Why do we treat our tweens like toddlers? Because the rules say we have to.
The other day my son had to leave middle school early for the big day: Getting his braces. I planned to meet him at the orthodontist near our home and wrote a note asking for him to be excused at 1 oc’lock. Naturally, I left phone numbers where the school could call me or my husband to confirm this wasn’t some scam on my son’s part, and I left my e-mail address, too.
My son brought the note to the principal’s office where he was promptly informed: No dice. Your mom, or dad, or babysitter (!) has to personally come 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.
“He could have forged it,” she said.
“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 e-mail? 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.
Actually, I left that last little bit un-exclaimed, because I had already 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 very much 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 on his way the orthodontist (who, by the way, only puts on braces during school hours in order to leave after-school hours for all the follow-up appointments), maybe some parents would sue, even if they had asked the school to let the kid leave on his own.
But that’s when we have to start thinking about changing everything we’re up against. A society that encourages and rewards crazy law suits. Schools that treat growing children like babies (even 17-year-old football players). 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” brooks no give-and-take. It 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, whom we’d really like to see grow up and act responsibly already.
So my son and I headed off to the orthodontist together, but while he was within sight of his school he sprinted a full city block ahead of the middle-aged lady schlepping behind him. 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.