Why? Why is there this form to sign, as if I am agreeing to let my son undergo experimental brain surgery using steak knives? But there it sits, in his backpack: “I (check one box): DO/DO NOT allow my child to go on walking field trips near the school.”
Note, this is not the permission slip asking whether we will allow him to go all the way to an actual museum or theater. Those, of course, require separate slips and someday, perhaps, a small X written in parental blood so the school can prove — via DNA testing — oh, yes, we DID allow him to go see “Sammy the Singing Science Salmon.” No, the beginning-ofthe year permission slip pertains only to walking around the nabe, perhaps picking up some autumn leaves or acorns.
Wait, no — not acorns! Let’s stay away from nuts.
At least, the tree kind.
Avoiding the legal kind — that’s harder. The fact that even a simple trip to the park requires a legal contract just shows how crazy our whole culture of childhood is becoming, thanks, in great part, to the litigious times we are living in — or that schools assume we’re living in. Would parents REALLY sue if their kid broke his leg at the King Tut exhibit? I’d like to think not. And besides: How many kids DO break their legs like that? So few! But we are a worst-case-thinking nation, so here’s the wording on a random permission slip:
“I (we) the undersigned parent, parents or legal guardian of (insert name), a minor, do hereby authorize and consent to any X-ray examination, anesthetic, medical or surgical diagnosis and treatment and emergency hospital care…” Yada yada yada for another quarter-page. And that’s AFTER promising the child will obey all rules, including good ol’ “code 44808,” surely one of the several thousand state provisions all parents are familiar with.
To give one back to the parents, the permission slip also assiduously indicates whether the child will be traveling by bus and, if he is, whether it is a school bus and, if it’s not, what company’s bus it is. As if … we’re supposed to care? Should we be researching diff erent bus companies? Isn’t parenting intensive enough?
The fact is permission slips are just a tiny window into how the school day has become a legal minefield. Not only are some schools outlawing running and tag on the playground, so as to avoid lawsuits, but also some are actively discouraging kids from walking to school — and that’s not even on the premises!
We’re about to see this very clearly, on Oct. 6, International Walk to School Day. It’s a great day, and it’s catching on — but not as quickly as it should. Mary D., a Cleveland-area mom, is trying to get her local grammar schools to endorse the event. But while half signed on, the others declined — mostly, she said, because they’re afraid that if anything happens to a child en route, they will be sued.
And yet, “A school will not ordinarily be held liable for injuries sustained by children while they are walking or bicycling to school simply because the school encourages children to walk or bike,” says the National Center for Safe Routes to School, a government organization trying to re-normalize the idea of kids getting themselves to school. The fact that it even has to address this worry just shows how liability has leapt to the top of every principal’s priority list. Above exercise. Above exploration. Maybe even above education.
And so the permission slips get longer; the field trips get fewer; and the kids sink lower into their chairs. But at least we don’t have to sign a slip to allow them to walk (slowly, with a buddy) to the drinking fountain.
Lenore Skenazy is the author of
“Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe,
Self-Reliant Children (Without Going
Nuts with Worry)” and “Who’s the
Blonde That Married What’s-His-
Name? The Ultimate Tip-of-the-Tongue
Test of Everything You Know You Know
— But Can’t Remember Right Now.”