When thinking about what to celebrate, we tend to focus on the big, defining moments in life – birth, death, coming of age, marriage, and elder rites. In practice life is dotted with smaller moments of deep significance, too, and there’s much to be said for honouring them along the way.
We had one yesterday. The boy has come to the age of travelling independently to and from school. It tends to be an option here in the UK at 11, with the shift from Primary to Secondary school. Friends of his are bussing in and out of town, also on their own for the first time. For children using school buses, or living very close to their school the moment of independence can be earlier. There are of course many young people and parents who won’t get this little rite of passage, because the school run is by car. For us, the school run has meant walking or cycling, and I’ve done it with him at least once, and often twice a day since he started school 7 years ago. It’s been a significant part of our lives, and a little bit of time we’ve used for talking and sharing. There are other spaces aplenty for that, but it won’t be quite the same.
Go back not so very far in time and the idea of parents on the school run would have seemed preposterous to the vast majority. It used to be that you walked to your local school, if you were any kind of normal person. A few miles in all weathers. Cars, shortages of safe places to cross roads, increased anxiety around stranger danger and an increased addiction to total ease and comfort have all helped shaped the change. It’s easy to drive by, drop the kid off and drive away. Adding to the traffic problems and the road dangers. I’m a dogmatic fundamentalist when it comes to this one: Walking and cycling to school is good for young people. It allows time to warm up the brain in the morning and wind down on the way home. There are social opportunities, and the fresh air and exercise is good. A healthy child can go out in all weathers, assuming the right clothes, and not suffer in the slightest.
There used to be far fewer such moments in the process of loosening ties between parent and child, I suspect. Children used to be freer sooner, and there wasn’t the same social pressure to insulate the young to the current degree. We used to expect that a child could be responsible for themselves walking half a mile or so. These days you have to be much more careful. Grant too much freedom too soon and social services may be called in. With gloomy talk of feral youth, and resentment of young people roaming about in the streets, the young are increasingly battery raised. Free range children are alarmingly rare.
Part of me knows that this moment of shift and changing responsibilities, is a really important moment in the life of my family. We honoured it with something sugary. Part of me knows how modern and weird this is. He could have been sent off as an apprentice by now, squire to a knight, or in full time employment in some other era. Part of me knows that for much of history, statistically speaking he’d have done really well to have lived this long in the first place.
In other times and places, first knife ,first hunt, first kill, first wound would have marked the journey from family bosom to independence, in whatever order they came. Now it’s first mobile phone, first part time job, first independent journey, first car. The moments of significant change are in so any ways defined by the culture in which we live, as soon as you get beyond the more biologically informed set. It makes me wonder what we might pick as some kind of ideal series of transitions and key points.