Growing up on the northern city limits in Thunder Bay, Ontario, taking the bus was a boring necessity. Looking back on that time of my life, I now suspect that many of the geeky interests I went on to develop were cultivated in that half-hour trip each way as I delved into mysteries, adventures, and science fiction.
So it is with great disappointment that I see our helicopter parenting society take another step forward as an eight-year-old girl in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, has been told she cannot read on her school bus as “it poses a risk to the safety of other students.” Specifically, the driver postulated that other children might stand up to see what she was reading, or that she might poke herself in the eye with the corners of the book.
Bus drivers are just everyday people and a reflection of our society, so you’re bound to run into an odd fellow here and there with a unique outlook on life. What is amazing to me is what happened next. The father complained to the school board, who, despite noting that “obviously” reading is not dangerous, deferred to the bus driver saying that the driver is allowed to make the rules.
I am all for delegating authority down. Trust in your staff is a strong tool organizations should employ wherever they can. You simply cannot account for all situations and make a rule for every possible case, and giving your frontline workers the power to make rules specific to their circumstances makes a lot of sense. However, it comes with a responsibility: when one of your employees is clearly making a boneheaded decision, you must exercise your authority and override that individual. To do any less is an abdication of your moral responsibilities.
Recently, to add just a little more sleight-of-hand to the mix, the Quebec bus company has since defended the decision, saying that passengers are asked to keep all objects in their bags for safety reasons, and attempting to conflate books with all other objects one might have with them, stating: “[Drivers] can’t check what everyone is taking out of their bags.” They also note that the regulation applies to all their buses “at the recommendation” of the school board, putting ultimate responsibility for this decision squarely back on the board, who, if you recall, justified the policy by deferring to the driver, who was apparently implementing the board’s own policy.
The reason I mentioned helicopter parenting earlier is that it is far more comfortable, far easier, to defer to the opinion of the person who identifies a “risk” to children, irrespective of its probability or potential impact, than to take a stand. After all, who can criticize you for looking after the safety of the children? And if a very low probability risk does actualize, and there is a record of you not having supported the proposed safety measures, however ludicrous, the internet shame club is standing ready to demonize you.
These thoughts are very top of mind for me as a new school is nearing completion near my house–a mere 760 meters away (under half a mile and even less if a pathway is built). I had initially been quite excited at the idea that my kids would get a bit of additional exercise as part of their day. Their recess time is often cancelled for a variety of reasons: too hot, too cold, and too wet are all sufficient causes to have them sit at their desks for the full day. In fact, when the bus arrives too early, the students are made to wait in their seats until the appointed time at which they are ushered directly into the school.
However, as we get closer to the opening date, indications are that children will need to be accompanied by a parent to enter or leave the school, irrespective of age. And this all goes back to the same reason: we have become unjustifiably terrified of non-risks that we have collectively imagined and highly refined through television and social media. And if you think I’m exaggerating either the fear or the protectionism, then you missed this recent piece about a father following his daughter to school with a drone. (Although, full disclosure, that is totally geeky-cool.)
Yes, this is just an isolated incident with one school board, but it is indicative of the larger battle going on around us. If we cannot find the backbone to declare that reading on the bus is not dangerous, that it should actually be encouraged, what hope do we have for any of the other activities that we should be letting our kids do? My next step will be to give my daughter a copy of something suitably ironic about the nanny state. Maybe Fahrenheit 451.