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An answer to Atrios on how old you need to be to ride a city bus to school

Taking the public bus to school in Nuremberg, Germany

Atrios asked the question in response to Lenore Skenazy’s post on FreeRangeKids about a mother who was reported to CPS for allowing her 10 year old to ride the public bus to school by herself. Here’s my take on it.

My kid spent the summer in Nuremberg, Germany as an summer study award recipient from the German government (Long story.  She earned it). She was paired with a girl who was a couple of years younger than Brooke.  We’ll call her C.  C is 14 and attends the equivalent of eighth grade.  Germans go to school well into July so Brooke went to school with C and spent time in the high school level gymnasium as well. Additionally, in Germany, it seems like the school isn’t necessarily in the immediate neighborhood.  The gymnasium Brooke and C attended was in the middle of Nuremberg but C lived about about 8-10 miles away.

To get to school every morning, Brooke and C would get on the city bus, just like all the other students in Nuremberg.  They took the bus to the train station and then took the train into town. Then they walked.  Brooke didn’t say how young the youngest students were that took the bus and train but you can expect that from about the 6th grade on, the public transit system was the transportation that the students were expected to use.   She was given an unlimited transit pass for the month that she was there but that was part of her award.  C and her family used a more limited pass with a certain number of rides and they needed to buy new ones periodically, sort of like a metro card.

But wait! There’s more.

Brooke says that a typical gymnasium day is broken into two parts.  The compulsory parts of the curriculum are in the morning.  The electives are in the afternoon and afternoon scheduling varies depending on what you’re taking.  It’s difficult to describe but it sounds like more of a college schedule in the afternoon because the elective classes don’t meet every day of the week or meet hours apart, that kind of thing.  So, after your morning classes, you’re pretty much free to do what you want until your afternoon electives begin.  And she didn’t have lunch at school.  You’re on your own after your morning classes are finished and that means you can leave the school if you want.  Students either go home or they roam the city foraging for food, usually at McDonalds.  Brooke said she ate more lunches at Mickey D’s in Nuremberg than she ever has in the US.

That kind of behavior is unheard of here in the states and yet it seems to work just fine in Nuremberg.  There aren’t gangs of kids getting into trouble during the middle of the day or getting kidnapped at the bus stops.  You can imagine what it was like when she started school this fall back in her old high school.  Suddenly, she was treated like a feeble minded toddler again after a summer of expectations of mature and responsible behavior.  There is no public transportation in this town and no way for her to go and explore the city or walk around.  There really aren’t that many destinations here anyway.  It’s a suburb and all the businesses are on a busy main drag without many sidewalks.  It’s strictly SUVLand.  There aren’t any cathedrals or museums or gathering places nearby. No place where a bunch of teenagers with time to kill before their classes can hang out without suspicions of  wrongdoing. Not only that but leaving the campus during the middle of the day is strictly forbidden.  You can’t just go off to a local coffee shop or a cafe order a sausage and a beer, which you can drink at 16.  Nooooo.  Your movements are strictly controlled.  Can you imagine that?? Nuremberg lets a whole junior year’s worth of students loose in a city where it’s legal to drink beer at 16 and no one bats an eye.  Here in NJ, a 16 year old can’t go anywhere without a strict chain of custody.

And the weird thing is that the whole time she was in Germany riding the buses and trains from town to town with her friends, and many times without the chaperone, I never worried about her.  During her time in Berlin, her group had several opportunities to explore the city on their own without the chaperone.  And they did.  For a bunch of American kids to go to a city in a different country and not have to be tied to a chaperone who practically has to be in the bathroom with them to wipe their asses just doesn’t happen here.  It must have been very liberating.  And they all made it back to the hotel in one piece.  Fancy that.  Will wonders never cease.

Why the people of central New Jersey think it is good or healthy to regulate their kids’ every move is beyond me.  Brooke really resents being curtailed.  She can’t go anywhere without a car, which is too expensive for her to learn to drive in our present domestic circumstances, and the system acts like it can’t trust her or her classmates to keep their commitments.  They’re assumed to be up to no good before they’ve even done anything.  Around here, little groups of teenagers can’t walk through the neighborhoods talking and laughing without some irate citizen calling the police on them for making noise.

But the more I see it, the more I am convinced that it’s not really a safety issue.  It’s a control issue.  There are many things we can’t control anymore.  Our jobs and retirements seem very uncontrollable.  We can’t control the wars our elected officials got us into.  We can’t control gas prices or food prices or global warming.  But we can control our kids.  It seems like some people are hanging onto that power way past the point where it serves any useful purpose.  You have to let your kids grow up sometime.

As for Brooke, the summer in Germany matured her quite a bit.  A couple of weeks ago, I drove her to Philadelphia Airport  to catch a flight to visit her grandparents in Houston.  I left her off at the curb in front of the terminal, got her bags out of the car, and told her to wait inside for me while I parked the car.  Before I had even found a spot, she buzzed me on the phone.  She had checked in, gotten her boarding pass, checked her baggage and was going through security.  I could leave because there was nothing left for me to do or hover over or fret about.  She jumped on the plane without any help at all.  Thank you, Nuremberg.

So, the answer to the question about how old should a student be in order to take public transportation to school is: find out what the best practices are in the rest of the world and use that as a guideline.  If it’s ok for a 10 year old in Nuremberg to take the public bus to school, it’s probably ok for an American kid to do it.  It would be nice if the kid had other friends doing it too.  There’s comfort in numbers.  But as long as the kid can navigate the bus route and use the token/card system by themselves after practice with a parent, why not?  Give the kid a cell phone and tell him/her to call if they get stuck.

They’ll probably do fine.

And here’s how they get to school in the Netherlands.  Now THIS is what I’d love to see in more places in the US:

24 Responses

  1. Meh.

    My first day of Kindergarten my grandma walked me to school. After that I walked by myself. I had to cross several intersections, including 1 busy street.

    By age 8 I was riding my bike by myself to the county library a couple miles away. By age 10 I was riding across town. I walked or rode a bike to school (and everywhere else in town) until I was a senior in high school. Just before school started my senior year I bought a car.

    When my oldest was 8 years old he lived 2 blocks from his school in one direction and 3 blocks from the library in the other. His mother would not allow him to walk to either one by himself.

    • When my daughter was 13 (and living with me) she flew by herself to Maui. She missed her connecting flight in SF but convinced the airline people she had been improperly bumped from the flight. They had bumped some other people and my daughter stood with them and lied through her teeth.

      They put her on the next flight to Honolulu and when she got there they had somebody escort her to a connecting flight to Maui. The people she was meeting in Maui didn’t even realize she came on a later flight.

      Best part: When she was at SFO she told the airline people “At times like this I’m sure glad my daddy is an attorney.” (I was still in law school back then) She said it had the desired effect.

      I told her that the next time I wouldn’t even bother buying her a ticket. I would just let her BS her way to wherever she wanted to go.

    • The Etan Patz disappearance/murder changed everything.

  2. The main bus terminal is near my downtown workplace, there is a charter school a few blocks away. I regularly see preteens hopping off the bus and walking to the school. They’re never alone, always at least 2, but they and their parents feel safe enough.

    I really think that this irrational fear of terrorists we have is a manifestation of the same fear we have of our children going on their own. I don’t think the incidence of child abductions / molestations is any higher that it was when I was a kid traipsing up & down the streets in my youth; it’s just that the media plays it up so much heavier.

    We are scaring ourselves to death.

  3. That video is like those sound tracks of forest bird song to realign your mind. I watched the whole thing, and it’s just people bicycling.

    Very cool.

    We could have all that if we got our heads out of our asses.

    • Part of getting our heads out of our asses would involve figuring out who shoved our heads up our asses, and who keeps our heads there . . . and cutting their hands off. Metaphorically speaking.

  4. In NYC, the middle school has a few weeks embargo on the six graders’ going out to lunch. After which, they are free to join the other kids on the streets of New York, going to buy their lunch. There is a MacDonalds in the neighborhood, but very few from their school go there – they are all politically conscious. So they all spread to the little chinese, bagel take outs – good food for the most part. If the weather is nice, they eat it in the park. Oh, and a good percentage of these kids come from Brooklyn or other boroughs, most of them by subway. NYC subway makes any bus seem like kindergarden. I know parents standing by their phone to know their kid is back on the surface – both ways. Lucky us – we live across the street from school.

  5. I was in Bermuda and was riding the public bus. A small girl, six at the most got on the bus by herself and rode it for a number of miles. So far, that she fell sound asleep. At her stop the bus driver gently woke her and she got off. All very matter of fact. Everyone on the bus was watching out for her. She was wearing a school uniform. All told, her ride was at least 5 miles.
    When traveling we always use public transportation. Great way to save money and really see the people and the place. Sometimes we just ride bus out to as far as it goes and then get off and take the bus back. Cheap tour and have met such interesting people.

  6. When I was a kid in the Jersey suburbs, kids were free to roam by foot or bicycle. However, there was not much to roam to. The town (then about 25,000 people) had no downtown, no McDonald’s, one distant pizza place, and a bowling alley. OTOH, when we were about 16, people started taking buses in to NY City. Not only was that perfectly OK but the school would have field trips to Manhattan where the kids would have hours of free time hanging around the city, grabbing lunch and bopping around seeing what could be seen in unsupervised small groups.

    Kids would go off to a Yankee or Met game with a friend or to a museum. I’m sure there were plenty of kids who ditched the game. The only thing was that these were all day activities. That was because the bus didn’t run past about 7 PM.

    I think Brook’s German arrangement makes more sense than the current Jersey one.

  7. Germany may let their kids wander the streets and get drunk on beer, but just let ’em try to buy certain music or movies or video games. Then all that wonderful freedom is thrown out the window!
    Guess they aren’t willing to let the kids prove they’re mature enough to listen to songs with lyrics about slaughtering cops, without developing the desire to go out and do it themselves.

    So there may be “trust” but it ain’t across the board.

    • I’m not sure you’re right about that. Brooke went to see a movie in Germany that I can’t remember the title of just now and I had the impression that it was too sexually mature for her age group. That didn’t seem to be a problem with anyone. Maybe you are thinking they are more strict about violence. This would be ok by me.
      BTW, my point is not that students Brooke’s age abuse their freedoms in Germany. That’s not the impression I got at all. She says they smoked a lot more than Americans did but the only people she reports sampling the local breweries were the older American exchange students in another group. But one of the things they had to sign off on before they went was that they absolutely would not drink alcoholic beverages even though they were legally of age. That wasn’t a problem for Brooke and C. is still too young even by German standards to order on her own.
      The local kids are being encouraged to drink responsibly with family and friends. Public transportation is pretty good so chances of getting involved in drunk driving accidents are small. I dunno, it seems pretty well thought out in my opinion. There is an atmosphere of promoting gradual adult responsibilities. Could it work here? Probably not in the suburbs. But in general, I like the idea.

  8. I went to Heidelberg, a university town, in 1974. It was very clean and orderly, nothing like the university area in my town. The most startling thing was that everyone obeyed the Walk/Don’t Walk signs, even if there was no traffic coming. And there was no jaywalking. The second most startling thing were the bars. There were very few women and those who were there were pretty much ignored. The men drank enormous amounts of beer and sang drinking songs in a very orderly fashion. Coming from hippy-dippy America, I thought that I was on another planet.

    I think we should think twice about saying, “they do it in that country and there’s no problem” and just expect that experience to translate to our society. Germans are, I think, a little like Mormons. Certain kinds of behavior are expected and if you violate those expectations, there’s a negative communal consequence. A German ten-year-old on public transportation may be perfectly safe because it doesn’t say anything to the other people he or she encounters. An American ten-year-old travelling alone on public transportation will be viewed by some, including predators, as a vulnerable child whose parents didn’t even care enough to drive the kid to their destination.

    I don’t know what’s “right” but I would be reluctant to allow a ten-year-old to ride public transportation alone in any city in the United States if there were any other choice.

    • I’m sure there are predators in Germany. The difference is they don’t have a media hyping the risk, making it seem like an everyday occurance and freaking everyone out.
      The statistics and facts do not support the idea that we are a nation of sex offenders.
      It’s time we stopped believing that nonsense.

      • There are an enormous number of sexual predators in the United States but most of them aren’t strangers. And I’m sure that not that many toddlers die from drinking bleach every year but most careful parents keep the bleach where the kids can’t get to it. I wouldn’t want to be the parent who lost my child to the sexual predators that are here or to the bottle of bleach under the sink when I had an alternative.

        Cultures are different and there are real consequences for those differences. I’m surprised that a scientist doesn’t get that.

        • I completely reject the untrue propaganda that the United States is teeming with sexual predators, that the number of sexual predators is higher here than anywhere else in the world or that Germans don’t consider sexual predation a problem.

          This belief is the result of a couple of decades of relentless propaganda in the news media, specifically local news and Fox News but that doesn’t mean that crime statistics support it. I could tell you that there is a pink unicorn in the driveway and repeat it authoritatively until millions of people believe there is a pink unicorn in the driveway. But that doesn’t mean it’s true.

          In this case, there are sexual predators but the way this problem is portrayed, you would think that we are all in danger of meeting one when we are children and that’s not true. You can say this all you want and have the entire nation of mothers quaking in fear but you are no more correct about it than your belief in pink unicorns.

          Unfortunately, there is absolutely nothing I can say or do to make you not belief this fallacy. You’re going to believe it because the news tells you that it’s so. The people on the air have more authority than I do or else why are they on the air and not me? You won’t believe it if I presented you with a mountain of evidence. That’s because rationality and evidence mean absolutely nothing in this situation. You are already terrorized beyond your wildest expectations that someone will snatch a little girl you may know and do horrible things to her and leave her body in some twisted obscene pose with her teeth forced down her throat, right? Doesn’t it seem curious to you that you know so many of the gruesome details of these horrific murders? I suspect it’s because horrible details leave an emotional trace on your thought processes.

          It’s intentional.

          But the number of cases of this happening is ridiculously small. It’s minute.

          Doesn’t matter, does it. You’re still thinking about those teeth.


          They have you right where they want you. Intellectually, you know you’re being played but emotionally, you can’t help yourself. Ok, put that aside for a moment. You know they are are terrifying you and you are terrified. Just accept it.

          Now, ask yourself: WHY are they trying to terrify me?

          When you figure that out, I suspect you will stop listening to the news.

  9. Here in Paris high school kids routinely take the metro to school. Our godson takes the metro from a near suburb to school in the Marais. Younger kids walk to school or use those little two-wheeled scooters.

  10. Off topic:

    Some helium floated into a bar.

    The bartender said, “Sorry, we’re not allowed to serve noble gases here.”

    The helium didn’t react.

  11. Growing up in urban Chicago, I was expected to take public transit to Catholic school some 7 miles away…that was first grade, the year Kennedy was shot

    • Going to Catholic High school required riding public buses some 20 miles as it took a circuitous route instead of a straight line. The time spent on that bus helped shape my outlook on life. Later on people I met would assume I was a transplant to the area because I wasn’t a narrow minded bigot. That bus saved me from republicanism.

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