What Happened When I Asked My Kids to Bike to School

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Michelle Millet lives in Davis, CA with her husband, two kids and…some bikes:

Riding to School All On Their Own by Michelle Millet

In August, with my daughter entering sixth grade and my son entering third, I decided this would be the year my kids started to make the 2-mile bike ride from our house to their elementary school, all on their own.

A neighbor, learning about my plan, asked if his 5th grade daughter could ride with them. Great, I said, and we made plans for the kids to meet on the bike path at 8 a.m. every day.

Not being a “morning person” — and I don’t say this lightly, I consider having to wake up anytime before 10 a.m. early — I was excited about the idea of not having to ride with my kids at this outrageously early hour.

I was also happy with the prospect of avoiding the before-school traffic congestion I faced on the days when I was unable to get them out the door in time to ride bikes, which, to be completely honest, happened more often than not, despite my regular resolutions that this was going to be the week, the month, the year, that we biked to school more often than we drove.

Bracing for the Whining

While I looked forward to waving goodbye to them every morning from the comfort of my house, rather than the front seat of my minivan, I did brace myself for the complaints I assumed would start coming, which generally followed my past attempts to make biking our regular mode of transportation to and from school.

Little did I know how wrong I was about this, and how much better my life, specifically my mornings, were about to get.

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It started a few days after my kids began to ride to school without me. (I rode with them the first week, drilling them about the route and potential hazards they might face.)

Before my eyes, which ultimately would get to remain closed, my kids, who use to have to be nagged to do everything in the morning — from putting on their shoes to packing their backpacks — became completely self-reliant.

My daughter took on the responsibility of waking up my son. They started making their own breakfast, they packed their lunches, they found their own shoes and they put them on without having to be asked. And, most amazingly, they did something I was never able to do: They got themselves ready and out the door at 8 a.m. every day, all on their own.

A Shocking Change

It was a morning in early September when I realized how different my life was going to be from here on out. I woke at 7:45 to the sound of my daughter yelling to her brother, “Drew you need to wake up, we have to be ready in 15 minutes.” I pulled the covers in tight, figuring I’d enjoy the last few minutes in bed before my kids stampeded into my room with frantic requests for help getting ready, while planning the text I soon would be sending to my neighbor, letting him know that we overslept and were going to have to drive today.

To my surprise, my door never opened. I listened, from the comfort of my bed, to the sound of the water running in the bathroom, to feet running down the stairs, to the cupboard door opening and closing, and lastly to the sound of the garage door opening.

As I heard my kids’ voices while they exited out our back gate, I looked at the clock: It was 7:58. They had gotten themselves ready for school in 13 minutes, all on their own.

Something to Consider If You’re Tired

As of this writing, I’m the most well-rested I’ve been in my entire life. With the exception of picture day (my daughter, not wanting the hairstyle she worked so hard on messed up, asked me to drive her, and I, accepting the fact that I was now the parent of a tween, agreed to do so), my kids have ridden their bikes to school every day, without complaint.

I was aware of the environmental, health and educational benefits that came along with the decision to have my kids ride to school. (Kids who exercise before school learn better.)

What I was unaware of was the self-reliance and self-confidence this act of independence would foster. And as much I’m enjoying staying up late to watch my favorite shows, I’m sleeping more soundly in the morning with the knowledge that my kids know they can face some of the challenges life will throw at them, all on their own.

Author and mom Michelle Millet lives with her husband and two increasingly self-reliant children in Davis CA. She serves as the Vice-Chair of the Natural Resource Commission, and is on the boards of Davis Bicycles!, a local bike advocacy group, and The Explorit Science Center.

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Guess what happens when your kid bike to school? (No, you do not get a professional makeover.)

Guess what happens when your kid bike to school? (No, you do not get a professional makeover and go to fake-sleep in your false eyelashes. Guess again.)

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32 Responses to What Happened When I Asked My Kids to Bike to School

  1. Brad December 23, 2015 at 9:00 am #

    Your blog talks a lot about having kids take care of themselves, but don’t forget how they learn it: by watching parents take care of themselves. This story is one example; others include chores, not throwing adult temper tantrums, and letting kids solve their own problems. Using these techniques improves the lives of both kids and parents.

  2. lollipoplover December 23, 2015 at 9:26 am #

    “Before my eyes, which ultimately would get to remain closed, my kids, who use to have to be nagged to do everything in the morning — from putting on their shoes to packing their backpacks — became completely self-reliant.”

    I could have written this myself. I also have bikers who are self-reliant, pack their own lunches and school supplies and get out the door without needing any assistance. Our mornings are peaceful and lovely. All of them are great students and I enjoy parenting them-they make it easy. I had to help my son with his tie this morning but like the author, I also feel like I’m getting the best sleep and that I’m not stressing out and obsessing over my kids. They actually do a better job than I do!

    My 9 year-old’s newest obsession is weather (and radar). They have to adapt to weather conditions when they bike (they will walk if it is slippery or downpours). Each morning our house phone rings with calls and these kids discussing percentage chance of rain or thunderstorms and forecasts they get off their parent’s phones. They learn science and weather patterns out of necessity and enjoy it, too.

  3. Anna December 23, 2015 at 10:04 am #

    I’ve seen this, though in my family the change went the other way, sadly. My older siblings and I walked to school, and it was always 100% our responsibility to get up, get dressed, make our lunches, and be out the door on time. My mom would be up, but being NOT a morning person, she was generally pretty groggy. For some reason, we thought it would be so humiliating to have to go to the principal’s office and get a “late slip” that we were never ever late.

    My younger siblings, for various reasons, switched to a different school and needed a ride to get there. Getting them out the door became 100% my parents’ problem – there was daily nagging, wheedling, pushing, and the kids arrived late to school nearly every day.

    As a teacher in a private school where most kids were driven, I saw the same thing: there was just no hope of starting school on time because the kids could always blame their parents if they were late, so there couldn’t be any consequences.

  4. Gina December 23, 2015 at 10:56 am #

    I’ve noticed that when I become busy in another area of the house, our mornings are much easier. I’ll put breakfast on the table, then leave the rest of the routine to the kids. I don’t know if it’s all smooth sailing, but does it matter? They are ready for school with time left to play. The other day we all left and I realized I hadn’t secretly checked to see if my notoriously forgetful 8-year-old had remembered to put anything in his lunchbox, nor had I checked the stove to see if my 10-year-old had remembered to turn it off. I went about my day, and later found out that yes, the stove was off, and the eight-year-old admitted to only packing about half a lunch–but he was fine, he just finished eating when he got home. There are many times when they do so much better without me. It takes practice to get to this point but the older they get, and the more I step back, the more I realize that we’ve arrived.

  5. That_Susan December 23, 2015 at 12:50 pm #

    This is awesome! What’s so funny is that I have a feeling that, were it posted at a more mainstream site, people would be bashing the mother for enjoying the extra sleep.

  6. Linda December 23, 2015 at 1:05 pm #

    This story is fantastic. It’s true, responsibility breeds self-reliance.

    I’m loving all the positive posts! It’s a good mix lately, Lenore. Thank you.

  7. steve December 23, 2015 at 1:30 pm #

    Great Story…

    Give your kids responsibility for their own actions ( don’t bail them out) and they will succeed.

    ————

    On the other hand:

    “How to raise a juvenile delinquent,” is a list of points to take into consideration if you haven’t seen it before. This list have been around for years, but it’s worth thinking about if you’re a young parent.

    ————

    1. Begin at infancy to give your child everything they want. In this way the child grows up believing that the world owes them something.

    2. When they pick up bad words laugh at them. This will make them think they are cute and encourage them to pick up cuter phrases that will blow your mind.

    3. Never give them any spiritual training. Let them wait until they are 21 and let them decide for themselves.

    4. Avoid using the word “wrong”. It may develop a guilt complex. This will condition them to believe later, when they are arrested for stealing a car, that society is against them and they are being persecuted.

    5. Pick up all they leave lying around the house – books, shoes, clothing. Do everything for them so they will be experienced in throwing all responsibility to someone else.

    6. Let them read any printed matter they can get their hands on. Be sure to sterilize the silverware and plates and dishes, but let their minds feast on all kinds of garbage. (Let’s add the internet, video games, and TV/movies to bring this up to the 21st century.)

    7. Quarrel frequently in the presence of your children. And that way they will not be shocked when the home breaks up later.

    8. Give the child all the spending money they want. And never let them earn their own. Why should they have it as tough as we had it?

    9. Satisfy their every craving for food, drink, and sensual pursuits. See that all their desires are gratified. Denial may lead to harmful frustrations.

    10. Always take your child’s side against the neighbors, teachers, and police. They are all prejudiced against your child.

    11. When they get into real trouble, apologize for yourself by saying, “I never could do anything with them.”

    12. Prepare yourself for a life of grief. For you probably will have it.

  8. Jason December 23, 2015 at 1:48 pm #

    I thought bike riding was legally mandated in Davis, and you could get in trouble for taking the kids to school in the Prius, instead.

  9. Dee December 23, 2015 at 2:03 pm #

    Wow, that’s great! I agree with the mom that 10am is early…unfortunately my boss disagrees. So I’m up and maybe I’m the hindrance in the morning! 😉

    She is also lucky to be in Davis, which is one of the capitals of smart growth and a human-focused built environment. Kudos!

  10. Yocheved December 23, 2015 at 2:24 pm #

    Steve, love that list! It’s so true. My parents made a lot of those mistakes with me, and it took me quite a while to straighten myself out. I could have been spared a lot of very painful life lessons if I had learned to be responsible earlier on.

    I have a high functioning special needs kid. She will melt down every. single. morning. if she has an “audience”. I wake her up, and then go right back to sleep, or at least fake being asleep. If I do that, she will get herself ready, get her bike,and be in school on time. If she has someone who will listen to her complaining, she can drag it out for hours, and get herself worked up into a full blown tantrum. My husband has strict orders to not talk to her in the morning, or else face my wrath! It’s for her own good.

  11. James Pollock December 23, 2015 at 2:31 pm #

    “3. Never give them any spiritual training. Let them wait until they are 21 and let them decide for themselves.”
    I disagree with your condemnation of this one. I won’t indoctrinate children and I look down on religions that feel they should. Children will learn by example if the parents are virtuous, and they will learn by example of the parents are not virtuous. That covers everything.

    “6. Let them read any printed matter they can get their hands on.”
    This one, too, although for a different reason. If you’ve raised them properly, they will reject the things they should reject without needing your censorship to put them on the right path.

  12. Vaughan Evans December 23, 2015 at 2:54 pm #

    You have moral courage.
    I was a tween in Vancouver, Canada from 1955-1961. I started riding my bicycle to school in 1957-aged 8.
    I lived on the last street in the catchment area.
    My mother thought this was good-because the walk was good for me.
    I rode my bicycle ts school until I was 16. Of my three schools, I lived 1.1, 1.3 and 1.1 kilometers.
    My mother lived in Windsor Ontario-from 13-on. At 13 she had far less freedom had did her young brother-aged 9.

  13. EricS December 23, 2015 at 3:20 pm #

    Lol! That’s a great story. This literally how it was for kids back in the 70s. My dad left early for work, so it was always my mom that helped us get ready, and walk us to school. But the walking to school lasted for about a month tops. After that, we started walking on our own, because we didn’t want our mother to walk us. It was “cramping” our style at age 6 to have our mom walk us to school. Needless to say, only a few kids had their parents walk with them to school. Most kids walked on their own.

    My mother, did continue to make us breakfast until we reached 12 years old. But we’ve done everything else on our own. By the time we reached jr. high, and highschool, we were rushing out the door, and grabbing food in the cafeteria for breakfast. lol

    Can’t say this enough, if you leave your kids with knowledge and know how, they will end up exactly like we did at their age. Independent, resilient, street smart, confident, with self-esteem. It will also give them the frame of mind to prove something to you. That they are capable. Don’t trap them into dependency like many kids today. It does more harm than good in the long run. And when it comes to kids, we have to think long run. Not here and now.

  14. lollipoplover December 23, 2015 at 3:28 pm #

    One of our back to school nights included a lecture from a teacher about the importance of allowing our children to develop executive function. Children have the ability to work towards mastering tasks on their own and we need to allow this to grow. Her advise was to give the child the responsibility and less expectations from parents, more from the students. She said the trend she was seeing (which Anna also commented on) was of parents doing so much for their kids because they want them to succeed in school that the child does less and less and relies on adults more and more. Student will blame the parent for not packing their school bag properly when they forget their homework or left a book at home. No sneakers for gym is all mom’s fault because she didn’t tell me it was Friday. They never accept personal responsibility and learn from making mistakes, it’s always someone else’s fault.

  15. That_Susan December 23, 2015 at 5:55 pm #

    For once, I am really agreeing with James Pollock! He wrote, “‘3. Never give them any spiritual training. Let them wait until they are 21 and let them decide for themselves.’
    “I disagree with your condemnation of this one. I won’t indoctrinate children and I look down on religions that feel they should. Children will learn by example if the parents are virtuous, and they will learn by example of the parents are not virtuous. That covers everything.

    “’6. Let them read any printed matter they can get their hands on.’
    This one, too, although for a different reason. If you’ve raised them properly, they will reject the things they should reject without needing your censorship to put them on the right path.”

    I see a big difference between religious indoctrination and spirituality, and I see it as my spiritual calling to model for my children, as well as talk with them about, my beliefs regarding our connection to a reality greater than ourselves, and the ways that our actions, and inactions, can impact others as well as ourselves.

    I’d like to add a response to number one: “1. Begin at infancy to give your child everything they want. In this way the child grows up believing that the world owes them something.”

    In infancy, children are helpless in every area other than in their ability to communicate their wants and needs. By being quick to respond to their cues of hunger or other kinds of discomfort, we lay the foundation for them to learn that there IS value in them figuring out how to communicate and make themselves understood, and that parents and other wise and experienced people in their lives are available to help them figure out how to meet their needs by living in loving cooperation with others, rather than by trampling others in order to grab whatever they want.

    By ignoring infants’ cries and employing abusive practices like the “cry it out” method, we lay the foundation for them to learn that they’re a fool to trust anyone, especially the authority figures who set the rules they’re expected to follow, and to see life as a series of choices between following the rules and being dissatisfied and miserable on the one hand, or selfishly looking out for themselves without regard for who they might be harming on the other.

  16. James Pollock December 23, 2015 at 7:12 pm #

    “I see a big difference between religious indoctrination and spirituality, and I see it as my spiritual calling to model for my children, as well as talk with them about, my beliefs regarding our connection to a reality greater than ourselves, and the ways that our actions, and inactions, can impact others as well as ourselves.”

    It’s not my place to tell you how to practice your religion OR raise your kids. BUT (you knew that was coming) that doesn’t mean I can’t comment on it, and I’m going to.

    It’s as simple as this: Consider the difference between “this is what I believe…” and “this is what we believe…”. If you’re doing the first, when the kids ask, congratulations! you have my approval (no actual cash value). If you do the second, when the kids aren’t asking, you don’t (wither in the glare of my stern disapproval. Or don’t. Still not my business.)

    Either way, the kids will learn from what you DO, not what you SAY.

  17. CrazyCatLady December 23, 2015 at 7:52 pm #

    Eh, get all the religion you want. My kids get to decide on their own. Until then, we live in a secular household. And that doesn’t mean that we don’t have morals and ethics, because we do. Work hard, take car of yourself, be responsible for yourself and remember and apply the golden rule. Seems to cover most situations in life, including teaching your kids to be responsible adults. And riding your bike to school.

  18. J.T. Wenting December 24, 2015 at 1:18 am #

    Well said, CrazyCatLady. That’s how I was raised. Both my parents were thrown out of their respective churches for daring to want to marry a “heretic” (dad being Catholic, mom being Dutch Reformed).
    They never pressured us to adopt one or the other (or indeed any religion at all), but did give us opportunities to explore different religions if we felt so inclined.

    We never went to church except on vacation and then only for the artistic and architectural history of the places.
    We learned about different religions, different cultures, and how and why to respect people of all of them whether their values matched our own or not (BUT based on mutual respect, not mindlessly bowing to everything and everyone out there).

    It’s made me a better person, and while I’m still not religious I still live by that mantra: value each person according to his or her own merits, with no regard to what divine being (if any) he prays to and which version of which holy book (if any) he or she reads.

    More and bloodier wars have been thought about minor differences in translation between different versions of the bible (or quran and probably any other holy book out there) than just about anything else.

  19. Katie December 24, 2015 at 6:57 am #

    I wonder if the parents in Medford Lakes, NJ, would nod their heads in agreement. Why specifically that location? It’s a tiny, woodsy, community where bikes are and long have been The Thing. My MIL teaches in the school there and she’s said it’s a huge deal for kids to reach the point of riding bikes to school. (And also my cousin’s experience, having moved his family there about a year ago, bears out what she’d already said.)

  20. Katie December 24, 2015 at 7:01 am #

    RE that list & point 6: there’s a time for different books, and what isn’t okay at age 8 might be fine at age 12. As I’m raising a (9yo) daughter, I find there are books I wish I’d waited until I was older than I was until I read, but my parents never vetoed anything I brought home from the library. Though my mom wouldn’t pay for Babysitters Club books!

  21. FVVA December 24, 2015 at 10:41 am #

    One could argue that teaching morals and ethics and to respect our fellow beings IS spiritual training, even in the most secular of households. One does not have to be religious to recognize how very miraculous it is that we exist at all, and to be grateful for it. We’re scientists over here, but we are also artists (and the Bible stories are on the shelf, right beside the Greek and Norse mythologies…so fascinating to explore our attempts to explain the unexplainable), and, well, the more small boy learns about the world the more he recognizes that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

    It’ll be a while before small boy gets to ride or walk to school alone, though…two busy intersections without traffic signals, and drivers I don’t trust to see him (or me!) mean mommy will be there in her bright pink jacket a while longer. But he leads the way, and anyway I volunteer with the school’s literacy program most mornings. Riding together to where we both need to go is maybe a little different than ‘riding him to school’…

  22. Backroads December 24, 2015 at 11:00 am #

    I don’t recall ever riding my bike to school until I was a teacher and am not sure why, but I grew up a few blocks from all three schools of my education. We walked. We talked, played a bit, and we’re refreshed upon making it to school.

    Regarding number 3 on the list… I have no problem with it. It’s spiritual training, be that simple example of your values and ethics or, and I have no problem with this either, actual teaching of the parent belief system. My kid will sooner or later accept or reject my beliefs on her own terms, why should I shy away from my religion. And no, Husband and I aren’t paying for a sitter each week so we can attend church. In the simplest sense, teach your kids respect and consideration of the world and beings around them. I’ve a friend who wastes energy trying to hide the beliefs of herself and the world from her kids. Barring truly abusive indoctrination, a respectful teaching of your spiritual path or lack thereof is more likely to help than hinder your kids. They’ll eventually come to their own beliefs anyway.

    So in conclusion, yeah, #3 fits well on the list.

  23. That_Susan December 24, 2015 at 1:31 pm #

    James, I agree with you about example being the most important teacher, and also that the most teachable moments are when kids are actually ASKING about stuff. However, I’m not going to lie and claim that the only time I talk with them about ethical matters is when they ask. While that’s the ideal moment, if a situation comes up where I need to say something, I’m going to say it. But I do agree with you about not saying “This is what ‘we’ believe.” Only they can define what they believe.

  24. James Pollock December 24, 2015 at 1:44 pm #

    “I’m not going to lie and claim that the only time I talk with them about ethical matters is when they ask.”

    Ethics and spirituality are different topics.

  25. That_Susan December 24, 2015 at 1:47 pm #

    Backroads, I certainly agree with you about not paying a sitter each week to attend church! In our own case, we’d quit attending church for a while, when our girls were small, after going through a sort of upheaval or transformation in our own beliefs. But then our older daughter, at around age 9, started expressing the desire to get back into church and Sunday School. So going to church and leaving her with a sitter would have defeated the whole purpose for going — to meet her need for a church family!

    I was in a bit of a quandary, as my own beliefs were (still are) evolving, so I wasn’t even sure where I’d end up spiritually, and I also wanted to give my daughters the freedom to embark on their own spiritual journeys, something I wasn’t “free range” enough to allow myself to do until I was in my 40s! At the same time, I saw how upsetting visiting different churches and not getting to settle anywhere was for my older daughter, so I desperately wanted to find a place where we could “settle” and bond with people, without worrying that any one of us would become a pariah to our “church family” if we changed our perspective on anything!

    After some online research, we ended up finding a good fit in our local Unitarian Universalist congregation — but other religious seekers have undoubtedly found other similarly “free range” congregations. Wow! This is my first time realizing the connection between the “free range” lifestyle and religion/spirituality!

  26. That_Susan December 24, 2015 at 1:56 pm #

    James, I see a lot of overlap between ethics and spirituality — but then, I define spirituality as sort of the thread running through and connecting everything and everybody, so my ethics are based on the idea that nobody lives a separate life, and, to quote Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, “Every part of you is just another part of me,” so when I disregard others, I disregard myself, and caring for others is caring for myself. And yeah, you didn’t ask, but at least I didn’t say this is what “we” believe. 🙂

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UVG1hrn5sGs

  27. James Pollock December 24, 2015 at 2:39 pm #

    “I see a lot of overlap between ethics and spirituality”

    The fact that things CAN be related does not imply that they MUST be related.

    Jesus offered his followers two commandments. Thing is, the second one works equally well with or without the first.

    (It is a common misconception amongst religious folk that ethics requires religion (some will insist that it requires THEIR SPECIFIC religion, and some are generous enough to conceded that maybe, possibly, other religions may be sufficient in that regard. However, neither one is true… religion is simply not a prerequisite to ethical behavior.))

    As an example, my rejection of proselytizing to children is an ethical choice. It’s part of my overall scheme of parenting to children, which is to prepare them to make their own decisions by teaching them how to make good decisions… This means taking the time to explain my decision-making process from the time my offspring was little

  28. That_Susan December 24, 2015 at 4:01 pm #

    James, I think that where we differ is in our view of spirituality and religion. You seem to lump them into the same category. While I realize that most religions have a spiritual component, I think that it’s possible to live our lives with a spiritual connection to something greater than ourselves without adhering to any specific religion. I feel very “free range” about embracing the ideals of any and all religions that ring true to me, while discarding any elements that don’t. And ethics are part of all of our lives regardless of where we stand on the spirituality/religion continuum — if we’re even on the continuum at all.

  29. sexhysteria December 24, 2015 at 5:20 pm #

    Courageous moms!

  30. Jeff December 26, 2015 at 10:47 am #

    Absolutely. It can be a wonder how much even a little independence can change a child’s behavior. Sometimes they whine about a task not because they don’t want to do the task itself but that they do not wish to do it at the parent’s pace or method. They may simply want to be taught how to do it themselves but aren’t able to express that.

  31. Becks December 27, 2015 at 6:29 pm #

    What age is third grade and sixth grade?

  32. That_Susan December 27, 2015 at 9:52 pm #

    Usually 8 and 11.