26.1.11

Sane Safety or Cultural Coddling?

Last week, a bus driver in Newfoundland was suspended for asking teenagers to get out and push the bus when it became stuck in a snowdrift. Apparently it happened right outside the school -as the bus was exiting. A parent picking up her son or daughter from the school saw what was happening and reported it (not to the school or the police, but the local radio station!)
I listened to the call-in radio shows where all kinds of well intentioned people proclaimed that we're coddling our kids too much -that suspending a man for asking teenagers to push a bus is doing a disservice to the teens who felt capable of pushing. Most of them blamed the parents. And most of them would be the same people to call in if, say, a child was kidnapped walking home from school by himself. They'd change their tune, then, though, and say that the mother was negligent for allowing the child to walk home.

I don't know which is worse:
  • that we've created such fear in parents that they can never do ANYTHING without feeling like they're putting their child at risk
or
  • that we blame parents whenever anything goes wrong; imagining that all tragedy is preventable
or
  • that we blame parents for raising "sissies" and children who don't know how to take a risk and end up moving into their parents basement at 24 because they can't handle independence - financial or otherwise.
In my opinion? A school bus is heavy, very heavy. There was snow and ice on the ground and blowing snow reducing visability for oncoming traffic. They were just outside the school, not stuck on a rural road somewhere with no way to contact anyone. The bus driver should have sent the kids back into the school and called for a tow truck.

But I'm in the minority on that one. Most people's knee-jerk reaction is "I pushed my mother's car all the time as a teenager. Are you telling me 20 teenagers can't push a bus?"

And then they blame the parents. We do horrible things, you know, protecting our children. Well, except when we're doing horrible things by not protecting them.

So was this woman's* compaint a sane and proper safety concern or was it the product of cultural conditioning to expect the worst? You decide:

*********************

Once there was a young woman who desperately wanted a baby. She started taking folic acid – to prevent Spina Bifida – and quit drinking alcohol – because she didn’t want to accidentally drink when she was pregnant but didn’t know yet. Just to be safe, and because she’d heard it was dangerous, she gave up coffee and tea too. Her mother laughed a little at that one, but when she saw a study that showed that caffeine intake could affect miscarriage risk, she knew she was right.

She was pleased to discover she was pregnant a short while later. Her husband took over anything related to the cat – toxoplasmosis could cause birth defects. On New Year’s Eve she enviously eyed everyone’s champagne glasses. Her husband told her one sip wouldn’t hurt. But she said no. The next week, she saw a pregnant celebrity being bashed in the magazines for sipping a glass of champagne at a party. She knew she had made the right choice.

The baby arrived, perfect in every way. She put him to sleep each night in his crib, despite wanting to snuggle with him and nurse him in her own bed. When she read that some municipalities in the United States were considering making co-sleeping illegal because of the risk of death for the infant, she knew she had made the right choice. She put her infant to sleep on his back each night; though her grandmother told her sleeping on his stomach would ease his colic. But everyone knows that back sleeping prevents SIDS.

She bought two car seats, one installed in her own car and an extra in case he ever needed to be transported when she wasn’t available. You can never be too careful. She put covers on all the electrical sockets and modified her stairway entrance so she could add a gate. The cat got relegated to the garage when it refused to keep its food up high.

One day, she had to fill the car with gas. He was in the backseat, asleep in his carseat, sick with croup. It was raining. She lifted him from the car seat, wrapped her own coat around him, and went in to pay. When her husband found out he was angry. But she was validated when the next week the news featured the story of a woman in the same circumstance who had been arrested for leaving her child unattended in the car.

Her son grew older. She sent him off to school with his BPA free lunchbag with an icepack to keep his food cold so he wouldn’t get salmonella. She taught him about strangers and that his private parts were his alone. She gave him a cell phone so he could get a hold of her in any emergency.

When he was six and wanted to go sledding in the backyard, she made sure he put on a helmet. When he was eight and asked if he could walk to the corner store by himself, she said no. Everyone knows a child isn’t safe on the streets by himself. When he was eleven and asked if he could finally stop having a babysitter after school, she said no. She agreed he was mature and responsible enough to take care of himself, but the law says children under 12 years old must be supervised.

When he was fifteen and a friend invited him to his older brother’s party, she said no. She knew the parents wouldn’t be home and that there may well be drinking. He was angry with her, but she wouldn’t budge. It just wasn’t safe. Everyone agreed with her.

She talked to him about sex and particularly safe-sex. She talked to him about smoking and told him of the risks. She spoke to him of alcohol and reminded him that he wasn’t old enough to drink. She told him stories of teens who had died or been injured using drugs. She asked him to please just try to stay safe. All she wanted was for him to stay safe.

One snowy day she picked him up after school. Although he normally walked, the roads were slick with ice and there was no clearance for pedestrians. She knew it would be safest to drive him home herself. As she pulled into the parking lot, she saw a number of his friends pushing a school bus that had gotten stuck into a snow drift. It made no sense to her that these children would stand behind such a large vehicle, in the way of traffic, pushing it. She reported what she saw. All she wanted was to make sure that other people’s children were safe too.

The bus driver was suspended for asking the children to push the bus. And suddenly, everyone accused her and other parents of coddling their children. People called in to radio shows to say that teens should be allowed to push vehicles; that suspending the driver went too far; that parents who complained of this incident were being over-protective.

She doesn’t know where she went wrong. From before the day she became pregnant all she has heard, seen, or read, has been about how to keep her child safe. She has seen parents – well-meaning, good parents – charged or investigated for doing things society deemed was not safe. She has seen parents hung out to dry for letting their child walk alone to the store or trusting their teen to have an unsupervised party. She did what was expected, what felt right after all these years of doing the right and safe thing, and now she is being hung out to dry.

When was she supposed to stop trying to keep her child safe?


*Note: that story is not meant to represent a real person; but I think it could represent all of us.

7 comments:

  1. Tricky. The kids don't have any responsibility for getting the bus moving while the bus driver does have a responsibilty for keeping the kids safe. But, at the same time, we want our kids to grow up into caring, community spirited people who'll lend a hand in a crisis. I think pushing the bus would have been fine if the driver had roped in other people to watch the road for oncoming traffic and supervised everything to minimize risk. Plus of course the kids' participation should have been down to their own choice entirely.

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  2. I was one of the people that thought 'what's the fuss about, it's just a bit of bus pushing' when I read the first few lines.

    I dunno, I *do* think society tries to make us coddle our children too much, but then society is generally more dangerous now that it was when we were growing up - more traffic, higher crime etc.

    I love the story at the end, you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't these days I think. It seems common sense and intuition have been thrown out of the window in favour of doing what some people from the government and the media tell us to.

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  3. Damned if you do and damned if you don't.

    I don't think the driver should be suspended if there are no clear guidelines about what to do in the event of a breakdown in snowy conditions. It's not his fault if he hasn't been properly briefed. This incident is completely forseeable. He did what he think was best. I think the bus company needs to review their Health & Safety guidelines and implement good practice! They are the ones at fault for not maintaining their buses properly!

    I don't think the parent was wrong to complain. I think if the bus had killed a kid because the road was icy and the bus had slipped back and they hadn't the strength to hold it and it had run one of them over everyone would have said 'it was wrong'.

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  4. The thing is, there are guidelines. And THAT is why the driver was suspended: for breaking procedure and for creating a liability risk for the school board. People think it's because a parent complained about children being at risk, but his suspension wasn't really a judgment on that. Rather it was because he didn't follow protocol.

    All the buses have radios and are in constant communication with dispatch. I don't know if he was afraid he'd get into trouble for getting the bus stuck or if he thought pushing would be easier.

    Regardless, even if he had recruited four or five of his adult buddies to help push the bus, he'd still be suspended for not following procedure.

    The other thing - I know the area where this happened. That school parking lot fronts onto a very busy road, and visibility was incredibly reduced on that day as well as driving conditions being bad. It wouldn't have been safe for ANYONE to push the bus - adult or teen.

    But regardless, like AMMM says, if a child had been hurt everyone would have said it was wrong. But because no one was hurt it was okay and even admirable. And that is the essentially problem. The idea that tragedy can be averted if we just try hard enough serves only to lay blame for actions that otherwise would have been accepted. Example: Last year a young girl (9) was kidnapped and killed on her way walking from from school alone. She normally walked with her brother but this was her first day walking alone. Her house was three blocks away. It was a small community. So many people commented that the parents were negligent for letting her walk home alone. Everyone ignored the thousands of other kids that walked home alone that day and WEREN'T kidnapped, killed, or harmed in any way. And if the situation had been reversed and the child normally got a bus but was dropped a couple of blocks from her house by mistake, everyone would get upset if a parent complained.

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  5. I think the parent was right to complain. It is definitely a case of "what if" and if anything had happened to those children she would have been called a hero for trying to do something about it. If she hadn't she would have been under far worse scrutiny. I would rather know people aren't scared to speak up and perhaps prevent a tragedy rather then stay quiet.

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  6. I'm really torn on this. OK, so I don't know the lay of the road so can't comment on how dangerous it was or wasn't but I do think we are in serious danger of bringing up children who are neither street-wise or community-spirited (as Steve mentioned).

    The second story - I read it waiting for a line where it all went wrong, because you can do EVERYTHING by the book and something terrible still happen. Or you can live a little and nothing bad will occur.

    I don't think people should take unnecessary risks but everyday life is a risk, you cannot and indeed shouldn't wrap kids up in cotton wool, it's not healthy.

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  7. You bring up great points. On one hand, the idea of kids pushing a bus is a bit scary and parents are taught to keep kids safe. On the other side, I do think kids are coddled too much. I mostly think they are not given real answers, such as, no-you did that wrong, try again. Most parents say, well, that was a good try! and leave it at that. Honesty does not necessarily equate with meanness.

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