenue, and Nicholas wouldn’t hold my hand, and when I got to the other side I realized he wasn’t with me; he was standing in the middle of the street, looking at the clouds, as if he had never HEARD of cars! And the light was changing! And he was right in front of a humongous truck!!”  Hearing me tell it from my point of view and seeing other people’s reactions really gets through to him.  He’s also heard my stories of the three times I was hit by cars (two inattentive drivers drifting into crosswalks, and one car skidding on ice) to reinforce the understanding that cars are dangerous even when you are tall enough and following all the rules.  I don’t want him to be frightened ever to leave the house, but I want him to feel a healthy fear of cars so that he is very cautious.

Nicholas is six-and-a-half now and tall for his age.  Last winter, I sat in the driver’s seat of my car while he stood right in front of it, and I could see him well.  We agreed that he is tall enough to cross the street alone.  That doesn’t mean he now wanders the city alone or routinely crosses by himself instead of waiting for his companions–it just means that he can sometimes take a short walk that involves crossing a less-busy street, to begin practicing for the time when he’ll be walking everywhere on his own.

Then he wanted to walk around the block by himself.  That doesn’t involve crossing any streets, but on one corner of the block is a busy gas station with three driveways, with cars turning both left and right into all of them as well as driving out of them.  It is a nerve-wracking place to navigate even as an adult, whether walking or driving!

However, our many walks around the block together had shown Nicholas that these driveways required extra caution.  Our many visits to that gas station in our car had shown him that drivers have a hard time getting through there without bumping each other, so drivers may be frustrated and distracted and have little attention to spare for pedestrians.  We reviewed these specific issues as we walked around the block together, discussing in detail how to evaluate our safety at each point.  Both parents also remind Nicholas, every time he walks around the block alone, that he must not stop and play anywhere but come promptly back home and tell us as soon as he gets back.

The first time Nicholas walked around the block by himself, I watched him from our back yard.  (We live on a cliff, so the parking lot behind our house is about three stories lower.  Through our back fence, we have a clear view of the parking lot and two of the gas station’s driveways.)  It seemed like a very long time that he was out of sight.  Finally I saw my little boy down there on the sidewalk, so far away!  We waved to each other.  I watched him navigate the driveways . . . and he was about 50% more cautious than I would have been!  I even saw him gallantly making an “after you” gesture to a driver to get her to go ahead and turn rather than letting him cross.  He noted the presence of a car waiting to turn left into a driveway and patiently waited for it to do that before he would cross–even though there were cars coming the other way that blocked the left turn, Nicholas was taking no chances.  I was very relieved.  When he moved out of sight around the corner, I was no longer worried about his ability to cross that third driveway.  I went around to the front yard to give him a hero’s welcome.

That’s what worked for me! I’m going to share these ideas with The Mommy Club.

9 thoughts on “Traffic Safety for Little Kids

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    • Forever?

      As a mom, I believe it is my job to teach my child the skills he will need as an adult and to give him opportunities to practice those skills as he becomes able. I would rather he cross the streets along with me when we are walking together–since that is more polite than walking ahead of or lagging behind your companions–but it is important that he learn how to do it for himself.

      I reread my article and realized it might sound as if, when we decided Nicholas was tall enough to cross streets alone, we started letting him do it all the time. That’s not true. I added some clarification.

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