Upper East Side Parents Won’t Let Their Teens Outside Alone
Photo-Illustration: by Curbed; PhotoGetty Images
On weekday afternoons from 3 p.m. to around 5 p.m., some streets on the Upper East Side can become nearly impassable. Volvos, Beemers and Teslas idling or double parked, and the moms (mostly) behind the wheel crane their necks, trying to catch a glimpse of the school gate. The nannies line up with tank-shaped buggies, zip-lock bags containing apple slices and ready-made goldfish crackers. But while I wait for my kindergarten and my third year student, some of the meetings I attend are between caregivers and older children – sometimes sixth, seventh and eighth graders. And where were the groups of teenagers on the M15 bus? Even the local Dunkin’ seems oddly quiet.
Turns out I can’t imagine it: Many tweens and young teens in my neighborhood have babysitters, whether it’s a person or an Uber account. A local mom named Lisa tells me that her seventh-grade son, let’s call him Lucas, travels by taxi — about 40 blocks straight on the East Side — with her to school every day. A babysitter usually comes to pick him up in the afternoon. Ask Lisa why this level of supervision is needed and she’ll tell you about crimes and deaths on the roads. “As long as he lets me take him to school and back, I will,” she says. Another parent, Jen, says her son, now 14, has never taken the subway alone and probably only knows his “way-ish” in the neighborhood without it. It’s a kind of symbiotic neurosis that she recognizes in other parents she knows: “Actually, I think part of it has to do with what’s going on in New York,” she says of from New York Job of all that. “Some adults are reluctant to take the subway and take the bus as much as before, which influences children.”
In March 2020, these children were fourth and fifth graders in top private and public schools, on the verge of a rite of passage for city kids: venturing out on their own. It’s almost an official policy. The seventh year is the year the New York Department of Education stops providing yellow bus service entirely and distributes free MetroCards. But then the world shut down. Leaving home for non-essential chores was a breach of civic duty, and these kids missed their moment. And their parents, who may have been anxious anyway, found themselves hugging them tighter just when they should have let go. Three years later, with their peers back to the normal order of things — roaming the city without parents, holding ice cold drinks in all weathers — many Upper East Side tweens and young teens are home cats. geographically disoriented, sticking close to home – and an adult.
Jen’s son Alex, now 14, missed about a year of city life when their family temporarily moved to Westchester from the Upper East Side at the start of the pandemic. If he’s across town working out and needs to get home, he calls an Uber. He rarely takes the metro and has never boarded it alone. Jen relies on Ubers in part because the thought of traveling by subway makes her anxious. So does the idea of her son taking long walks down seemingly quiet side streets. “I really feel like you need to be more alert right now,” she said. (Like Lisa, Jen also says she enjoys spending time together when they travel together. What parent would say no to a teenager wanting to spend time with them?) She’s in no rush to change things; Alex didn’t apply to any downtown high schools, in part to avoid a subway ride. Other moms I spoke to had similar stories: Sherry, mom of a seventh grade girl, says the pandemic has heightened her already overprotective nature: “In grade six, when some of her friends started homeschooling or extracurricular activities, I just wasn’t convinced that Sara could cross the streets. This uncertainty and vigilance still fuels many of his decisions as a parent. “I’m super overprotective,” she adds.
There is data to support the fact that fewer children – as well as fewer adults – take the metro in general. There were over 83 million student MetroCard swipes in 2019. In 2020, when schools closed and then reopened part-time, student usage plummeted and just under 25 million rides were recorded . This number remained low through 2021 as many middle and high schools remained hybrid for part of the year. But what interests me most is 2022, when all schools were back to full-time in-person with no remote option: Still, student MetroCard usage hasn’t fully recovered. Students swiped 60,238,808 times – 28% below pre-pandemic levels. And on the Upper East Side, from Sutton Place to just above 96th Street, at least part of that drop can be explained by parents driving, calling an Uber, hailing a cab, blocking their work schedule to get out of their home office to pick up, get closer to school and walk longer distances than before.
When I spoke to Kristen Piering, a clinical child psychologist in private practice on the Upper East Side, she acknowledged the change in some of her clients, while cautioning that she still sees many of her young patients traveling by solo. But she agreed there had been a lag in what she calls “travel skills”. Some of these families have developed routines that, like all habits, are hard to break. There is also parental fear at the heart of much of the change. “For years we have lived under this umbrella of anxiety, reflection, What’s going to happen? Is it safe?” she says. “These issues have gone from germs to crime to now, well, sort of.” The parents I spoke to definitely fell into the “sort of everything” anxiety camp.
The disruptions of the pandemic served as an extended rationalization for parents to get high – a chance to own their worry instead of hiding it. And I get it: I’ve often contemplated holding hands with my kids as I cross the street to their bar mitzvah. It’s just that while buying your own breakfast sandwich or knowing how to give a tourist directions to Central Park at 13 may seem like a minor issue, it’s in the DNA of growing up here.
Some of the parents I have spoken to understand this and are trying to self-correct, albeit in small steps. Sherry began allowing her seventh-grader to walk the few blocks to school with a friend. She is strictly advised to always carry her phone but never take it out of her pocket. “I told her I had spies watching to see if she was on the phone,” Sherry said. (It’s not really a bluff either: Sherry To asked other mums to report if they see Sara texting and walking.) Jen’s son Alex has also started walking to school with a friend, but is still supported by his mother. Rebecca is a mother of three in East Harlem who sends her eldest daughter, Alice, to a private school just steps south of the Upper East Side. When the second semester of fifth year began, she realized that Alice was now allowed to fire herself – and hadn’t prepared her for the task. “It got away from us,” she said. Rebecca practiced walking with Alice that spring, letting her daughter lead the way, err and figure it out. In sixth grade, Alice started to take care of the walk to and from school on her own – in daylight only. Now she’s in seventh grade and rides a few familiar public bus routes on her own. She has memorized the Manhattan grid and travels with a flip phone in case of an emergency. On weekends, her parents assign her to plan a trip to other boroughs and research where to go and how to get there.
What Alice really wants, however, is a freedom she considers only exists elsewhere. “She asks us all the time to get out of town,” Rebecca laughs. “She thinks if we lived in the suburbs she would have more independence.”
The names of all children have been changed to protect their privacy.