Looking ahead down a bike path, with three stop signs coming up.

A Wink And A Nod—Teaching Our Kids To Be Criminals (Part I)

What is it like growing up in the U.S. today?  What messages will you get from the society around you?

As you grow and mature you’ll begin to form your own personal values. You’ll learn lessons from your own experiences and from others. You’ll form opinions about regard for others and their property, from sex, alcohol, and cafe etiquette to murder, rape, and stopping at stop signs.

You’ll also develop thoughts about our system of laws and law enforcement.  Not necessarily respect for them though.

You’ll learn to be a criminal at a fairly young age – perhaps the first time you’re in the car with a parent who gets pulled over for speeding.  Most likely your mom or dad will make some comment after the incident that they were breaking the law and that they shouldn’t have been.  You’re satisfied with that for a while, but you’re curious about this whole speed limit thing.  You begin to notice the speed limit signs and you occasionally glance at your dad’s speedometer which is often registering something above the speed limit.  “OK, this whole laws thing may not be so cut and dried.” you think.

Later, you’re 15 and you are driving the car on a family trip.  You stick hard to the 65mph speed limit.  This has been drilled in to you by your drivers-ed instructor, parents, grandparents, and obnoxious little brothers.  EVERY car on the highway is blowing by you.  It’s scary!  You glance over at your mom several times.  You can tell she’s analyzing your driving and the situation.  “If you’re comfortable with it why don’t you speed up just a little.” She says.  A bit of pressure on the accelerator and cars aren’t blowing by quite as fast.  You slowly inch up to about 75. Some are still passing you, but not nearly as many as before and not nearly as much faster.  You feel safer and your mom seems to feel safer.  You, and everyone around you, are breaking the law, your mom knows it, and isn’t doing anything about it.

Throughout most of U.S. history only a very small minority of our population was ever on the wrong side of the law.  Today?

Is this what we want our kids to learn?  That it’s OK to break the law?  Even a speed limit law?  In some families perhaps, but most of us aren’t in the mob, and aren’t thieves, murderers, terrorists, crooked CEO’s, or instigators of ponzi schemes.  We work normal jobs, share home ownership with our bank, go to church, play football, and shop at Target.  Yet here we are telling our kids that it’s OK to break the law.

Traffic laws are one thing, but real laws (we all know traffic laws aren’t real laws don’t we?) are another.  Well, we’ll find numerous real laws that we’ll routinely flaunt.  Besides speeding, we’re statistically also likely to break the law by drinking before we’re legally old enough (and perhaps obtaining an illegal fake ID to do so—nothing like a bit of premeditated criminal ethics to get us on the right foot to being a contributing adult citizen), visiting or working as a prostitute, gambling, smoking pot, shooting illegal fireworks, or some illegal combination of these.

And…, aware that these activities are all illegal, we’ll be keeping a close eye out for the bad guys—cops.

By the time we graduate from high school, nearly all of us will have broken at least one law and many of us will have broken a quite colorful variety of them.

Street School

Vadnais Heights Stop Signs Madness

Stop Signs on Vadnais Heights Bike Path

For most, it starts on the streets—dad’s speeding ticket, mom telling us we can drive over the speed limit.

How many kids riding down the bike path above will stop at each one of those stop signs? What lesson will they take away from that?

For one month this summer I decided to strictly obey every traffic law while riding my bicycle, on segregated paths whenever possible. This turned out to be somewhere between excruciating and nearly impossible. Fortunately, I only encountered those Vadnais Heights stop signs once.

At every signal-controlled intersection I would have to wait longer, sometimes much longer, than vehicles in the traffic lanes. Vehicles traveling in the same direction as I, might have a green, but I would have to wait through an entire phase of lights to get a white crossing signal, even when there were no cars anywhere in sight. At some intersections it would take me five to seven minutes just to make a legal left turn (press beg button, wait for crossing signal, cross, press beg button for next crossing, almost fall over trying to get back in position to cross, wait, cross).

And then there are the cases of beg buttons not working. How long do you wait before crossing against the red don’t walk signal? One button I encounter often, stopped working mid-way through the first week of my experiment. Was I to dutifully wait each time I went through here to make sure that it was still broken?

I chose not to at this one broken button (my one concession). Instead, I came to a complete stop, checked to make sure it was safe to cross, then crossed. Once I was yelled at by a driver that I was crossing against the red ‘don’t walk’ sign and once lectured by a cop for doing so. BTW, as of this posting, that crossing button, despite being reported at least twice, is still broken.

Throughout this summer I also observed kids riding habits. I saw perhaps a hundred kids (and many parents) blow through the multitude of stop signs on that path along Centerville Rd in Vadnais Heights (above) but never saw anyone actually obey all of them (though a small handful did stop for the first two or three further back from where the photo was taken). They seemed much better at waiting for crossing signals. At busier intersections about 80% of kids waited while at others I’d guesstimate about 30% did so. Adults? not so law abiding.

These kids, nearly all under about 14, have already learned something important—U.S. laws are not necessarily to be obeyed. This seed will grow in the coming years as they begin to drive and face the fear of obeying the speed limit on a highway with nearly every other car going 10 mph over, or of deciding whether to completely stop at the rightmost side of a very lonely T-intersection they go through every day.

And this all carries over to adulthood. Law breaking is no longer a line never to be crossed, but merely a bump on the road to self-absorption. Laws, particularly traffic and vice laws, become only suggestions, to be regarded so long as they don’t inconvenience us too much. When a 20-year-old can’t legally drink a beer that seed grows deep roots of disdain.

Part II—Beliefs, Laws, and Turning Right On Red.

Walker Angell

About Walker Angell

Walker Angell is a writer who focuses mostly on social and cultural comparisons of the U.S. and Europe. He occasionally blogs at localmile.org, a blog focused on everyday bicycling and local infrastructure for people who don’t have a chamois in their shorts. And on twitter @LocalMileMN