Recently the New York Times ran a blog post titled “Skipping School for Vacation: Good for Families, or Bad for Students?” Whatever the opposite of burying the lede is, the Times did it. In the first two paragraphs they recount one mother’s recent run-in with her local educational authorities:
In the article “Taking My Kid Out of School for a Family Vacation Shouldn’t Be ‘Illegal,’” Jeanne Sager recounts the time she took her daughter out of school for a family vacation, and the school responded by labeling those absences “illegal.” Ms. Sager wrote, “I hate my kid’s school and the state education department for making me feel ashamed of spending time with my daughter,” adding, “I think there’s something to be said for education outside of the classroom, and certainly something to be said for the value of family time.”
While the label “illegal” does not confer any actual legal implications in Jeanne Sager’s case, plenty of school districts do employ the term in its literal sense. Some states give schools the authority to impose fines for truancy, and others allow parents to be charged with misdemeanors if truancy becomes chronic. In Britain and the Netherlands, truant officers are posted at airports and train stations to ensure parents don’t attempt to take children on vacation during the school term.
The Times goes on to explain the pros and cons of taking kids out of school for family vacations, based on the perspectives of teachers and parents, completely ignoring the troublesome practice of declaring vacations “illegal.” It is the latest, perhaps inevitable development in the ever-expanding limits on how parents are “allowed” to parent.
Of all of the words in the English language that grate on me most as a parent, it’s the word “allowed.” I first heard it with regard to childbirth. I was told by my OB that I was not “allowed” to eat in labor, without anything resembling a convincing reason. In the book Expecting Better, economist Emily Oster breaks down pregnancy myths and prevailing wisdom, tackling the issue of eating during labor:
The basic fear is gastric aspiration, and it’s related to why you shouldn’t eat, in general, before any operation. If you are under general anesthesia and you vomit, it is possible to inhale your stomach contents into the lungs and suffocate. Pregnant women may be at more risk than the general population for this. In general, this definitely is dangerous, but you might be wondering why this is an issue in labor. Even if you have a C-section, aren’t you usually awake? So wouldn’t you know if you were vomiting? Is this still an issue?
To figure out the origin of this restriction, we actually have to go back to a time (the first half of the twentieth century) when C-sections were typically performed under a general anesthetic. The source of the ban on food during labor is a 1946 paper in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. The authors reported that of 44,016 pregnancies at the Lying-In Hospital in New York from 1932 to 1945, there were 66 incidents of gastric aspiration and 2 deaths from suffocation. The authors suggested withholding food during labor.2 Fast-forward 64 years: a lot has changed about labor and medical practice in general. C-sections are now performed with local anesthesia 90 percent of the time, so you are typically not asleep. Moreover, even if you are under general anesthesia, our understanding of how that works has improved a lot. The estimated risk of maternal death from aspiration is 2 in 10 million births, or 0.0002 percent.3 Yes, maternal mortality is terrifying. But to put this in perspective: this cause accounts for only 0.2 percent of maternal deaths in the United States, mostly among very high-risk women. The perhaps scary truth is that you’re more likely to die in a car accident on the way to the hospital than from this cause. In a review article from 2009, researchers looked at almost 12,000 women who ate and drank what they wanted during labor. Even though some of these women did need emergency C-sections (one of the few times when you might be under a general anesthesia), there were no problems reported associated with aspiration. This is true even for the 22 percent of women who ate solid food.4 And yet the ban on food remains.
I took my business elsewhere three weeks before my due date, switching my care provider to a midwife who didn’t “allow” or “disallow” anything; she left me to deliver my child in the way in which I saw fit, as long as it was medically safe.
We’ve been hearing the word “allowed” with regard to parenting decisions a lot recently. Parents in Maryland were investigated by Child Protective Services for letting their children walk home from a nearby park; apparently they were not “allowed” to do so. Another parent recently confessed to the blog Free Range Kids that she too had faced the wrath of CPS in Maryland, and now has a misdemeanor on her record, in addition to six months’ probation. Her crime? She left her ten year old and baby in her car for a ten-minute run into the grocery store, another parenting decision a mother apparently wasn’t “allowed” to make. These kinds of stories are becoming increasingly common.
Parents, schools, and caregivers are taking these stories to heart, deciding against giving children a measure of independence out of fear. According to Free Range Kids, there’s little reason to fear. Crime of all sorts is lower now than it was in previous generations.
When the parents in Maryland found themselves the target of a CPS investigation, many of my fellow parents commented on Facebook that they had contacted their local police department to find out at what age they allow (there’s that word again) parents to leave their children home alone and at what age the state allows children to walk alone.
Schools tell parents they are not “allowed” to have their children leave school without an adult escort, leaving families to hire babysitters or curtail their workdays to walk their kids a few blocks home from school.
Contra the officers of the state, there should be only one party in a position to “allow” children to be home alone or to walk alone for time periods and distances that have always, until now, been considered reasonable: the parents. Society might be trying to take away parents’ ability to parent, but that doesn’t mean that parents should surrender their rights willingly.
Just as I did not need to be “allowed” by my OB to labor in my own safe manner (proven to be safe by statistics), I do not intend to let the public school system determine if it’s “legal” to take family vacations or when a child is permitted to walk alone in their neighborhood. Nor should the police be involved in cases of reasonable parental discretion.
If a school does not “allow” my family to make basic child-rearing decisions, there are alternatives. As for the legal crackdown on parenting decisions, I will not allow them to shape how I parent. I refuse to raise my children in an illogical and unnecessary cloud of fear. And I should not even have to dignify with a response the suggestion that my family vacation is “illegal.”