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Back to School Boldly (July 28 column)

By Staff | Oct 13, 2020

Amy H. Peterson

A few days ago, an essay made the rounds on social media in which a mother compares Back to School in the ’70s with Back to School in the 21st century. While her story included quite a bit of exaggeration for effect, it rang true to this former schoolgirl, who started kindergarten in 1977.

I was an emotional kid who felt sad when I outgrew a favorite outfit. This happened quite often as I quickly became the tallest kid in the class on my way to my adult height of 6’1.” Maybe this is why I found myself wearing more skirts than the average girl. A skirt that was calf length in September could become a knee length skirt by May. It was just as well because all my pants were patched by October (can you even get nice patches for pants anymore?) since I took a dive-bomb approach to recess, and still have the knee scars to prove it.

I suppose back to school shopping has become more complicated than when we were kids. I personally have no complaints, because Bryan, my last baby who is suddenly somehow a high school senior, asked only for new folders, notebooks and mechanical pencils.

What’s more complex about sending kids to school now is the concern for safety. With all the usual concerns about whether kids will be safe walking home in Estherville, where and for how long they can stop off to play, and what goes on at home if mom and dad are still at work, we have sanitation, the stop of germ spreading, and social distancing to learn and apply.

In most years, I am plenty concerned about safety. Apparently, though, not concerned enough. In kindergarten, I walked 1.1 miles home from school and sometimes to school (other days, if I was ready on time, I joined a neighborhood carpool in the morning.)

With my older children, in 2001 when my third grader began walking three blocks to and from the elementary school I had attended with my kindergartener, I opened my front door to concerned moms who’d taken it upon themselves to deliver my children home, and fielded calls from the principal and a social worker. To this day I don’t think I have an answer for them. It was three blocks up a slight incline that might be called a hill in the mornings and reversed in the afternoons. They could almost see our house from the corner after they left the purview of the fifth grade crossing guard.

In some schools, older children aren’t even allowed to enjoy the responsibility and privilege of serving the younger children as crossing guard. They struggle to find volunteers for the sometimes cold, wet, thankless job, or they hire an adult. I believe this gives children the message they’re not responsible enough, they’re not competent, they can’t do it. Is this what we want?

Other parents call the police or child protective services if a child is seen playing alone, whether in the neighborhood or at the public park. Imagine a child playing in a park! I was an only child, and though I did have friends, I had to entertain myself quite a bit. It was a good thing. I was not that kid who whined, “I’m bored,” and as an adult, the staff here at Estherville News will corroborate that I always find some mischief to get into. Similarly as a parent, I allowed my children to find their own fun, within reason.

Some argue that there are more people out there today who will harm children. But there are fewer who actually do. In spite of the headlines that go viral around the Internet, the FBI reports abductions and other violent crime is down. The greatest decrease was right here in the Midwest – a decrease of over five percent in all violent crime over 2018, and a larger decrease over the last 20 years.

I have not once worried about a stranger abducting Bryan, though when he was a baby in Sioux City, the nanny I carefully vetted, called all her references, was seen by my friends passing off Bryan as her own baby, with her fiance. I had asked that the fiance not hang out at the house while she was watching Bryan, but nevertheless, she accompanied them to parade around Target where she claimed to have this baby. My baby. As the chips fell and we found out the truth, there did seem to be a plan to abscond with him to Vermont or somewhere. And those references? Her friends with burner phones on which they placed numbers from various area codes that matched up with where she said she had lived and worked. It fooled even me; at one point I had every U.S area code location memorized. Now with the hundreds of new overlays and replacements, it has grown out of my headspace.

We have to allow our children to take more risks as they grow. Life is about risks. Tweens and young teens are doing the hard work of finding out who they are. Now that Bryan is 17, I cannot see the boundary toward him making his own choices, within the bounds of what we always send him to school with – respect yourself, respect others, be authentic, and grow in your learning.

If we don’t let them out of our sight, they’ll find some other risk to take, and what they choose, based on their inexperience and lack of impulse control, might not be at all healthy. It is the start of back to school season, but meanwhile, we have August to enjoy. I plan to make the most of it.