Commentary: How can parents make the morning school run less frenzied?
There have been calls for parents to allow their children to go to school on their own, using public transport. But it doesn’t have to be one or the other, says June Yong.
SINGAPORE: The viral video clip about a rogue driver who tried to cut the queue and enter the school compound has raised alarm bells over the state of our traffic etiquette – in particular that of parents and grandparents of school-going children.
Some have argued that parents should stop driving children to school altogether. After all, public transport in Singapore is so well-planned and easily accessible, children can go to school on their own. Otherwise, parents should drop their kids off further away so they can walk instead of clogging up roads.
Some parents on the other hand say they send their children to school because it allows them precious extra sleep time. And that the car ride offers some quality time for communication.
The irony is not lost on me – even with a pandemic still going on, the morning rush hour can become the quintessential modern-day parent’s conundrum.
When my boys started Primary School, we lived near enough for them to walk to school daily. But when we moved further away, I decided to put on the hat of chauffeur-mum.
Some days I do wonder if I’m fanning the flames of the entitlement mentality. After all, I started taking the bus to school at a young age too.
Perhaps it is us parents who find it hard to let go.
GIVING CHILDREN INDEPENDENCE
It was only this year that I started training my younger boys to take the bus home on their own. At Primary 3 and 5 this year, I felt they were ready to gain some independence. The sweetener is that I also get more time to work – instead of zipping out from meetings each time the clock strikes 1pm.
When I pitched them the idea they were excited. The possibility of wandering around the neighbourhood shops en route to home without a nosy mother in tow must have added to the allure.
But the feeling of being wanted and needed can be a mother’s drug. As much as I enjoy keeping them close to me, I recognised the need to foster their sense of competence.
The decisions they get to make – bus or MRT, this way or that – while working their way home are small but important steps. The snack items they might eagerly save up for and buy. The satisfaction of reaching home and texting in the family chat, “We’re home!”
GIVING KIDS A TICKET TO RIDE
I’m not suggesting we all stop sending our children to and from school the minute they turn eight or nine.
We also don’t need to swing to the other extreme and treat them like princes and princesses who always need to be ferried to school, enrichment or tuition classes.
Truth is, not many families have a vehicle to send their children to school. Some may simply have no bandwidth to ferry their children around. This is a reality and children adapt to family circumstances.
But there are also those who have the time. For them, having the assurance of safely getting their kids from point A to B matter much more.
I try to be an authoritative parent – someone who recognises and encourages their child’s autonomy, while providing ample emotional support from the sidelines. Research shows that children raised in this manner are likely to be more independent, confident, socially adept, and happier.
Public transport is just one domain. There are other areas in life where they can practise making choices, in making weekend plans, what to eat for lunch, or who to develop friendships with.
Through such small steps, we can learn to slowly release the reins of control and trust our tweens to step up and take responsibility.
WORKING AROUND OUR CHOICES
Singapore schools start between 7.30 and 7.45am. Add in enrichment activities – both in school and out of it, and we can see why most of our children would struggle to keep to a healthy sleeping habit.
Those who take the school bus may need to be up as early as by 5am. And this can be a dealbreaker.
If they struggle to get up in the morning to catch the bus – a common nightmare – the easier solution is for parents to send their children. It helps with everyone’s sanity.
There are structural changes some parents have asked for, such as later starting times. The Ministry of Education has commissioned research studies to better understand the factors affecting students’ sleep.
However, later start times could also lead to logistical issues, affecting parents’ work schedule or worsening the morning traffic jam.
So if school start times are fixed, then our choices come into play. When choosing schools, we may need to ask ourselves if it makes sense to choose a school further away just because it is a “good” school, and consider travel time as well. We also need to be mindful of inculcating healthy sleep habits.
My children go to bed by 9pm. To help them wind down for the day, we keep all our devices by 7pm. This has helped their body clocks to adjust to waking early. In fact, they are quite happy to wake early so they can be among the first to arrive in school without stress.
WHETHER DRIVING OR WALKING THE KIDS, BE INTENTIONAL
I have been part of the morning rush hour for three different schools for seven years now. Generally, things are smooth because schools demarcate drop-off areas and traffic wardens are placed strategically to get people moving.
We have found it manageable as long as we leave early. This always comes in handy when a sudden toilet run is needed or a forgotten item can be retrieved.
While the early start does not completely insulate us from the occasional queue-jumper or F1 racer archetypes – the kind that swoops in out of nowhere and hustles their way to the finish line – I’ve adopted a simple strategy to stay cool behind the wheel.
It begins by acknowledging that I cannot control other drivers’ actions, but I can take responsibility for my own. Knowing my children are on board and will absorb whatever I do and say like a sponge, I do my best not to react in anger.
After all, we belong to the same school community, and the other person could well be a classmate’s parent, so being gracious seems to be the least we can do.
But regardless of mode of transport – driving, bussing, or walking the kids – this is a sliver of time that will shrink as our children grow. And we wield the power to help them start the day on a positive note or a bad one.
LETTING GO OF THE REINS
As my children grow older, I know the days of the morning school run will end. And when it does, it will be a bittersweet moment for me.
For as long as I can, I will still try to pick them up or send them so I can be the first person they talk to about how the school day went or what they’re looking forward to about the new school day.
These rides, no matter how short or frazzled, are opportunities for me to be intentional and present with them. It gives me a chance to talk about the world and people – that outside our protective family bubble, people can and sometimes do behave impatiently, carelessly and competitively.
This doesn’t mean we accept that as normal behaviour. Instead, we can hold ourselves to a different standard where kindness, courtesy, understanding and patience matter - lessons I hope all children, especially when they begin travelling on their own, will learn to put into action.
June Yong is Lead of Insights at Focus on the Family Singapore and owner of MamaWearPapaShirt, a blog that discusses parenting and education in Singapore.