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.
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.