The Things They Carried...Or Didn't

Eight o’clock this morning: I was on the road, driving up West Street just a few blocks from my house on my way to Cohasset for book-signing events for my new picture book, Panda Pants. It was the time of day when families from all over my neighborhood make the daily pilgrimage to school—the same elementary school that my three children attended. We live just four-tenths of a mile from the school, and so we walked every day. It was fast, easy, and eco-friendly.

As I approached the road that leads to the school, Darlene, the crossing guard, held up her gloved hand to halt traffic so that kids and their grownups could cross the street safely. I was in no hurry, having left plenty of time to get to the first bookstore, and so I allowed my mind to wander. I thought about how long I’ve known Darlene (seventeen years), whether I’d brought enough stuffed panda toys for the event (I had), what time I expected the rain to begin (it never did). As my mind wandered, so did my eyes, and I found myself watching the kids parade up the street toward school.

Ah, a mother, with her young son skipping beside her, his Spiderman backpack tossed over her shoulder. And then another mother with two young girls—the mom carried a backpack over each shoulder. Hmm, I thought. And then, the sight I’m still replaying in my mind as I write this: a mother with three happy, energetic children—older children—circling about her, and she with a backpack over each shoulder and a third in her hands.

Why aren’t the kids carrying their own backpacks? I asked myself.

Truly, at this stage in my life, I am the last person to pass judgment on other people’s parenting. I did when I was younger, but I’ve stumbled and fumbled enough with my own three kids over the years that I’ve been mightily humbled. I’m no expert on parenting my own children, let alone others’.

But here were three mothers—in a row!—carrying their children’s backpacks for them. And I began to think of what that gave the children and what it took from them.

I have no doubt the mothers were carrying those bags out of love and a strong desire to help and nurture their children. And I have no doubt the kids were thrilled to have their backpacks carried. Who wouldn’t be? But was this strictly a question of portage?

I’m one of four children, the third out of four. I remember asking my mother to carry my coat whenever I got hot and no longer wanted to wear it. Who wants to carry a jacket you no longer need? I know—Mom! But my mother pointed out, quite logically, that there were four of us kids and only one of her: We would each carry our own coat. And eventually I stopped asking and learned to carry my own coat.

Sitting in my car this morning, I tried to imagine my mother’s response to one of us asking her to carry our school bag. Uh, no. (But said with love.) My mother didn't even walk us to school. We were on our own. But that was a different time...

Now, I doubt any of those kids asked their mothers to carry their backpacks this morning. If I were to guess, I’d say it was a practice the mothers began when their children were in kindergarten, and now that the children were second-, third-, and fourth-graders, the habit continued—as habits do.

And I thought about the small but meaningful messages it conveyed to the child: You aren’t strong enough. You aren’t growing and progressing. You need me.

What is in a child’s backpack in elementary school? Sometimes a lunch. Often a rain jacket or sweater (particularly in late September). Perhaps a reading book. A notebook or two, for the older kids. A few pencils. And the ubiquitous water bottle. My point is that backpacks at this age are light. But the weight they carry—or don’t—can be powerful and lasting and important.

Here’s a picture of my daughter (the youngest of three) on her first day of kindergarten. I look at this picture and remember how proud she was to go to school with her big brothers. I remember how much she loved that backpack with its Hawaiian flowers. If I had tried to take it from her, she would have wrestled with me to keep possession of it. She would have been indignant. It was hers. A badge of honor. She would carry her own things to school.

Independence. It’s the death of parenting.