In Japan, 6-year-old children are not only allowed to ride the train by themselves, but are eligible for a special fare. Not so in America, where Amtrak has now raised the age that children can ride the train by themselves from age 8 to age 13, effectively barring many working-class children from seeing their father (or non-custodial parent) after a divorce or parental break-up (or seeing their grandma). In America, unlike Japan, children are expected to be chained to their parents to prevent the one-in-a-million chance that something bad will happen to them if they are allowed a little freedom. Could the greater Japanese belief in children’s individual responsibility have something to do with how much better Japanese kids do on tests?
Amtrak admits that it had no experiences with anything bad happening to unaccompanied 8- to 13-year-olds who rode it, it just banned them out of an “abundance of concern” — that is, a baseless fear about safety. But taking away children’s mobility and independence is not “safe,” but deadly. Kids are getting obese as they are kept inside playing video games by busy parents, rather than being allowed to roam the neighborhood unaccompanied, which society used to permit. When I was in second grade, I and my twin brother would play outside for hours unsupervised, walking miles from our home in the woods and on our street, and getting lots of good exercise. Today, this would be considered child neglect by our parents, even though my father was depicted in a front-page obituary in the local paper as a model citizen. The home-habitat of the average child — the area in which they are allowed to travel on their own — has shrunken to one-ninth of its former size as parents are expected to be helicopter parents (and even rewarded for it with sole custody when fighting over custody of a child in the aftermath of a divorce).
…Even when Amtrak does allow minors to travel on their own, look at the rules it imposes: 13 to 15 year olds must wear a special wrist band identifying them as youngsters. They cannot travel after 9:05 p.m. They cannot get off at an unmanned station. An adult must be at both ends to sign them in and drop them off.
Why not just put them in a crate with a chew toy and be done with it?
There is one more requirement for teens traveling on Amtrak alone. They also must be “interviewed by station personnel to determine if the child is capable of traveling alone.” So here’s an idea: Do away with the age restrictions and go with a basic interview for all the minors who want to travel solo. If they can tell you where they’re going, how they’ll know when to get off, and what they plan to do for supper, let them ride the rails.
There’s a difference between minors and babies. But if we never let the babies grow up and have some adventures on their own, they could end up as befuddled as Amtrak officials.