"Why am I required to pick my kid up from school when she's fine walking home by herself?"
That's a question I get a lot, and all I can say is: Because.
Because we have decided to rewrite childhood as 18 years of constant danger. Because we have decided to give in to outrageous demands by insurance companies, or compliance officers, or administrators who see no downside in treating all children as victims-in-waiting. Because we have decided to accept more and more rules that make no sense.
Vividly, I recall the time that happened to me — the founder of Free-Range Kids and Let Grow, two organizations dedicated to overthrowing overprotection.
My son had to leave middle school early for the big day: getting his braces. I planned to meet him at the orthodontist and wrote a note asking for him to be excused at 1 o'clock. Naturally, I left phone numbers where the school could call me and my husband to confirm this wasn't some scam on my son's part, and I left my email address, too.
My son brought the note to the principal's office and was promptly informed: no dice. An adult must come to fetch you.
So fetch my 12-year-old I did. But when I got to the school office, I couldn't help but ask, "Why do you need me to escort him? You let him leave at the end of the school day by himself."
At first the secretary laughed. "Tell me about it," she said. "When my son needs to leave school early I have to go get him, too, and he's 17. A football player! He should pick me up!"
We had a moment of solidarity and then I muttered, "What a ridiculous rule." And something snapped. The secretary was no longer on my side.
"It's for his safety," she admonished me.
"Why is it safe when he leaves by himself at 3, but not at 1?"
"The school is responsible for him," she clipped.
"Yes, but I'm willing to let him be responsible for himself. That's why I wrote the note."
"He could have forged it," she said.
"That's why I included my phone number."
"Please! He could have anyone answer the phone for him."
"But I left my husband's number, too," said I. "And an email address." Would any kid line up two adult voices willing to cover for him, even as he hacked into my email? If he's that smart, he doesn't need school.
"Why you wouldn't want to ensure your son's safety, I don't know," the secretary said, now cold as a shrimp cocktail.
Somehow I'd turned an ally into an enemy, just by poking a bit behind this scrim of "safety" that really has very little to do with safety and a very lot to do with schools not wanting to get sued.
Not that I blame the schools. If a kid leaves early and gets hit by a car, maybe some parents would sue.
But that's why we have to start thinking about changing everything we're up against. A society that encourages and rewards crazy lawsuits. Schools that treat growing young people — even 17-year-old football players — like babies. And especially adults who use the word "safety" the way 2-year-olds use the word "no!" It is a word that stops all rational conversation in its tracks.
Safety is the trump card we play when we don't want to have to bother thinking a little harder about which rules really make sense, and what effect they're having on our kids.
That day, my son and I headed out the door together. A few steps later, he sprinted a full city block ahead. Seventh-graders know they don't need their moms to pick them up from school. It's humiliating!
Maybe someday the schools will figure that out, too.