My neighbor shot out of the driveway, dressed in running outfit, her daughter rattling around in the back of her SUV (known to me as a Suburban Assault Vehicle). She drove the three blocks to the elementary school, getting there at the same time I did on foot. Traffic was heavy. Mothers and fathers were parked solid on several streets adjacent to the school. My neighbor let her daughter out of the car and went on to the gym to exercise. She would walk and run three miles. She looked slightly guilty as we exchanged greetings. I suggested that she could get her first mile by walking her daughter to school and going back home for the car. And she’d have a good up and down hill stretch in the bargain. She thinks I was kidding. I was dead serious.
This traffic jam had become a familiar sight to me, but it gets even worse in the winter. God help us if some child should brave the elements, or maybe strain a leg muscle in the process of walking. My children almost never got a ride to school and seemed to enjoy the camaraderie of their peers, from snow fights to shuffling along in piles of leaves. They got plenty dirty, but they also got plenty of exercise. And when they were teenagers they used bicycles as their transportation of choice.
I try very hard not to be judgmental. That only works if you’re Andy Rooney or Lewis Black. Just because I walked two miles to school every morning, then back and forth for lunch, and home, again, in the afternoon…six miles in all…for one day’s efforts, is no reason to behave as if I’m Laura Ingalls Wilder on the rampage. And just because my mother rode a horse to high school in rural Missouri is no reason that I should have eschewed the sidewalk for a comfortable saddle. But I think that what sent me around the bend on this particular day was the rows and rows of cars with their motors running and smoke belching out of the exhaust pipes.
It was a cool, crisp day, to be sure, but not polar bear weather. I walked up to one old diesel van with black smoke belching forth, and knocked on the window.
“Excuse me, M’am, but there is a rule in this town that you can only idle for three minutes and your car is running full blast, emitting black noxious fumes, poisoning the air.”
The lady was civil, but said, tight-lipped, “I have an infant in the back seat.”
“Is this infant clothed?” I asked. She nodded.
“M’am, I had five infants and know that they loved the cold air. I dressed them warmly and left them out in a carriage on many occasions, just the way they do in Norway. That’s why the Vikings were so strong. [I was getting carried away.] And, I don’t know of any babies in an SUV who died of over-exposure, but plenty of people die of carbon monoxide inhalation and lung cancer breathing polluted air every day. The choice is yours.”
After a long hard look and commensurate silence, I went on my way, fuming. She never turned off her car. It was still running ten minutes later when I completed my loop.
I really despair of solving this problem, which stems not from the fear of a pedophile around every corner, but the misguided desire to make sure our children are not stressed in any way, inconvenienced, uncomfortable, disappointed, tired, or have to put forth the effort to get themselves up and out of the house in time for school. I do not blame the children. It’s the parent’s responsibility to set an example of good health and to establish priorities.
We are not doing children a favor coddling them in this way. They are going to find out as they grow fatter and weaker, with less energy and gumption (there’s a medieval word for you!), that the joys derived from walking in the woods or up a mountain or onto a playing field or participating in one of the multitude of exploratory journeys this life presents, will be greatly diminished for them. For as they become older, their bodies will reflect the results of a lifetime of neglect and inertia. And they’re going to wonder why.
Take heed, parents. As a close friend of mine used to say, “Don’t go to heaven with an unused body. Get up and move!” Building a strong body begins when you’re a kid. Waiting is not an option.
And remember, you’re old a lot longer than you’re young.