Americans spend an average of 15 hours a week in a car, at least according to this Arbitron study. That’s like two hours a day! Here at Carfree with Kids, we don’t spend any average time in a car — time in a car for us is always weird and usually involves crying children. But cars are private space. Yes, you can see into most cars, but being in a car you are insulated from the outside world. In contrast, we do all of our transportation in public — walking, biking, or taking transit.
This actually impacts our parenting. Whether it’s on a train, bus, or bike, our children are being transported in public. That means that the tired baby who screams on the way home from the Children’s Museum is screaming in public. The preschooler who has trouble sitting still is squirming and singing too loudly in public. The toddler who doesn’t want to stop playing at the park is thrashing about in a stroller or on a bike in public (on a disastrous ride home from spy pond a couple weeks ago I really wanted a sign that said “they cry in car seats all the time people”). Parents who transport their children in cars have to deal with just as much challenging behavior, but they often do it in the privacy of their own car, where they can be insulated from the harsh judgment of people who would certainly never let their kids behave like that. That won’t stop the screaming, but in a car you can at least tell yourself that your kids aren’t driving other people crazy, just you.
Those anti-kid people who think children and their parents should all be shipped to the moon absolutely hate us, I’m sure. But while there are lots of obvious drawbacks to parenting through transitions in public, there are some benefits as well. First, you get to interact with so many different kinds of people. I’d like right now to say a huge “Thank you!” to all the bus and train riders who have ever stopped to wave at, play peek-a-boo with, or chat with my kids. We get a chance to see new people at every stop, and sometimes that leads to interesting conversations, like the time our daughter, around 2.5 at the time, saw a pink-haired young woman heading to an anime convention in Boston and told Nathan, in a loud stage whisper, “Some grownups have different hair!” which generated a lot of smiles and led to a very sweet interaction between the two of them. You get to answer questions about people hauling furniture, dogs, and suitcases, people who have noticeable physical differences, people who speak different languages, and people who are behaving badly. Generally, you get to help your children to respond appropriately to the unexpected.
You also get a chance to practice manners and good behavior in a variety of different situations. Can your child be quiet during a morning commute? Handle sitting next to people she doesn’t know? Stand up on the train while still remaining calm? All of these situations come with social pressure to behave well, which can be both good and bad. But they certainly do allow the whole family to practice appropriate behavior in a public setting. We’re currently working with our four-year-old on sitting with some level of propriety in a skirt, and I don’t think we would be doing it if we weren’t riding trains regularly. We tend to get compliments on our kids’ sociability and manners, and some of this comes from the skills they learn in our many public interactions.
The other place where we feel very visible is when we ride our bike. Our beautiful Xtracycle gets a lot of attention, and both Nathan and I have noticed that when we ride it, even if the kids aren’t with us, we feel pressure to be good biking citizens, and in particular to obey traffic laws. This has more to do with having an easily identifiable bike than with being carfree, but it still seems to fit here. If I run a red light, I know that the people behind me can easily look me up (our blog url is on the license plate), and that helps me resist the temptation.