Back Home Again: The Parent Trap

Hovering, worrywart moms and dads kids no favors. And they’re a menace to public health to boot.
Illustration by Ryan Snook
Illustration by Ryan Snook

MY GRANDDAUGHTER, Madeline, is in third grade, and I’ve been tasked with picking her up from school when one of her parents can’t. She only lives five miles from school and has two perfectly good legs, so I don’t see why she can’t walk home. But things are done differently these days, which I realized last year when she scraped her leg and instead of rubbing dirt on it, her mother cleaned it with soap. If we ever go to war, I fear we’ll get our clocks cleaned.

Transporting children back and forth from school has become an all-day affair for some parents, who drop off their child in the morning and then circle around the block so they can be first in line when their child emerges seven hours later to go home. The decline in national productivity can be attributed to parents spending most of their time in school parking lots. There they sit, 50 yards from their child should an emergency arise. The solution, as I see it, is for people to have more children so they can stop fretting over their one or two perfect specimens and have some extras on reserve. When parents had spare children, they didn’t hover, which turned out to be beneficial for children and parents alike. Children need freedom, and adults need a life.

When it comes to safety, don’t even get me started on the rash of allergies now common in many children, who swell up and die at the whiff of a peanut, insect, or fresh air. We’ve sanitized life beyond what’s good for us and have become allergic to life itself. Kids need a little less soap and a little more dirt to kickstart their immunity. “Rub a little dirt on it” turns out to be sound medical advice, as evidenced by the low rate of allergies and asthma among Amish and farm children.

Another victim of our preoccupation with safety and sterility is the unhurried stroll children used to take back and forth to school. Those liberating moments I spent walking home—beyond the reach of school authorities and not yet under the supervision of my parents—were the high point of my young life. I would stretch it out as much as possible, looping past the Dairy Queen or Danner’s Five and Dime and extending my freedom for an additional hour or two, sometimes not arriving home until suppertime.

Was there occasional difficulty or trouble? Of course. I was picked on by a bully, and once I saw a girl bounce off the hood of a VW Beetle. But I lived and so did she. My parents suggested I pop the bully in the nose, which I did the very next day, solving the problem tidily. The parents of the girl recommended that in the future, she look both ways before crossing the street, which she did.

In a nod to safety measures, our principal, Mr. Peters, gave a sixth grader named Nathan Mowery a white belt and a badge and made him a crossing guard. Not just anyone could be a crossing guard. You had to get straight A’s and pass a test, but once you became one, you were set for life. Nathan Mowery eventually parlayed his connections into the senior class presidency and from there scaled ever greater heights.

Parents today fear strangers lurking in panel vans, waiting to grab children and drive three states away—even though, statistically, young children have a higher chance of being carried off by an eagle than being kidnapped by a stranger. Whenever I hear such worries expressed, I think of O. Henry’s The Ransom of Red Chief, about men who kidnap the son of a rich man for ransom but are exhausted by the boy’s mischief and pay his father to take him back. As a child, I was a lot closer in spirit to Red Chief than to Nathan Mowery, so I harbor few illusions about what my parents would have done if I’d been abducted walking to school. By nightfall, they would have been the ones three states away, celebrating.

Here’s my idea: Town kids walk or ride their bikes to school. Rural and kids who are disabled get bussed. Turn the entire town into a school zone for an hour every morning and afternoon. Anyone speeding, no matter their age, can be taken to Mr. Peters office and spanked with a board, then spanked by their parents again when they get home. That worked fine when I was a kid. I see no reason why it ever had to change.