Stroller bans are in the news again, here and here. Predictably, some parents are railing against this "anti-child" policy, and some people who don't really like children very much are retorting that the children probably don't belong in the restaurants and stores that have the ban in them anyway.
These attitudes only make sense if you accept the logic that having children requires having strollers.
I do not. I do not, therefore, believe that restricting the number of strollers in an enclosed space is the same thing as banning children. I wish more places would do it.
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My words are primarily aimed at young families, so that I might warn them away from the dependency on The Stroller before it's too late. Therefore, I'm going to be blunt. If you have several children and have already become dependent on a stroller, you may not find my words appealing.
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Although we have fewer children, by proportion of the population, than we used to have -- especially in urban areas -- we appear to have more strollers in every place where families go. It may not be so bad in recently developed areas, but older buildings and areas that were designed for previous generations don't have room for all the strollers. If you go to a place that attracts families with small children -- the zoo or the state fair -- sometimes you cannot move for all the strollers running over your toes and crashing into the backs of your knees. Little kids who happen to be walking can't see over them.
It's not so much each individual's choice, as it is the sum total of a crowd's choice. A few strollers here and there do not cause a problem. But a large crowd of families, each of whom are pushing a large and bulky stroller, does. In a small boutique store or cozy restaurant, one stroller may not cause a problem. But if three or four parents happen to be in the store at the same time, and each has a stroller, there's a parking issue (and maybe a fire code violation, and maybe real trouble for guests who use wheelchairs or walkers to get around). And the crowd-of-strollers problem reduces everyone's mobility.
Why's that? Why do we have more strollers than we have room for?
The aging population of parents? Could be. If you have your first baby at age 39, you might not be able to carry him around as easily as a parent who has his first baby at 22.
Maybe it's not that there are more strollers, but the strollers are bigger, clunkier, and fancier? I think that is part of the problem. You have to admit, today's strollers can be huge and unwieldy -- a far cry from the folding "umbrella strollers" of yesteryear: lightweight, not much bigger than a couple of large umbrellas, and only about fifteen inches wide when fully unfurled. (I hear you can still purchase them. Perhaps the restaurants could evade the "you're anti-child!"criticism by permitting umbrella strollers and rejecting larger ones.)
When I survey the crowds at the fair or zoo, I'm tempted to identify another factor: Kids in strollers until they are five or six or sometimes even older. (This is enabled by the large-clunky-stroller phenomenon.) It stands to reason that if a population depends on strollers up to age six, there will be more strollers in it than in a similar population that only depends on strollers up to age three.
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Strollers, it seems, have undergone mission-creep. Think about the movie WALL-E for a minute. You know how early in the movie, while WALL-E is still trudging around planet Earth stacking cubes of garbage, you see the old advertisement for the new fancy ship? And how the little personal hovercraft mean "Even Grandma can join in on the fun?"
The hoverchairs in the film were created to assist people with more-limited-than-normal mobility. But over the generations between the advertisement and the time of the film, the hoverchairs undergo mission creep, and using them is now normalized. All the adults use them to get around all the time, and never walk anywhere:
So it is with the stroller. A device originally intended for occasional use, or perhaps constant use for a short period in a child's life, is now routinely employed for long periods that encompass all of early childhood.
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A lot of people want a stroller. But most parents do not need a stroller, certainly not nearly as often as they think they do.
Here is when you need a stroller:
(1) Your child has a disability.
(2) You have a disability, or are pregnant; or you are Grandma taking the child out;
(3) You are going for a run and you require a specialized jogging stroller;
(4) You have two babies;
(5) On a particular day, for a particular reason, you plan to travel on foot for a time or a distance that is unusually longer than what your family is used to.
For the able-bodied with typically-spaced singleton children, daily getting-around does not require a stroller.
Becoming dependent on a stroller is, in that case, a lifestyle choice. And the aggregate of many such lifestyle choices is an unpleasantly cluttered environment, and a lot of children who do not know how to walk safely and considerately in public.
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Obviously, when I look at a given family shoving their double stroller through the mall, I cannot know whether that family has to deal with an invisible disability, or some special circumstance. So -- no -- I am not judging your family when I see your giant stroller, unless it runs over my foot, in which case I probably will, at least for a minute until I recover my senses.
But when I look at an entire crowd of people shoving their double strollers through the mall, I can guess that based on the sheer numbers, a lot of them aren't dealing with disabilities.
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My advice to those who are already dependent on the stroller is to try to wean themselves off from it, or maybe to go cold turkey. My advice to those just starting out is never to get dependent on the stroller in the first place.
The easiest way to avoid becoming dependent on the stroller is not to buy one, not to register for one, and not to accept one as a hand-me-down.
Say, "I'll wait to get one of those until I find that I need it."
Then make do without it as long as you can.
Carry the baby. Use a sling or a wrap carrier. You are an able-bodied adult, and newborns usually weigh less than ten pounds; you once carried far more than that in your school backpack. Enjoy having your baby close to you, high up, where he can hear your voice and see the people at people-height.
As the baby grows, you will continue to carry the baby, and you will get stronger. The median twelve-month-old weighs less than 25 pounds, and almost all twelve-month-olds are under thirty pounds; if you're not used to it now, that may sound like a lot, but if you carry your baby regularly you will have strong carrying muscles. And if the baby's growth happens to outpace you and you cannot carry the baby far, then you can always keep that cheap umbrella stroller in the car or entry-hall for the occasional longer jaunt.
Let your toddler walk. Hold his hand and travel at his pace down the street. Start with short walks, perhaps picking him up to cross busy roads and parking lots, and setting him back on his feet when you have arrived on the other side. Take longer walks as he gets stronger and more confident. Keep a lightweight cloth carrier rolled up in your bag in case you accidentally overtire him and you need to carry him home. Talk to him as you walk: about traffic safety, about large dogs, about other pedestrians. If you haven't a smaller baby to carry, hoist him onto your back or shoulders from time to time to give him a piggyback ride. Let him ride in the cart or rental-stroller when you go to a store that has them; when you go to a store that doesn't, teach him not to touch the merchandise, or don't bring him into that kind of store until he's learned. Keep the cheap umbrella stroller around for emergencies; maybe break it out more often for a little while if your next baby comes along before your toddler is really ready to walk everywhere you go.
If you're not used to walking with a small child in public, this might be intimidating. Traffic is scary, and so is the prospect of a big public meltdown. But just as you trained your carrying muscles as your baby got bigger, you will train your awareness and your coping mechanisms as your toddler gets bigger. You will be aware of the hazards of traffic, and you will choose your route accordingly, and you will teach your child to walk safely. You will keep your toddler closer to you and you will become aware of the things that attract or frighten him. You will learn to predict meltdowns and you will adapt your plans as necessary. And as your child grows in stature and ability and confidence, he and you will grow in confidence and your outings will grow longer and more varied.
This is how adults get around with children, outside the hoverchair.