Walking Lessons

Walking Lessons

Young mother and her son walking outdoors in city

by Alysa Salzberg

Most people who know me well know that I love to walk. I’m not athletic, and am sort of morally against most activities that cause me to sweat. But a good, long stroll doesn’t faze me.

When I was in middle school, I was bullied for being chubby. Amid reassurances that I was beautiful, my mom also invited me to start race-walking with her through our hilly neighborhood. I didn’t lose much weight from those regular walks with my mom, and it was my family’s support and something within me that made me overcome the bullying. But at some point, walking became about more than discipline and trying to please others.

Knowing that few things could be harder than climbing steep hills in the hot, pollen-dense north Georgia air, I wasn’t afraid of long walks. Over the years, that’s meant fearlessly crossing perilous highways or entire towns and cities on foot. Walking has been a major way I’ve discovered the places I’ve traveled to. Living in a city, it’s also the main way I get around.

It’s also something else: a way to dull my anxiety. Whether I’m at home, or on public transportation, if I feel a wave of nervous energy or panic coming over me, I go outside and walk for a while, letting my quick, sure steps keep me steady.

When my son was born, he became my walking partner in my adopted home of Paris, France. Sometimes our walks were simply to run some errands and get some air. Often they were also spurred on by crying that seemed endless, or the fears and challenges of new motherhood.

I’d push his orange stroller through familiar neighborhoods and new ones. We took on cobblestoned streets and steep hills. We slathered ourselves in sunscreen in the summer. Sometimes, he slept. But often he looked out curiously at the world. He seemed to be as invigorated by our walks as I was.

As my son’s gotten older, our strolls have gotten more fun — when he starts singing, I can’t help but smile. But things have also gotten more complicated. Now, there must be snacks and a toy that may get dropped…or thrown. For a while, we weathered phases, like when he’d quietly remove his shoes and socks onto the street as we strolled along. And then there was that month-long period where he kept stealing fruit from grocery store displays and market stalls. What amazed me then was how many store owners and stall operators let us keep the free fruit – or even gave us more.

It seemed strange that in the months leading up to my son’s first steps, everyone told me “Wait ’til he’s walking,” in that knowing, teasing tone that I’ve never found useful. What’s the point of making parents dread what’s to come?

And anyway, I was excited about it. I knew it wouldn’t be easy at first – I’d have to help him, and my usual swift pace would be significantly slowed. But soon, I imagined, he’d be my walking companion on a new level, keeping pace at my side as we strolled along, chatting and singing the songs he likes.

And then, he started walking, and it was harder. But not in the way everyone said it would be.

What no one told me about this new-walker phase is that my son knows how to walk, but he doesn’t know the rules.

I didn’t realize there were rules, either. Or, rather, I’d forgotten that I’d ever had to learn them in the first place. I never thought I was that far from childhood until I realized that I’d forgotten how fascinating dirty cigarette butts are, or that there was a time I didn’t suspect that a dog might have peed on a fallen leaf. I’d forgotten a time when nothing could hurt me, and the pure, fearless joy of running towards headlights.

A joy that’s even greater for my son than it could be for me; he doesn’t carry around a stuffed animal, but a plastic toy truck.

I guess I thought that with all the months of observation under his belt, my son would take to walking the streets of Paris like a pro, as I assumed every Parisian kid did. No matter how young, they always seem to obediently hold the hand of the adult walking with them, or else obediently follow, or hold onto their (or their sibling’s) carriage.

Lately, though, I’ve started watching fellow pedestrians with young kids more closely, and it seems like my son’s not the only lawless walker. Other parents do struggle, too. It probably seems obvious to most people, but I have to admit, I’d never really paid much attention. I was always too distracted by Parisian dogs, who are not only fun to watch, but usually marvels of discipline, politely entering many stores or restaurants, or even encountering other dogs without much of a fuss. And anyway, it just doesn’t look as dramatic as it feels when it’s your own child who’s insisting on walking into traffic, or leaning down to pick up the contents of a burst trash bag.

It’s brought me to what some people might consider a controversial conclusion: Maybe the truth is, just like those dogs, who you’ll sometimes see being disciplined as excited puppies, kids need to be trained to walk

For a few months now, whenever I take my son out for a walk not involving his carriage, I’ve started seeing it as a fun, albeit important, training session. I remind him that we don’t cross the street until the little electric man turns green (he doesn’t quite understand colors yet, but I guess I want to show him there is some kind of logic). I tell him sternly not to pick up things on the sidewalk. I firmly direct him to go in the direction I say we’re headed, if he doesn’t follow on his own. I’ve gotten used to saying “That’s not our car, so we can look, but we can’t touch it.”

In winter, the cold weather and our frequent food shopping jaunts inspired me to do indoor sessions, too. In bigger-sized shops or grocery stores, I’d let my son out of his carriage and follow him carefully. By now, it’s become a game: How many things can I get on my list before he heads in a completely different direction, or somehow puts himself in peril (his fascination with motorized floor cleaners knows no bounds)?

I’m happy to say it seems like it’s working. There are still the occasional tantrums and insistent wanderings – including, alas, into the street if I don’t stop him. There was that recent near-disaster when he discovered one store’s wine section and tried to pry a few bottles from the shelves. And the almost-shoplifting incident, when he snatched a pair of lacey underwear off a wrack – I think because the anti-theft tag resembles a wheel. But overall, he seems to be less intent on picking things up off the ground or pilfering fruit, so there’s that.

I’m proud, but I have to admit I’m also conflicted. I know my son has to learn to follow the rules of walking so that he can walk beside me – or even, simply survive. But a part of me also realizes some of his discoveries are being cut short, his wanderings stopped before they could ever begin.

Walking is a way to calm my racing heart. Seeing the city I love unfurl before me has always soothed me. It seems strange not to let him walk the way he chooses, like snatching a gift from his hands. Every time I tell him not to pick up that leaf, or nudge him in a particular direction, a part of me stands stubbornly with him, understanding.

Alysa Salzberg is a writer and worrier. She lives in Paris, France, with an eccentric Frenchman, a car-obsessed toddler, and a dog-like cat. Besides them, she loves books, travel, and cookies. You can read more about her adventures in parenting and other matters on her blog, or feel free to stop by her perhaps-too-sparkly website.