Dear Moralistic Busybodies: *You* are the Greatest Danger to my Child

When I was five years old I walked the quarter mile to kindergarten every morning without parental supervision. My best friend, a first-grader, accompanied me. On days when she was home sick, I walked alone. This wasn’t due to any kind of parental negligence. The year was 1983, and this is what people did.

By the time I was in first grade, there had been a string of kidnappings across the country. Our cultural response at the time wasn’t to lock the doors, to keep the kids inside or shuffle them around in cars. Instead, teams of educators visited public schools and taught kids not to take candy from strangers or ride in their cars.

Back then it was normal to walk to a friend’s house and let the day progress from there. Because there were no cell phones, there was no way to check in every minute, but even if there had been, no one seemed that worried. My best friend’s mom would leave to go to the store and we’d raid the fridge and make our own sandwiches. We’d ride our bikes to the park. Maybe we’d leave a note.

Those were the days.

Earlier this week, The Atlantic ran an article about a mother who was arrested for letting her nine-year-old daughter play at the park alone. In brief, the mother had a regular shift at McDonald’s, and allowed the girl to play at the park while she earned a living. When a bystander learned that the girl was unsupervised, she apparently decided that the most helpful thing to do would be to call the cops. The mother was arrested for abandonment; the daughter was placed in state custody.

This comes shortly after an essay on Salon addressing similar issueswent viral; “The Day I Left My Son in the Car” details the years of litigation author Kim Brooks faced after leaving her son in the car unattended for several minutes. As with the above incident, she was reported to the police by a bystander who saw himself as a “good Samaritan.”

Here are two objections I have to this interventionist practice:

1. As a parent, I reserve the right to perform my own risk-benefit analysis—especially when our cultural norms are based on no legitimate evidence. As Lenore Skenazy, founder of Free Range Kids reports: “Our crime rate today is back to what it was when gas was 29 cents a gallon, according to The Christian Science Monitor. It may feel like kids are in constant danger, but they are as safe (if not safer) than we were when our parents let us enjoy the summer outside, on our own, without fear of being arrested.”  Statistically speaking, children are far more likely to be injured in a car accident than they are to be snatched from a parked car, and yet there is no cultural taboo around driving with kids.

2. Wanna-be good Samaritans, YOU are the Danger Strangers. I’m sure plenty of us have known kids like the nine-year-old who is now in state custody, kids who have parents (or a single parent) struggling to keep it all together. Some people might respond to this situation by trying to figure out what they can offer. Maybe that simply means keeping a loose eye on the girl while she plays in the park, helping to ensure she stays safe. Maybe, if the kid is in your neighborhood it means getting acquainted with that mom and inviting the kid over once in a while. Apparently, other people call the cops. Who are these people? Is displacing a child to foster care their goal? Do they have any concept of what foster care actually means? If their fear is that a child alone in the park or in a car is in danger of being forcefully removed from her parents, do they realize that by calling the cops they are facilitating EXACTLY THAT?

Conor Freidersdorf, author of the Atlantic article, gets to the heart of the matter when he writes, “Parents ought to enjoy broad latitude in bringing up their children. There are obviously limits. The state ought to intervene if a child is being abused. But letting a 9-year-old go to the park alone doesn’t come close to meeting that threshold.”

It’s true. Our current cultural climate no longer allows us full freedom to make our own parenting decisions. I submit the following lists for your consideration.

Things I won’t do because they are associated with proven risks:

1. Keep a loaded gun in the home.

2. Allow my children to ride a bike without a helmet. (Okay, this is one way we’ve evolved since the eighties.)

3. Offer my children beverages sweetened with corn syrup at every meal.

Note that I am not advocating that any of the above practices be made illegal. If a kid rides by my house without a helmet, or reports that he drinks Coke for breakfast I don’t call the cops.

I can't believe these still exist. Image source: http://swaggernewyork.com

I can’t believe these still exist.
Image source: http://swaggernewyork.com

And here are some things I won’t do, not because I believe that they are actually dangerous in and of themselves, but because I fear being reported and losing my children.

1. Allow my older son to wait in the car if he so chooses while I run a five-minute errand.

2. Send my son (once *I* determine he’s old enough) to the corner store.

3. Allow my son to explore the wooded area one block away from our home.

The above list may sound self-serving, and I won’t deny that’s true. Item one is about avoiding unnecessary complications. But items two and three reflect my desire to teach my children independence. You see, I work with millennials and I’ve seen firsthand the results of helicopter parenting. If my sons choose to live with me or visit often once they’re grown, I don’t want to still be doing their laundry. I don’t want to be the one emailing their college professors when they have the stomach flu and can’t make it to class. I don’t want to sit in on their first job interview.

And, perhaps more importantly, I want them to grow up feeling at ease in the world rather than fearing that something dire will befall them the moment they are out of my sight, that in the two blocks between our house and the corner store they will be mugged or kidnapped in broad daylight, or attacked by a pack of coyotes.

This guy is totally making sure no kids are unsupervised. Image source: www.projectcoyote.org

This guy is totally making sure no kids are unsupervised.
Image source: http://www.projectcoyote.org

 

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20 comments

  1. Great post. Makes perfect sense to me. People and situations aren’t cookie cutter and there are nuances and intents and all kinds of factors involved. I wish the laws and society allowed for such. Will you be publishing elsewhere? Seems like it would make a great op-ed piece.

  2. I too miss the freedom and exploration that used to be part of childhood. I remember walking the nearly a mile “downtown” (I thought the Petula Clark song was based on my hometown’s Main Street), hand in hand with my friend at age six. We knew to look both ways carefully before crossing the street. My hometown had many fields and old barns in which to play games of pretend, many trees that beckoned us to climb to the top, and a town pool to arrive at on bicycle at 10:00 a.m and depart from from at 6:00p.m. without any parental contact in between. There were plenty of lifeguards around to keep us in line. I regret deeply that my son did not grow up in that era of days filled with rambles through nature, and make-believe play constructed beyond the eyes and ears of adults. And sometimes my days were spent outdoors alone riding my bike and reflecting on nature or school or friendships, and being content in my own company.
    I completely agree that adults these day are more likely to behave like self-righteous busy bodies than members of the “village” it takes to look after a child while allowing her the freedom to discover her own world. This piece really resonates with me.

  3. Right?? I know so many younger millenials (I am the oldest of that particular breed & grew up a bit differently) who cannot do a thing for themselves, because they never built up the confidence to make their own choices. What frightens me about this is that you could possibly lose your child because you are trying to teach them independence and decision-making skills.

    1. Yeah, I know plenty of great millennials, but every quarter I get a few students who just embody all of the traits millennials are criticized for. I even had a student whose mother withdrew her from my class (community college) because she objected to the language in a reading I assigned.

  4. Great post. It just so happens I got yelled at this very morning by a passerby on the opposite side of the street for allowing my kids to run to the end of the block because “they could fall.” Sure they could fall, in fact, my clumsy daughter almost always falls when she runs. But they were running toward their father whom they had not seen in days. Sometimes, they just need to run on pavement.

  5. Hear, hear. I remember the good old days in the 80s too. It makes me sad that my daughter will probably never build a treehouse in the woods with her friends, my favourite childhood past time.

    1. Oh, I loved doing that too! There was a wooded area a few blocks from my house that must have been someone else’s backyard and my friends and I would build forts there. Miraculously, no one ever chased us away.

  6. It drives me crazy when parents try to control every element of their children’s lives. They do better when they aren’t encased in bubble wrap. Sometimes you have to learn how to walk without mom and dad so that you can learn how to take care of yourself.

  7. As a 17 year old, and still very much a kid, I don’t think this post was directed at me, and my comment is probably not so interesting. Here you go anyway:
    The thing is, most parents go for the “better safe than sorry” approach. “There are some kidnappers out there, therefore, my child isn’t completely safe out there.There are no muggers inside the house, therefore, my child won’t be mugged inside the house.” Furthermore, I assume that, having spent multiple years raising and loving another human being, losing it because of an uncontrollable variable is the worst case scenario. The place with the least uncontrollable variables is the house.

    Yes, you are right. Yes, discovering your own limits and abilities at a young age is good. Yes, discovering the world by living in it is the best option. However, it comes with risks, and most people aren’t ready to take them. Why has it changed that way? No clue. Overexposure to dramatic incidents via the news and internet comes to mind.

    Oh and on your “Driving with kids in the car” argument: Driving has a tangible purpose (getting somewhere), and even if discovering the world and oneself is perhaps more important, it isn’t as tangible and thus less of an incentive.

    Amazing post. Great read and great reflection.

    1. Thanks for commenting. Yes, I can definitely identify with the fear that has caused my generation of parents (and presumably the generation of parents before me) to be so protective. What I find so disturbing is the way parents who depart from that norm (who do things that were “normal” 20 – 30 years ago) get actively judged or even litigated against.

  8. Great, great post! I too had so much more freedom as a kid, walking to and from school with my younger brother and older (by 10 months) sister. I think I was 6 or 7 when we started doing that, but even younger when allowed to play outside alone. Now as a mom I barely let my daughters out of my sight for a minute. I’d like to think I will give them more freedom as they get older because it’s good for them. In terms of abuse though, I’d worry more about random family members than strangers. Thanks for writing!

  9. Geez, when I was a kid me and all of my friends spent time playing alone in parks, or riding our bikes… This is just craziness. What is wrong with these people?

    1. I know–from what I understand a family situation has to be extremely abusive for a child to benefit from being moved into foster care. I understand that some people might disagree with these parenting decisions, but to think they warrant measures to separate the child from his or her family…I just don’t get it.

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