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I saw a sign on the front door of a local elementary school last week -- "National Walk Your Child to School Day, October 2, 2002." Checking out the Web site, I discovered that this event stems from International Walk to School Day, also Oct. 2, an event centered largely in Europe for the purpose of promoting safe, clean, pedestrian-friendly streets.

In America, National Walk Your Child to School Day is being promoted more as an anti-obesity measure. Get your kid walking, to school if possible, is the message of the day. And naturally, commerce figures in -- buy your kid some nice walking shoes, a new backpack, a pedometer.

It's a good idea -- reinforce the idea that walking is good for your health while encouraging the community to make its streets and sidewalks safe and welcoming for walkers.

But when I saw the sign advertising National Walk Your Child to School Day, my heart softened because I thought it meant something entirely different. I saw the primitive stick drawing of a mother holding her child's hand, the two walking together, and thought this day was about parents taking time to be with their kids -- if only for a few minutes before school in the morning.

Now that my kids are taller than me, the oldest son turning 18 this week, they are walking away to their separate, autonomous lives faster than I can keep up. Memories of the hundreds of days we walked together are cluttered close and safe in the early childhood zone of my dazed parent's brain. I remember all the hours spent pulling on socks and shoes, preparing for our daily walks when my sons were young and eager as wiggly pups -- straining toward the door before their coats were zipped or their shoes tied, dying to burst outside.

The days I walked with my kids were spent guiding their stray tricycles back onto the sidewalk, running to catch up with the one who sped ahead toward the intersection, stopping to dump rocks or sand out of tennis shoes, always looking down. Our favorite place to walk was in a city park in Nashville called Radnor Lake where there were no cars to dodge, just tree roots to jump over, clover and dandelions to pick, and trees so tall that my boys looked like hobbits stomping through the woods, swinging walking sticks they retrieved from the forest floor. The forest circled a lovely blue lake, and our walks always ended on the rocky banks where the boys tossed sticks, rocks and boulders into the smooth, clear water. My youngest son, who insisted on wearing cowboy boots one year -- even in summer with shorts -- teetered precariously on the banks of Radnor Lake, trying to balance as he jumped from rock to rock, the soles of his boots too smooth to grip.

Those days, at that time, seemed endless and exhausting. But in truth, shortly after the boys started elementary school we stopped walking together except on rare occasions -- hikes or vacations. We lived just down the alley from the school, so they walked with each other and with their friends. They shunned walking with me for the most part.

Time is short with your kids, I thought as I examined the sign for National Walk Your Child to School Day. And too many parents have no time to walk with their kids. Their job hours demand that they be somewhere else during their kids' walking hours. The school is too far away from home, the day-care center too far away from school, the weekends too busy with chores. National Walk Your Child to School Day should be a mandatory half-day off for parents with kids who still want to walk with them.

My next-door neighbor is pregnant with her second child, the first a feisty and energetic 3-year-old with hair the color of corn. They are lucky. They walk every day, usually more than once, navigating the sidewalks of our neighborhood with no special destination, just walking. Last weekend as I was sitting in the back yard reading, I heard them talking as they walked past my fence. I glanced through the slats and saw that the 3-year-old, barely 3 feet tall, was intently reaching up and pushing the empty baby stroller, his mother walking beside him.

A smart mother, I thought, teaching her son already to walk with his little brother or sister. In just a few years, they will walk in the mornings to the neighborhood elementary school, scouting a safe route, learning to cross the streets. And one day he will walk to school with his friends, leaving his mother to wave goodbye from the front door as he speeds off.

That is the way it goes. We walk with our kids as long as we can, then we watch proudly, with a little relief and certain trepidation, as they walk away.

-- kathryn@csindy.com

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For more information on National Walk Your Child to School Day, visit www.walktoschool-usa.org.

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