Tired, hangry kids and pick-up traffic: A veteran's guide to the after-school witching hour


‚ÄčIt's that time again. We had our little angels in our care 24/7 for a couple of months, or put them in camps or child care while we went to jobs. Now they are back in school, where other people take care of them for six hours a day so we can breathe, and they can learn things and grow up.

It's a marvellous time full of wonder and joy and excitement. It's also a sad time because, if you're like me, you got used to those little buggers always being around or at least being on a more relaxed schedule.

More important, we got used to not having to force them into the car at ungodly hours of the morning, and back into the car at the end of a full day of being required to act logically and keep quiet. That means they are saving all their pent-up angst and energy to unleash on you.

Mum: "Hi, kids, how was your - "

Kid 1: "Horrible! First I - "

Kid 2: "No, I'm going first, and I had a good day!"

Kid 1: "That's only because you stole my pencil and -"

Kid 2: "Did not!"

Kid 1: "Did too!"


Mum: "OK, no one is talking again until after we get home."

Or maybe you've got an only child, or children who don't pretend to hate each other all of the time, and you ask how their day was and you get a "good" and then silence. Or perhaps you don't even get to see your kids until they've been out of school for hours, after being deposited at home by bus or supervised in after-school programs, because someone somewhere decided it made sense for school to get out right after everyone's lunch break but well before anyone can clock out for the day.

Seeing them just before dinner is an extra special treat, because they've had more time to build up angst, hunger and frustration.

Whatever your case may be, we can all agree that getting to and from school is one of the most harrowing transitions of our back-to-school season.

My twins are 10, which makes me a bit of a veteran when it comes to minimising the drama and the time wasted during the school-time shuffle. I have some suggestions for anyone looking for a new way to approach this daily battle.

  • Can you walk the whole way? Do it!

For a couple of years, we lived close enough to the school that the kids could walk in the mornings, avoiding the long car line. Even on their best days, though, I wouldn't have dreamed of walking them home after school. I tried it a few times, but after they hit age 7 or so, they were too heavy to carry when they decided they weren't going to walk anymore. I'm not a huge fan of trying to drag them around like a sack of potatoes, so after that, we drove home.

  • Leave 10 minutes after the final bell rings.

This time is not set in stone; it depends on how far you live from your school. My home is about seven minutes away from the school, counting typical backup. School gets out at 1:45 p.m., so if I leave at 2, I'm there by 2:07, and I join the end of the car pickup line without having to stop and go for those 20 minutes. Remember the line doesn't even start moving until a few minutes after that bell rings, so why wait out in the street, blocking traffic behind 200 of your fellow parents when you could cruise in at the tail of the line once it's already moving?

  • Make sure you are taking a right turn into the school.

If I were driving the direct route to the school, it would put me in the position of having to cross gummed-up school traffic to take a left into the school driveway. Nothing is more frustrating than not being able to get across the lanes as car after car of right-turners who got there way after you did laugh and wave, while easily turning in. To avoid this, I take an alternate route so I can do the right-turn laugh-and-wave at my peers instead.

  • Park just outside school grounds and walk to meet your kids.

I like to make sure my kids have zero unsupervised time outside of a vehicle (because of that whole sack-of-potatoes thing), so I go all the way around the line and teachers usher them into my car. But if you have children who can handle it, sign them up as walkers, then pick them up at a designated location just outside the madness. My kids' school has a pedestrian walkway in the back that leads to a neighbourhood that is not mine. You can bet that when I'm feeling confident in their preteen walking abilities, I will park my car in that neighbourhood and meet them halfway.

  • When all else fails, use the bus.

Despite being an expert in the art of school pickup, last week I signed my kids up to ride the bus home only. For them to take it in the morning, we'd have to be at the bus stop at 6:30 a.m., requiring an effort that is not worth it to anyone in this family. But on the ride home, they reach my house at 2:15 p.m., which is the time we'd get home if I sat in the car line. Depending on your work schedule, it may be much easier for you to get the kids to the bus stop than driving them to school in the morning, and have them dropped off near home later on.

  • Have a snack on hand.

Walk, car ride or bus, make sure you have food you can shove in their faces immediately. So many times, schools feed kids at 9:30 a.m. and call it lunch. And you can bet, even if lunch was last period, they didn't have time to eat it, and they are coming to you hungry. If you are the first one to see your children after that bell rings, you want to be armed with travel packs of mini-cookies, day-warmed juice boxes and enough string cheese for a small army. If you see them just as dinner is supposed to be starting, they likely still will need a quick snack. Figure out a quick bite of food they can grab without ruining that meal for everyone involved.

  • After-school programs.

We've used after-school care because, who are we kidding, no working person is usually available at 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. In this case, ignore all the previous rules. Get there nice and early to avoid the line (if you can). You'll get charged by the minute if you're late, and they might even throw you out of the program after three times, depending on their rules. And that, unlike most of this article, is no joke.

The Washington Post.