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Wednesday, June 13th, 2012

Why the Car is Bad for Your Kids

Why the Car is Bad for Your Kids/ © Mark Evans -

I’m a strange candidate to argue for a car-free approach to childrearing. As a resident of Los Angeles, I practically live in my car. And If I’m being completely honest, I can’t even ride a bike. But unlike those critiquing cars for environmental reasons or even social (the argument has been made that cars are essentially tools of isolation), my concerns are child centered. Not that the environmental and social ones are not, but  they are being made by more virtuous and bike-riding folks than I. When I’m not with kids, I’ve been known to drive two blocks to the 7-Eleven. For shame.

However, I think the less time you can spend driving around with your kid, the better. Every minute spent in the car is a moment that could be spent digging in the dirt, making mudpies.

There is pleasure to be found in proximity. There is value to knowing somewhere intimately, each inch, every front yard. As adults, walking the same few streets may bore us—lord knows I’ve tired of grabbing my young charge off strangers’ porches seconds before he bangs on their front doors. But with children, new growth furthers additional discovery. As they gain height, their perspective changes, so that where they once studied the sidewalk, now the cars parked against it may come into view.

What I’m suggesting is hardly revolutionary. Cars are modern. Up until they hit the scene, childhood was limited by the area traversable by foot, at least until a kid could hop on a horse of his own volition. Nowadays the only thing that tends to obstruct large scale movement is poverty. The rest of us cover a huge amount of ground in our day to day.

In my capacity as a nanny, I often forgo my car in exchange for wandering the neighborhood on foot. Most kids abhor the car seat and back when I worked in childcare policy we led a campaign to eliminate what we termed “container care”, any secure receptacle that restricts a child’s movement. Examples include strollers, highchairs, exo-saucers, high chairs and bumbos. Convenient for the caregiver, we discouraged their using them for any real duration because ultimately children need space to move their bodies and explore. So since putting babies in cars has almost always to do with adult needs, while on the clock I strive to avoid it.  What I gain in exchange is the chance to follow the child’s lead on their preferred activities and geographic boundaries.

There are days when we barely leave the front yard.  In doing so, my universe shrinks, the perimeter limited by the distance his little feet can carry him. Is this boring? At times. Am I suggesting that parents who don’t immediately abandon their cars are somehow inferior? Of course not. But I’ve found that when I challenge myself to be present and take interest in whatever is in front of me, whether it be a lawn gnome or a blade of grass, there is something to be gained from the experience. It is tempting to schedule field trips everyday, to satiate one’s own need for novelty even if it means a commute. Following the child means a slowed-down and scaled-down routine.

We usually spend the afternoon slowly moving from the universe of his home environment to the five blocks or so that include a local park, elementary school and row of shops. He studies the letters on signs, smells the roses (literally), and grabs the hands of strangers to escort them down the street. Children often call him by name since we spend so much time outdoors, in the neighborhood.  When I bring a stroller with us, he eschews sitting in it in favor of running alongside or pushing from behind. It is only when I strap him in that he begins to protest.

Children, unless confined, are rarely bored and generally self-entertained. He would gladly spend every day following a simple routine of visiting familiar places.  The hardest part is finding some way of busying myself and quieting my own inner chatter. I often find myself exercising in these moments, doing squats in place or something, which is hardly a bad side effect of the proximity practice. It is, in reality, the closest I get to meditation. A chance to focus the waking mind. An invitation.

© 2012 – 2013, Kellen Kaiser. All rights reserved.

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Kellen has watched other people parent for years. She has worked as a babysitter, infant teacher, nanny and in continuing education and quality improvement for childcare providers. She aspires to be a foster parent someday.

Leave us a comment!

  1. CommentsEmma   |  Thursday, 14 June 2012 at 11:05 am

    Thank you! I really enjoyed reading this article, and whilst as a Brit who has been to LA, I think it can be difficult to walk in the USA as it is not always very pedestrian friendly, I hadn’t really considered this angle. I always think in terms of “days out” and now as my 7 month old starts to talk and express her own opinions, I shall aim to satisfy her curiosity not my need for entertainment.

  2. CommentsAnnabelle   |  Monday, 18 June 2012 at 12:56 pm

    While I agree the car is not the best means of entertainment, I feel this is very much a city view. When you live in a small village far from everything, a car is necessary and you cannot really do without one with the way we live now (shopping, school, doctor, etc).

  3. Commentsnicole in paris   |  Monday, 18 June 2012 at 2:28 pm

    I love the perspective here! Having the same philosophy, I used to walk with my daughter when she first started walking as much as humanly possible. Sure, she would dawdle, sometimes profoundly – but I chalked that up to being a beginner walker and explorer. But, now at age 2.5, I have succumbed to using the stroller much more often. Her ability to sit on some stairs we pass by for 10 minutes at a time has pushed me past the exhausted point. I used to do as you, with stretches or listening to a book with one ear phone, but then it just started making me mad. “Okay, let’s get going” repeatedly every 30 seconds was making me not want to go out with her. My solution has been to bring the stroller with and let her sit or stare or whatever she wants to do for about a minute, then I let her know we will start walking in 10 seconds and if she is not moving, in the stroller she goes. Of course, this isn’t every single walk we take, but when we gotta get somewhere or I am just not in the mood, that is what I do. As a reference point, we live in Paris and the other parents think I am downright nuts for letting her dawdle at all. Beyond that, stretching on the street is really weird here. One “helpful” woman told me to take control! Anyway, great article!

  4. Commentsnicole in paris   |  Thursday, 21 June 2012 at 5:19 pm

    Just a dash more thought … I think this article did something to my unconscious! I have reduced my stroller usage since reading it. I got more firm and we got more places. Allowing a few moments of dawdling, with advanced warning and then count-downs allowed some compromise. Thanks :)

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