How the Autocentric Lifestyle Hurts Our Kids

Last week, several of our Streetsblog Network member blogs picked up on a recent policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), "The Built Environment: Designing Communities to Promote Physical Activity in Children." It examines how sprawl harms the nation’s children by reducing physical activity, and how denser development, traffic-calming measures and more parks could result in better health for America’s young people.

3025887076_4e66f0d69b_m.jpgAnother way to schlep the little ones. Photo by raffik via Flickr.

Today, we’re featuring a post from the Fresno Bicycle Coalition about another pernicious effect of the autocentric lifestyle: the over-dependence of children on their parents, and the frenzy of structured after-school activities made possible by the automobile:

I don’t know when it started, perhaps when my daughter was two years old and I started driving her to swimming lessons just a few miles away from our house. It started a parenting cycle that finally stopped the day my daughter got her driver’s license.

Shuttling my kids from one event to another became a lifestyle for me and my children. It was "expected."

I was dating my children’s father when I first witnessed the benefits of the car-centric, shuttle service childhood — a four-year-old that could sing and dance on cue! I didn’t stop to wonder what the child — and family — were giving up in exchange for such "talent." Instead, I blindly followed this insidious parenting experiment — and I hated every moment of it! The whole constant craziness not only eliminated free time for my children to play, but it created a lifestyle that required "fast" or processed foods. It became a sick feedback loop that also required more work hours to pay for all of their talent development. Did I mention that I had to hire a counselor when my child was in second grade — in order to help her process her stress. Sick! And I still didn’t catch on!

The
catch: this crazy child-rearing lifestyle is only possible if you drive a car! Cars alter the natural rhythm of living. The best gift you could possibly give a new family would be to save them and their family from
a car-centric lifestyle. The children pay the greatest price; they become accustomed to dependence. Trust me, it is a miserable cycle!

There’s no question that you can overschedule your children even without a car. But if you’re not driving them, they’re going to be getting the "utilitarian" physical activity of walking, biking or scootering to their activities (the AAP notes that type of activity is an important, and often lacking, part of daily life for children and adults alike). They’re going to have more sense of independence, and be able to make the trips on their own at a younger age (the virtues of that kind of autonomy are well-argued in Lenore Skenazy’s new book, Free-Range Kids). There will be an organic limit on how far, and how long, you’re willing to travel. And the kids won’t be looking at the back of your head during the journey.

In related posts from around the network, Walk Bike Berks County writes about how Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell has at last announced the release of $76 million in Safe Routes to Schools funding, and Bike Commute Tips Blog discusses bike commuting while pregnant.

  • This phenomenon seems independent of lifestyle–I didn’t notice it until the 90s/early 00s. But it is certainly accelerating in the suburbs/exurbs, isn’t it.

  • Ian Hlavacek

    Or you can live a car-centric lifestyle and choose not to get caught in the rat-race style of raising kids. I’m not seeing the causality here.

  • Pursuant

    Yeah, I’m not loving this post, but it at least reminded me of how I was able to bike to swimming, tennis, baseball, sailing, later a paper route and two jobs. Growing up in the boondocks has some advantages as the roads were generally quiet and safe.

  • Ian, the causality is that in a car-dependent lifestyle, your fourteen-year-old can’t walk or take the subway to ballet class.

  • Ian Hlavacek

    Cap’n, I don’t disagree. What I’m disputing is the need to jampack the schedules of kids. I grew up in a relatively car-dependent household, but my summers consisted of: bike riding around the neighborhood, water balloon fights, and tree climbing. If I were to abuse my statistically insignificant sample, I’d say that I’ve turned out to be one of the happier, more successful individuals from my group of childhood friends. And that has nothing to do with how my family chose to transport itself.

  • Ian Hlavacek

    Corollary: from that same group of childhood friends, I’m also far and away the biggest supporter of alternative transportation modes. Actually, that doesn’t do justice to everyone else’s complete and utter lack of interest in matters of transportation/land use/environmental impact. The only difference I can see is that instead of those ballet lessons, I was riding my bike 🙂

  • What I’m disputing is the need to jampack the schedules of kids. I grew up in a relatively car-dependent household, but my summers consisted of: bike riding around the neighborhood, water balloon fights, and tree climbing.

    Well, sure. But you may not realize just how car-dependent some places are – to the point where kids can’t get to each others’ houses by bike or on foot. The parents may not feel it’s worth driving just to take the kid over to Dylyn’s house, but a tae kwon do class can be framed as an “investment” that will develop the kid’s talents, so it’s worth it.

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