IN 2019, popular economist and podcaster David McWilliams included a short but brilliant chapter in his most recent book, Renaissance Nation, about how a generation of parents have jumped at the opportunity to individually wrap their children into a cocoon of bubble wrap, protecting them against any and all potential threats they may encounter.
While the right to have such a parental approach is fundamental, the question is whether it is both good for the children themselves and for the wider public good.
We see ‘helicopter’ parenting more than we may even realise, particularly at certain parts of the day, namely 8.30am, 1.30pm, 2.30pm and 4pm. It doesn’t take a genius to join the dots and discover a common link between these time periods, but it is quite clear they are a perfect example of how the youngest in our society are often mollycoddled and protected.
Promoting ‘Active Travel’ that encourages students to walk, cycle, skateboard and even ‘scoot’ to school is something we as a nation must begin to put forward once term begins again in September. The travel trends over the past 35 years are staggering when it comes to how young people make their way to school, both at primary and secondary levels.
In 1986, the Census indicated that every morning, 24% of students were brought by car, while half walked or cycled. In the latest set of statistics for 2016, those numbers have almost completely flipped, with 60% of children now being driven to school by private car, while just 25% used ‘active travel’ alternatives.
Within the figures were variances between counties. In Galway county (73.1%), Roscommon (72.7%), Kerry (70.8%) and Mayo (70.2%) more than seven in ten children travelled to school by car in 2016. At the other end of the scale, only 36% of Dublin City children were driven to school, and less than half of children in Fingal and South Dublin. The places where walking to school was most common were Dublin City (45.9%), South Dublin (40.2%), Fingal (39.7%) and Cork City (38.7%), whereas the counties where students were least likely to walk were Roscommon (8.4%), Donegal (8.6%), Mayo (10%) and Galway County (10.3%).
There is probably a combination of reasons for such a significant shift, with a particularly dramatic change occurring between 1996 and 2002. While deficiencies in the public transport system and distance between the home and schools may be a factor, there is something much larger at play that could only explain such a massive shift in societal change, but this is too hard to determine outright.
What we do know for a fact is that the numbers can start to revert back towards 1980s and 1990s levels if parents change their behaviour and look at the bigger picture. The past 18 months has given many some serious food for thought over how they split their work /life balance. What has been very noticeable in recent months as people have returned more fluidly to work, is the tales from parents who have described the enjoyment and satisfaction of being able to spend more time at home with family during the pandemic. This has particularly been the case for fathers, who have been able to take an increased role in their children’s lives.
It has been evident to me, looking at local schools nearby in South Cork, that parents were more active in walking their children both to and from school in the past 9 months. With a recent report suggesting 95% of workers are now saying they favour a balance going forward of working from home mixed with physical clocking in and out of the office, there is clearly an appetite to retain some aspects of the ‘new normal’ we have become accustomed to.
One of the benefits of this is undoubtedly the opportunity to have more interaction at home with loved ones, a much more desirable outcome than the average daily commute, which according to the latest census was around an hour.
The opportunity therefore presents itself to those working from home, to sign off at 4pm and make the 15-20 minute journey by foot to collect their kids, encouraging them to get some exercise and unwind from the day.
Of course, this isn’t always possible, but where it is, active travel like this should be encouraged and parents of young children in particular should make it a regular feature of the daily schedule. For those that are slightly older, and walking home with your parents is a source of extreme social embarrassment, parents need to avoid ‘helicoptering’ and refrain from driving to school. In the long run, the positive effects of this will shine through.
In 2015, Canadian academics published a study showing as little as a 20-minute walk to school in the morning can lead to an overall increase in academic performance and attention levels. Danish research shows similar results.
It must also be considered that there has never been a generation of young people so acutely aware of the need to address the most pressing issue of our time, climate change. This week’s report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change revealed sobering findings, if there was to ever be a moment that would provide catalyst for change, it is now.
A recent exhibition in The Glucksman at UCC showcased hundreds of sketches and drawings created by primary school children showing their vision for the future of Cork city. An overwhelming theme was the promotion of sustainability, with drawings of cycle paths and wide pedestrian footpaths regularly cropping up, and little attention paid to roads and cars.
The government have been proactive in trying to encourage self-propelled transport to and from educational facilities and committed €1.8billion in the Programme for Government to support walking/scooting and cycling to primary and post-primary schools. It led to the launch of a Safe Routes to School programme, with over €15million being made available to schools to improve active travel infrastructure.
But while providing bike lanes and footpaths is a vital step towards sustainable travel, the real battle takes place in the home, as without buy-in from over-protective parents, our towns and villages will continue to be choked with traffic and our children shall remain in their bubble-wrapped cocoons. So when September comes, let your new ‘academic’ year resolution be to leave your car at home. Your kids will thank you for it, eventually.