School is back and with it, the angry snarl of cars that surround our schools every morning at drop-off. Double- and triple-parked, riding up on curbs and private driveways, three-point-turning with abandon, drop-off at Canadian schools serves as Exhibit A in the case against both transportation planning and responsible parenting.
So it seems particularly perverse that a Vancouver father who has spent two years training his children to take the city bus to school on their own has been ordered by British Columbia's Ministry of Children and Family Development to discontinue the practice. According to the ministry, which spent several weeks investigating the case after an anonymous stranger reported seeing the four children – now ages 7 through 11 – riding the bus alone, children under the age of 10 cannot be unsupervised "in the community, at home, or on transit" and a child under 12 cannot be responsible for younger kids without an adult present.
Adrian Crook, the father, has taken exception to this ruling and so he should. Parents such as him are not the problem – they are the solution. Mr. Crook is a sustainability advocate and car-less by choice. He doesn't want to belong to the throngs of Canadian families who drive their children three blocks to school in SUVs in the name of safety. He sees the wrongheadedness of protecting his own children, while making the streets less safe for others'; the inanity of contributing to debilitating congestion when the city provides a safe and viable alternative. He wants his children to function within the fabric of their city and is ushering them carefully along the path toward civically minded adulthood.
Who could possibly object to that?
Well, bureaucrats for one. For a long time, parents were blamed for overprotecting their children, but "helicopter parenting" has metastasized well beyond the parent, into the reaches of schools, institutions and apparently, provincial ministries. How can you call your mandate "Children and Family Development" while penalizing a single father for training his children to get to school on their own? When asked by Mr. Crook to defend its ruling, the ministry's caseworkers alluded to diffuse dangers out there that simply didn't exist in our footloose and fancy-free childhoods – a claim woefully unsubstantiated by statistics showing police-reported crime in Canada at roughly half the level of what it was in 1990. Stretching further, the caseworker asked Mr. Crook what would happen if his four children started fighting with each other on the bus? Horror of horrors.
The ruling is a major inconvenience and insult to Mr. Crook, but it also sends a damning message to four children who had just mastered the art of independent mobility. That terrible things happen on buses, menaces from which only their father can protect them. That fellow passengers are not to be trusted. That they are vulnerable beings, incapable of solving problems on their own. That their city does not belong to them. That children in cars are cared for while they have been neglected.
Defining when a child is safe to be left unattended is an arbitrary exercise, dependent entirely on the child, the parent, the circumstance. Only three provinces have set a legal minimum age – in Manitoba and New Brunswick it is 12, in Ontario, 16 – while the Canada Safety Council states that children under 10 should never be left alone at home.
As a single mother, I can testify to the absolute impossibility of upholding the Ontario standard. Nor would I want to. Every time I see my children solve a problem without me – read a sign, figure out which way to go, ask another adult for help – I smile inwardly. Just as I do when I come back from a local errand to find them sitting on the stoop, where I left them, playing with ants – safe in the knowledge that they can manage, that our neighbours are friendly, that the world is not out to get them.