8-Year-Old Told Reading on the Bus Is a Safety Risk

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A hardcover book with bubble wrap on its corners.
“I’ve bubble wrapped the corners, it should be safe to read now. Just be sure to keep the first aid kit nearby – those pages are sharp!” Image: Michael LeSauvage

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.

An abandoned school bus is on a scrap yard.
This is your bus. This is your bus on literature. Image: National School Bus Service #8162 (1) by ThoseGuys119, licensed under CC BY 2.0

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.

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23 thoughts on “8-Year-Old Told Reading on the Bus Is a Safety Risk

  1. Decisions like this infuriate and annoy me in so many ways. I was just having a conversation yesterday about helicopter vs. free range parenting. What are we to do? Seal our children in hamster balls with GPS chips installed? My bus ride home as a kid in the 80s & 90s was 45 minutes. And exhaustively boring. If I hadn’t been able to read I would have cried. The only plus side to this is that there are no sharp corners for comic books – Maybe that is the new (and ridiculously safe) bus reading material!

  2. When I was a kid, my family lived across the road from the school. The school also had the best parkland for my friends and I to play on. On the weekends, and in the evening, we’d be running from my house to the field, or on bikes, or whatever, completely out of sight of parents, from probably about age 7 or 8, and for school, I’d walk to school with my brother or on my own from the age of 5.

    Every time I see stories about the helicopter parenting societal trends, I think back on those days, and get seriously annoyed with people nowadays.

  3. I was thinking they should assign books to ALL the kids—at least then we don’t have to worry about them standing up to see what somebody else is reading. And, sure, let’s make them all monthly issues of comics—no sharp corners. Now they’ll complain about paper cuts.

  4. I recall running into similar BS statements when I was a child in the 90s. My go-to example is from when I was in 5th or 6th grade. My classmates and I had taken to having dandelion fights. We would pluck the weeds from the recess field, wad them into a ball and throw them at each other like snowballs.

    One of the recess attendants insisted we stop because it was dangerous. She even used the recognizably ludicrous statement that someone could get hit in the eye… with a mushy ball of dandelions.

    This sort of nonsense has been around for decades. The problem is, it seems to be more and more officially sanctioned. I need to figure out how to waive any parental accompanyment requirements when my son starts school so he will have the option of walking the two suburban blocks like a self-reliant little human.

    1. That one hits a new high. On the other hand, you still have your vision – surely your attendants’ vigilant stance is the reason? I wish you luck on the walking to school option; I hope to figure out how to crack that nut myself…

  5. When I was a kid riding the bus, if the bus driver had doled out this rule, he would have been hit in the back of the head with the occasional paperback. My bus crew was solid and trustworthy. No one talked, no one saw anything.

  6. If other parents want to play helicopter, that’s their decision, but it shouldn’t have to exert any influence over the decisions I make. I think this constant over-vigilance and hyper-caution are contributing to a disempowered and nervous generation of kids. Really good article. I hope you win the walk to school fight!

  7. Sweet Jesus! I drive for a large school district and we JUST put picture books in the buses for kids to read and I’ve not had any distractions, in fact it is better when the kids read and I can drive the bus! The rules set up on the bus make it possible for the driver to enact such rules, but this driver and the company really don’t get it. Reading scores and levels are at all time lows, even adults admit to not finishing books or read a below age level. This is an outrage! No kid on my bus looks over to see what another is reading, it’s the ipads and video games that cause THAT problem. Totally wrong and I hope the district hires a better contractor for them.

  8. And here I thought that I had finally found a compatriot in the realm of those who were so engrossed in a book that they forgot to get off… That was the only thing I could imagine this headline could mean, the reality is depressing!

  9. What about in the morning when the procrastinators are trying to finish their math pages? And books are dangerous, they lead to thinking and we can’t have that.

  10. I am a para at my kids school and we all ride the bus together. It is an hour and 10 minutes in the morning. I am thrilled to see the kids reading. I also help them with homework. some kids sleep, some listen to music.. Anything tat keeps them from trouble is wonderful. The only time I ever discourage a child from reading is during lesson time in school.

  11. Probably some parent sued over their kid getting poked in the eye with a book, and that’s why this stupid rule was put into practice in the first place. You can’t win with parents. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

  12. How about creating a backpack that holds your book “in your bag” but opens up so that you can read and flip pages.

  13. These people need to move to Hawaii. I regularly see two year olds playing a lone in the street in front of my house. Plural. Multiple toddlers from various families are allowed to play in the street without parental supervision while their older siblings are at school (which they all walk to on their own). I feel like a helicopter parent when I insist that my two year old NOT play in the road.

    And even though my local community seems borderline in need to social services, I still think I like it better than the control freaks and micro-managers of the mainland.

  14. That’s ridiculous. Reading on the bus is one way to handle the boredom. It’s much harder to keep the kids quiet if you tell them they can’t do such a simple, quiet activity.

  15. Until they have seat belts, or some such, on a bus there is no argument they can make for safety. Time for this school board to go with another bus company (but sadly the board seems to support this BS).

  16. Since this school board is all safety conscious, How about installing seat beats on all their school buses for the safety of the children when these lame drivers make another mistake.

  17. Good article. Never ceases to amaze me how insanely overprotective we have become without any basis whatsoever.

  18. Maybe meet somewhere in the middle. Allow the ban of hard cover books but promote those beautiful “cushioning” softcover paperback books. No eyes will be poked out, and they are the next best thing to an airbag! Win Win!

  19. DISCOURAGING kids from reading! Wow, good move people!?? Then again, it was Harry Potter, so…

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