honey i mixed up the kids

What a grandpa’s harmless mistake tells us about precious modern parenthood

March 7, 2014
March 7, 2014

It’s the kind of family story you could tell for years around the kitchen table—weeping with laughter—or you could go to the media, weeping, period. Which actually happened?

This is America. Guess.

The story: A little over a week ago at a public school in Sterling, Connecticut, an elderly man came to pick up his 5-year-old great grandson, a kindergartener. It was cold out, the boy had his hat pulled low over his head, great-gramps scooped him up and drove him home. Only problem:

It wasn’t the right kid.

It was another 5-year-old who wore the same kind of hat pulled down low. When gramps got home and the boy refused to get out of the car, great-grandma came out and realized—what in tarnation?

In another era, she might’ve beaned her husband with a frying pan. But this is the era when every interaction between a child and adult who is not background checked or biologically related is assumed to be fraught with pedophile potential.  Just in the last few days, police were on the lookout for a Franklin, Tennessee, man who’d offered two girls a ride, even as cops in League City, Texas, hunted for an 87-year-old who’d offered to help a boy who looked locked out. Both men were quickly cleared – they were actual good Samaritans—but not before the police warned citizens of a possible predator on the loose.

Luckily, the great-grandparents knew exactly what to do. They immediately called the school to alert them to the problem and drove the kid right back. The school, in turn, called the mom to tell her what just happened. This was the first she was hearing about the incident, so she found out her son was safe at exactly the same time she found out about the mix-up. So you’d think that would be the end of it, right? No harm, no foul?

Please. The outraged mom demanded the school call in the police and child protective services. The school—god bless it—demurred: The kid hadn’t been hurt, it was just a mistake. What’s more, this wasn’t some evil stranger running in and snatching a child, it was an old man with his own kin at the school who’d made a hat-induced error.

But of course, next thing you know, there’s an education board meeting and the media are on the story. Cameras roll as the mom, fighting tears, reads aloud her statement: “We had all expressed that dismissal time was a disaster waiting to happen. And this past Friday, that disaster became my family’s reality.”

That disaster? Isn’t that a word we should reserve for…disasters?

But of course, that’s what the press was treating it as, too. A child (vaguely, somehow, theoretically) in danger! Minor messes are treated like major crimes, maybe because the real crime rate is so low—lower now than when today’s parents were growing up. “I want to see disciplinary action!” the boy’s dad told NBC News. (News! The thing that used to report on revolutions and assassinations.)

The school has now promised it will set up three different pick-up sites for kids. Dismissal, which already involved showing identification and signing a sheet, will become an even bigger production, because that’s how we’ve been trained to respond to any incident that “affects” a child: Heap on the oversight. Wrap it in red tape. Kowtow, however reluctantly, to overblown outrage.

Does anyone remember that kids used to just walk home from school on their own, without anyone picking them up? And now this?

So now, for one little boy, the story will never be, “Remember the time that wacky geezer accidentally picked you up?” It’ll be, “Remember that time you were just lucky to be alive after that disaster?” The family will be weeping.

Me too.

We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com. 

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