Lydia is eleven months old. Yesterday, we spent some time enjoying the beautiful spring weather in our small front yard. Lydia studied the flowers. She picked up dead leaves (functioning as mulch) and examined their lacy skeletons. She gleefully wiggled her arms amid the arching green leaves of the daylilies coming up between our sidewalk and the neighbors’, and she pulled on some leaves to assess their strength and find the tearing point.
She also spent lots of time sitting or crawling on the sidewalk in front of our yard, soaking up sunshine, saying, “Hi!” to all passersby. She toddled along next to our neighbors’ retaining wall, which is just the right height to lean her hands on. Then she ventured across the sidewalk, looked over the curb, and began to reach for an interesting pebble in the gutter.
I said, “No!” and pulled her back. She looked surprised. But just then–perfect timing!–a car came rumbling along our brick-paved street. “Stay out of the street. The street is for cars,” I told her. I pointed to the passing vehicle. “Cars are big and fast. We stay out of their way.” She leaned over the curb again. “No, the street is not for you. The street is for cars. The sidewalk is for people. Stay on the sidewalk.”
I’m going to have to repeat this lesson a zillion times before she really understands–so let’s get started! It’s complicated: The street is for cars, but when people get into cars we have to step into the street to get there. The street is for cars, but people can walk across streets, following safety rules. Lydia will have to learn that she can’t go into the street alone but can go with a taller person. I know how to explain that. But for now, I started with the lesson relevant to the present situation: Play on the sidewalk, not in the street. A few repetitions did the trick for yesterday. We’ll tell her again next time she approaches the curb.
Her big brother Nicholas was this age in the wintertime. When he began walking on the sidewalk that spring, at 15 months old, I saw that he already understood that we stop at the curb and look around. This gave me plenty of opportunity to explain what we are looking for and that small people need to wait for a tall person before going into the street. Lydia is younger and probably will need more reminders at first, but we expect that she’ll learn the same skills Nicholas did, on about the same timetable. Here’s some more about how Nicholas learned to walk safely in a wider area; I wrote that when he was 8. He’s 10 now and allowed to walk everywhere in our neighborhood business district, as long as we know where he’s going and by what time he’ll be back. We can even send him to the grocery store!
Nicholas was almost 2 years old when he and I spent a day with two other little boys the same age and their mothers. We went to the zoo, then drove to a shopping plaza to have lunch in a restaurant. All of us mothers did the same thing in the zoo, where there’s no traffic: The boys walked around as they liked, and we were always within about 15 feet of them and keeping them in sight. But as Nicholas and I walked from our car to the restaurant where the others were standing outside, I could see that the other moms were shocked that I was letting him walk in the parking lot of the shopping plaza. He was holding my hand, but, it’s true, he could have pulled away suddenly and darted out in front of a car. I just knew that he wouldn’t–in more than six months of walking in the neighborhood and in parking lots, he’d never done anything remotely like that, so it was as unlikely as his suddenly deciding to stab a fork into his eye during lunch. When we all left the restaurant together, the other moms scooped up their boys, saying, “You need to be carried in the parking lot.” My first instinct was judgmental: Their kids have to be carried because they haven’t taught them properly! But I quickly reminded myself that different kids have different skills; Nicholas has always been very observant and had unusually good impulse control for his age. Reflecting on it some more, I realized that those families live in less walkable areas and that those boys were going to and from childcare by car instead of by public transit; their day-to-day lives involved fewer opportunities to practice walking safely near traffic.
I’m grateful that my kids are growing up in a place where we can walk or take public transit to a lot of destinations. However, it’s also a place with heavy traffic, narrow streets with on-street parking that obstructs visibility, and more rule-bending drivers than I’d like. Cars and trucks and buses are a major, daily threat to my children’s safety, and I worry about that a lot! But rather than “protect” them by hanging onto them all the time, I want to make them safer by teaching them how to protect themselves, starting as early as possible. It works for me!