Near the beginning of the school year, I posted a personal story on my public Facebook page.
This page has nearly 100,000 followers, but generally gets somewhere between one and eight “likes” on any given post.
This one has over 600.
I haven’t seen that kind of interaction since I had a baby!
I knew I was taking a countercultural stance, but I thought it might be in the 20 or 30 like range, not “blow up the internet and call all the keyboard warriors” range.
What was the post about you might ask?
Biking to school.
Not even a child biking to school by himself, but with both parents.
The Facebook Post That Caused the Controversy
Here’s the original post:
It was almost exactly a year ago on the Fall Equinox when a minivan-driving mom with the sun in her eyes hit my husband and son while they were biking. Here’s a picture of little Gabriel’s only injury.
Original post continued:
I was thinking about that day a few weeks ago as I drove in the same direction she had been driving. I have all empathy for her because we don’t always think things through when the sun is in our eyes.
Half an hour later, as we biked Gabe to school, I was thinking about the accident again as we crossed the entrance to the intermediate school where they were hit.
We are hyper-vigilant at that entrance, especially for cars coming from our back turning left. It’s really hard for them to see bikers, so we make sure we see them first.
It was about seven driveways later that we were coming up on the major stoplight in our town. Traffic was busy, as it always is with people going to school and work.
Gabe was riding first in line.
I was following.
My husband was behind me.
There’s a bank on the corner with an entrance that aligns with the stoplight’s left turn lane, muddying the waters as to the intent of any blinker.
As Gabe crossed the bank’s entrance, the unthinkable happened: a young man driving an SUV began his left turn and started to accelerate to get into the parking lot–and Gabe was directly in his path. I’ve never felt so powerless.
Now I know exactly how my husband felt one year ago. He’s said time and time again, “I couldn’t do anything. There was nothing I could do to save him.”
I opened my mouth and emitted some syllables that couldn’t form words, followed by a scream that vibrated my handy-ball-thingy worse than any teenybopper horror movie scream.
We had just finished saying our riding-to-school prayers, including asking for protection from Gabe’s guardian angel and St. Michael, the Archangel with the fiery sword. With those two advocates in our corner, the SUV stopped about three feet from Gabe and his bike.
Anger and fear and relief flooded my system all at once as I yelled a sarcastic “Good morning” through the young man’s open window.
He pulled into the bank parking lot, separating me from my son. I couldn’t get to him fast enough, my heart pounding so hard.
He was a mess of tears and shaking, and the worst part was that he felt like it was his fault. He thought maybe he was too far in front of me or that he should have checked better to see if anyone was coming.
I had to keep saying, “There was nothing you could do. Accidents are not your fault.” I needed to relieve his burden in any way I could.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared in my life.
However, contrary to what many of you might be thinking, we won’t be changing our mode of transportation for school.
I don’t believe there’s such a thing as perfect safety.
And we wear our bike helmets, but I refuse to remove myself or my kids from life just in the name of safety.
I tell parents all over the world that they should let their kids use sharp knives and cook with open flames. Those things are dangerous, too. But to me, because the means must meet the end, it’s an acceptable risk to know how to cook.
Biking to school is an acceptable risk to get that family time, positive movement, time outdoors, and almost half an hour more sleep compared to riding the bus.
Perfection can never be the goal as parents.
I don’t throw caution to the wind and eschew bike helmets just because safety can’t be perfect, and I’m also not going to completely stop an activity because something went wrong twice.
End of original post.
Adjusting Our Route
Yes, we nearly had an accident, and I shared that I would continue biking with no regrets. I own my decisions.
That was my goal in posting: to encourage people to make their own decisions, to stay true to them, and to build family values as they see fit.
I was definitely encouraging family values that include not living in fear and taking caution, but not seeing complete safety as an attainable truth.
When I emailed the same story to my community (before the social media post), I received a few sweet responses: support, prayers, gratitude, and a couple of kind suggestions querying if there are any alternate routes or if we might consider tweaking our system in this way or that way.
It turns out I had forgotten there is an alternate route that doesn’t include as many treacherous business entrances–just one very tricky initial crossing without a crossing guard or light.
All in all, it’s probably better, and we started taking that route most days.
We tell our eight-year-old Gabe that we want him to feel safe and, of course, would stop biking if he wanted to, and that he gets to choose the path that makes him feel safest.
That wasn’t part of the Facebook post … you know, out on the internet, where people tend to lead with distrust, anger, and judgment instead of assuming that parents are actually trying to do the right thing for their kids most of the time.
25 likes!!! More than I usually get on a whole POST! 😮
Ah, trauma…It has to be said that the list of “Adverse Childhood Experiences” is shorter than I expected. These are the experiences that cause true trauma and tend to have very negative results for mental and physical health later in life. (Read about the ACE study here.) Divorce is on the list, right along with having a parent be imprisoned and being abused in any way. Getting into a childhood accident, or nearly so, is not there.
Are we going to bash every parent who gets a divorce now, out there on Facebook? Doubt it.
Maybe that would give Tiffany something new to say — she wrote to me, “I hope you reconsider your choice – getting hit with a car is not an acceptable risk. What type of family bonding time would you have if you lost your son?”
The Benefits of Biking to School
Let’s take this opportunity to reiterate the benefits we see to biking, including but not limited to quality family time.
Many of the commenters would choose ONE reason and say that I’m trading my child’s life for a half hour of sleep. We are not!
Here are all the puzzle pieces we consider when choosing to continue to bike:
- Time outside in the morning for all three of us improves our circadian rhythm and may be one of the biggest pieces of overall health.
- Daily movement is something we all need.
- We truly want to teach our kids caution but not fear. We wear bike helmets. We are hyper-aware of vehicles as much as possible (more so now) But I just refuse to stand down and change behaviors that are generally over 99% safe.
- Gabe is going to be one of the best teenage drivers in the world. He’s so aware of the behavior of other drivers and pedestrians. This will be such a gift when we have our most impulsive child behind the wheel at age 15.
- I love the conversations we get to have on the way. In fact, typically Gabe and I are riding two abreast on the sidewalk. It was a fluke that he was in the lead at the moment of the near accident.
- I also love the more relaxed mornings. If he wants to read one more minute after breakfast and teeth are brushed, I can say, “Sure!” because there’s no bus to miss.
- And yes, giving my child a half hour extra sleep every single weekday morning is really good for his behavior and his physical health. (To the keyboard warrior who shared the sage advice below – methinks no kids? No reality?)
Soul First, Body Second
Finally, perhaps the most contentious justification of all for sticking to our decision with no regrets–and the most important to me personally–we are Catholic Christians who choose to live with a “soul first, body second” mindset.
This is about as countercultural as it gets and really raised the bristles of some of the commenters. I shared that death is NOT the most scary thing in our family’s lives.
In fact, death is gain.
It’s not that we seek out death, but that losing our soul would be much scarier.
Many people said there are lessons to be learned on the bus. And while I agree, there are also eight-year-olds being shown adult photos for the first time on buses. 🙁 There are kids getting bullied on buses so badly that they contemplate suicide.
Ultimately, there are any number of dangers to the soul and to the body with any number of activities we choose to participate in.
My husband says that everything we do could end in death – unload the dishwasher, drop a glass bowl, get MRSA in your cut – die. He’s an engineer, and obviously a very to-the-point kind of guy. 😀
There have been times in history when Christians have had to meet death head-on and even allow their entire family to be killed so as to not risk losing their eternal souls. In fact, there are countries and pockets in the world right at this moment where Christians are being killed–yes, even children–because they won’t do something with their bodies or their words to risk their souls, or for doing something as simple as attending church.
In America, it’s incredibly countercultural to say that death is gain; but I will be countercultural in that to my last breath, as I will with teaching kids to cook (also a dangerous act) and choosing to make food from scratch and avoiding disposable water bottles, etc, etc, etc.
And Now for the Fun Part (?)
If you’ve made it this far down in this post, lucky you! You get to read the synopsis of Facebookland comments.
They fell into roughly three categories.
One, care and concern: people were glad Gabe was safe, and some kindly worded questions rooted in curiosity and care about whether we might make some changes to our route but not fully stop biking.
Two: fellow cyclists and people who want to see systemic change to make American streets safer for people who bike. This will take a lot of work and a lot of people behind it but it sounds like there are some great books and influencers to help along the way.
Here are some of the suggestions I received (thank you especially to Mary P. for her enthusiasm and expertise!):
- Curbing Traffic: The Human Case for Fewer Cars in Our Lives by Chris Bruntlett and Melissa Bruntlett (find it on Bookshop.org here)
- National Center for Safe Routes to School
- Vision Zero Network
- Strong Towns
- Not Just Bikes
Three: the people who threatened or hinted at calling CPS on me for putting my “poor traumatized child” in such mortal danger. These ranged from personal indignation and trying to run my parenting decisions to a whole crowd who thought my Christian beliefs were absolutely off the wall and concerning.
This isn’t the first time people have threatened CPS on me on the interwebs, and it won’t be the last. I do crazy things like put the teaspoon back in the drawer when I measure salt – THAT little tip was the first time I remember an errant commenter saying that my children should be taken away for the dreadfully unhygienic state of my kitchen! <<<True story…
… So we bike.
We bike cautiously, using new routes, checking in with our little guy to make sure he’s recovering–mind, body, and spirit–and continuing to pray on the way.
I felt a confirmation of sorts when I pulled up the Bible reading I had been assigned to read in front of church the Sunday after the keyboard warriors trying to wear me down. My hair stood on end as I realized it contained the line “to me life is Christ; death is gain” (Philippians 1).
And when I shared this follow-up again with my online community via email, the inbox was flooded with over 150 responses.
Only 1.5 of them were negative.
It turns out people are more kind off of social media.
I answered every single email personally, and I am so edified and encouraged by the human beings with whom I’m now connected.
I believe we can live in a world where we can be unified despite our differences in belief.
A world where we can make choices for our own children.
And a world in which, when something goes wrong, we can teach our children how to continue living (with caution), living dangerously with caution, and not running in fear.
Here’s Gabe and his mama, still biking, still walking against the current, still living counterculturally:
And still smiling!!