Something happened on the playground at my youngest son's elementary school the other day. In these days of confidentiality, political correctness, and peanut-free lunchrooms, I never learned exactly what it was. When I interrogated Andy, my fourth-grader, about it, he told me that he had heard that some kids had dragged another kid around by the hood of his sweat shirt.
"Was someone hurt or was it just guys wrestling?" I asked.
"I think it was just guys chasing each other around," he answered.
I forgot the incident until a few weeks later when a large packet arrived in Andy's backpack. Evidently, committees had been formed, irate parents alerted, and the expert assistance of psychologists, counselors, and administrators enlisted. Eight pages of "Recess Rules for Appropriate Behavior" were written, copied, folded, and sent home with every child. It lay on my kitchen table staring at me, daring me to stick my tongue out and sneer back at it.
Objecting to school policies is nothing new for me. I'm sure that somewhere my name is on a list of parents who don't show proper respect for rules.
I recalled when the school had earlier devised rules about correct lunchtime behavior. They seemed to be a complicated system of rewards and consequences under the guise of teaching children to "stop and think."
"Before you leave your seat, stop and think."
"Before you raise your hand, stop and think."
Weren't the kids supposed to be thinking all day? Lunchtime is just chew and enjoy. But that was not to be. The kids weren't even allowed to pick where they wanted to sit. Choosing your seat at lunch is apparently a reward that has to be earned after weeks of patiently sitting next to the kid who packs bologna-and-onion sandwiches.
So you can understand my skepticism as I opened the packet of rules for recess behavior. Sure enough, the first page was a thorough outline of what would happen to pint-size offenders. After the punishments came the rules. Pages and pages of detailed instructions on how to play:
"On the swings, don't swing too high. Don't walk in front of swings. Don't share swings. Do not kick footballs. When playing soccer, the ball may not be kicked in the air. Do not head or throw the soccer ball."
Do not make up any games yourselves, I added to myself. Imagination is forbidden. You are only 7 years old.
There were lines at the end, for both my son's signature and mine, acknowledging that we had read and agreed to abide by the recess rules.
I could not sign the document - especially since I had just read an article by Anna Quindlen about overscheduled children, and how she spent a "neglected" childhood simply playing outside, riding her bike, and dreaming big dreams.
So I called my sister, who has three young children. "It's called 'helicopter parenting,' " she said. "Helicopter parents hover over their children." She explained that today's overachieving parents are trying to protect their precious children from every hurt and disappointment in life. "So now they're trying to make sure that their child is never excluded from the monkey bars or loses his turn at dodge ball," my sister added about the rules I read her.
"Dodge ball?" I shot back. "They outlawed that years ago. It is way too threatening a game. Now they've actually written down on paper that soccer balls can't be kicked in the air."
So the packet of rules languished on my desk. I thought that by ignoring it, my silent protest would be enough.
"Mom, you have to sign the recess rules, and I have to bring them back by tomorrow or I don't get recess," Andy informed me one night as he was getting ready for bed. "They told me that if I don't bring them back signed, I'll have to sit in the office during recess."
"But you know I think it's a lot of unnecessary rules, right?" I asked him. "You know to be nice at recess, don't you? If someone wants to play with you, you ask him to join in?"
"Yeah, we even let the kids who aren't very good play soccer," he answered.
I showed him that I had gone through the document and made some changes. Next to the rule about "no kicking of footballs," I had deleted a sentence and written, "Kicking is an integral part of the game of football, and all kicking done by my son would be directed at the ball and done without malice." Finally, next to the line for my signature, I wrote: "Please try not to take all the fun out of the last few unsupervised moments of their day." Then I signed it. I showed what I had written to Andy and asked if he understood what it meant.
"Yeah, sure," he said, as he carefully signed his name in newly learned cursive writing. "Now I'll get recess."
I'm expecting a call any day now from the school counselor to discuss my behavior problem.