There was no school today; there was no school yesterday. It's cold here. My Facebook feed is divided on the question of whether it's really that cold, with some voices saying "Think of the children" and others cantankerizing* "When I was a kid...."
*totally a word
We had frequent snow days when I was a schoolkid in Raleigh County, WV. The mountain roads are steep, narrow, and curved, and they become unsafe quickly in winter weather. I remember missing plenty of school while we waited for the county to plow itself out. But I do not remember missing school because it was cold -- not ever, not once.
It's always about costs and benefits, right? I do not deny that there are real costs to being out in this weather and that they hit some families harder than others. I expect to give my grade-school kids a ride in the morning (my husband, born in Wisconsin, bred in Michigan and Minnesota, pauses here to roll his eyes at his softy Southern-reared wife); I understand that's not an option for some families in the district. I can replace a missing pair of mittens or buy a beefier coat -- another choice that's not open to everyone. But there are also costs associated with missing work, with hiring babysitters, with leaving kids unattended, with closing school-associated free lunch programs in communities with high rates of food insecurity. And -- oh yeah -- with missing instructional days.
It seems to me that the conviction that kids shouldn't be out in the cold is related to the idea that kids shouldn't play outside alone, or shouldn't take the bus by themselves, or shouldn't face the risks built into metal playground equipment. As a culture we prize safety, and if it might hurt someone we might need to prohibit it. This is why there are only two parks in Dubuque, Iowa where sledding is allowed. This is why a uniformed police officer once stopped me to tell me it was a bad idea to walk with my baby on a 20-degree morning. This is why, I think, there was no school today.
You might recall that I get a little het up about the hidden costs of safety. That neighbor, for instance, who was so concerned about keeping my kids safe from their negligent mother actually caused them a whole lot of avoidable stress. Of course I am not going to turn my children outside with shorts and tank tops tomorrow and tell them they can handle it. But in my marrow I am certain that there is enormous value in having authority figures in your life say again and again, "Off you go; you can handle it."
It's not just childhood that's affected by an over-emphasis on safety. Recently I have been reading Atul Gawande's book Being Mortal. I've been an Atul Gawande fan for years, and this is the best thing he's ever written. Twice today it has made me cry, both times with a keen sense of gratitude for the evanescent gifts of life and love. The first part of the book talks about how we deal with frailty in aging adults. And how, my friends, do we deal with frailty in aging adults? We focus on their safety. While the frail themselves would often prefer a focus on preserving autonomy, our system isn't set up for that. For adults even more than for children, the costs of playing it safe are substantial.
I was walking to lunch today (and let me tell you, it was a BRISK and INVIGORATING walk), thinking that we don't seem to have a problem with discomfort, exactly -- how could CrossFit be proliferating if discomfort is the problem? I think the issue is more that we want to be able to control the suffering. We assume the suffering attendant on staying home for another day with siblings and catching up on school in June is preferable to the suffering of waiting for the bus, maybe.
But I sat there in the warmth of the restaurant feeling determined to push back against a safety-at-all-costs culture: to embrace the cold. To be glad for the unexpected. To continue to encourage my kids' autonomy. To live gratefully and, as far as I can manage it, fearlessly.
I have a bunch of other thoughts brewing but it looks like I will need to herd kids to school in the morning. I'm interested in your thoughts. Hope you are staying warm.