A trip too far

Six years ago, when our two oldest kids were in grades seven and eight, their school proposed an overnight trip to Ottawa. During an information meeting held for parents, my husband and I watched a promotional video produced by the touring company that ran excursions like this one. Questions flew afterward about precisely how much time was actually going to be spent at historic and cultural sites versus social events, how the children would be supervised in their hotel during the night, how teachers were planning to police cell phone use among them, and how much spending money they would be required to bring – over and above the roughly $400 dollars per head that parents were being asked to cough up. The answers we got must have been unsatisfactory to many, since not enough deposit money was sent in by parents for the trip to go ahead. We certainly didn't send any.

Every conscientious parent understands the difficulty of raising children to have a sense of responsibility over a sense of entitlement. Not only must we fight the obvious battles that are instigated by media and peer pressure; we must also increasingly deal with influences from agencies that should be more interested in helping to raise responsible citizens than self-indulgent consumers.

Some kids never travelled at all, but I have not seen any trauma as a result - no child scarred for life because they didn't get to dance the Achy-Breaky at the country and western barbecue on the last night of the Ottawa trip.

What I've seen over the years as a mother indicates that both society in general and schools in particular are losing sight of this goal. For instance, more and more teachers rely on tossing candy to kids who are working quietly -- treating them like so many pigeons in a Skinner box -- instead of actively cultivating the understanding that time is too precious to waste.

My husband, an elementary school teacher who prefers the old-fashioned approach, points out that many in-school indulgences are actually parent-driven. Indeed my own mom-in-the-schoolyard experience supports that argument: I am hearing more parents complain that there haven't been enough "fun" trips in a school year or games played in the last week of school. In an extreme example, a Canadian court recently defined an overnight elementary school trip as a necessity.

Readers may recall from Brian Lilley’s recent article that the judge overruled a Canadian father's decision to deny, as punishment, permission for his 12 year-old daughter to attend an overnight school trip -- after the daughter herself took him to court with the support of her non-custodial mother. This is patently ridiculous: a court has no business compelling a father to permit a treat, just as a school administration has no business shaming parents into doing the same.

Considering that the aforesaid Ottawa expedition was being touted as the Big Trip of the kids' elementary school career, I suppose that Madam Justice Suzanne Tessier of the Quebec Superior Court might think we unobliging parents were all denying our children an essential right.

When we refused to be press-ganged into sending them, however, the world didn't stop. I still see kids from that group -- friends of our eldest son and daughter who are now, like them, in the middle of post-secondary studies. Many, like our own two, managed to do some travelling eventually. Some had the opportunity to travel in high school -- when they were able to pay their own way. Others merited free trips through science fairs or history fairs. Some never travelled at all, but I haven't seen any trauma as a result -- no child scarred for life because they didn't get to dance the Achy-Breaky at the country and western barbecue on the last night of the Ottawa trip. But there are probably enough kids in the world who should have been denied such a trip as a consequence for poor behaviour, went anyway, and aren't doing well in life because their parents had a policy of appeasement.

Two years later, those same children of ours had the experience of a lifetime, one that gave them every opportunity to develop independence, resourcefulness and generosity. Their youngest sister was born at 26 weeks gestation, spent 100 days in a neo-natal intensive care unit, and was subsequently in and out of hospital for the first year of her life. Because our need for their assistance went above and beyond normal high school chores, they found reserves of decision-making skills and magnanimity they never knew they had. I smile when I recall those days, and laugh when I remember how the touring company had told us all that their Ottawa trip would bring about an increase in student maturity in and of itself -- to audible snorts of derision and eyeball rolling from some of the most sensible parents. I wonder how many parents would have been pleased to see a meeting to discuss regular student neighbourhood clean-up projects, peer tutoring projects or nursing home visits instead; probably more parents in those days than now.

Fast forward to 2008: the daughter we now have in grade seven did not go on a school trip to Quebec City. Because we had heard that touring company presentation years before, we chose not to send her, even though she is as well-behaved as they come. There had been no such excursions planned by the school for five years, due to lack of parental interest. This time, it was different. When the trip was proposed, it was regularly and enthusiastically talked up to the students. The resulting peer pressure helped ensure that enough deposits were submitted to make the trip a fait accompli. We stood firm, though, like many other parents we've known over the years (including one teacher and one paediatric nurse) who simply said no.

So my daughter had a week's holiday from school, along with the treats of sleeping in a little and watching a few of her favourite movies. She spent one afternoon hanging out with a school chum who was also being kept home from the trip. She even (wonder what Madame Justice Tessier would say) gave me extra help around the house. Fortunately, our school principal did not phone to wheedle permission out of us. I know one case in another city where that has happened, but the parents involved stood on their authority as the primary educators of their children. And their children are just fine -- thriving, in fact. Our own kids did get to see the museums and galleries in Ottawa when we took them camping there one summer. This summer, we hope to do the same in Quebec City. But if it doesn't work out for some reason we will not treat it like a tragedy.

Not going on a trip, or having a teacher who simply insists on well-completed work without giving out bonbons, is not the definition of hardship. Rather, the tragedy lies in a childhood consisting of one unbroken string of treats and entertainment. Better that kids have the opportunity to do without cheerfully as well as to serve others -- at home, at school, and in the community -- and to exercise their free will towards some greater good. If they are to be responsible citizens as well as good spouses, parents, employees, neighbours and colleagues, children must comprehend that the world does not revolve around them and their appetites and wishes.

Society only harms their inherent worth when it teaches them to salivate like Pavlov's dog in anticipation of the next tasty morsel. We are not training animals -- we are raising people who grow by facing challenges with well-reasoned choices, who reach maturity in their capacity to attend to the needs of others. We can certainly help our children to look beyond themselves in situations both easy and difficult. What's more, we can even insist on it. Their dignity, and ours, is at stake.

Michelle Martin writes from Hamilton, Ontario, where she and her husband have raised their ten children. She is a graduate of the University of Toronto and currently holds down a part-time job caring for intellectually handicapped adults.


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