It is a strange time in the world of parenting when random folks are all up in the business of other parents and how they choose to raise their children. And yet packs of people roam the Earth, anxious to point out what they deem as neglect or abuse; kid left for five minutes in a car here, child alone at a park there. BREAK THE WINDOW, CALL THE POLICE. ARREST THAT PARENT! It’s happening more and more.
I get it, to a certain degree. I do. You’re concerned about kids and that’s a wonderful thing. But is your concern solely about the child who may or may not be in danger or is it more about you imposing your will on another parent or patting yourself on the back for possibly “saving a child’s life”?
All of this played through my mind as I read about Debra Harrell, the 46-year-old South Carolina mom who let her 9-year-old daughter play in a park for three days while she worked her shifts at McDonald’s. According to The Atlantic, Harrell was arrested and booked for unlawful conduct towards a child. Apparently Harrell’s daughter had spent most of the summer with her at McDonald’s playing on a laptop Harrell could barely afford to purchase. But the Harrell home was robbed, the laptop stolen, so the bored, little girl asked if she could be dropped off at a park to play. Mom probably struggled with the decision but ultimately said yes. She gave her daughter a cell phone and took her to a park so popular there are at least 40 kids playing at any given time. Swings, splash area, shade — the little girl spent two days at the park. On her third day, as Lenore Skenazy notes on Reason, an adult asked the girl where her mother was. “‘At work,’ the daughter replied. The shocked adult called the cops. Authorities declared the girl ‘abandoned’ and proceeded to arrest the mother.”
What were you like when you were nine years old? Me? I was gone from morning until night. My mom was a single mother in every sense of the phrase, working full-time while putting herself through nursing school. That left her little time to monitor my playtime. If I wasn’t exploring new neighborhoods with my best friend, I was making a fort in a field near our home, riding my bike to a nearby grocery store to buy nachos, walking to 7/11 for a Slurpee, whatever. Not only did my mom not know where I was, but I didn’t have a cell phone. My example may be extreme but I’m willing to wager most people my age grew up the same way. Which means, by today’s standards, all moms before 1985 should be thrown in the clink for neglect.
Here we have a single mom struggling to make ends meet who made what she felt was the best decision for her situation. Every decision we make as parents contains a certain amount of risk. You could argue that Harrell is putting her daughter at more risk for injury by driving her around town in a car as it’s far more likely the two would be injured in a crash than her child be snatched from a crowded park. Why is one choice any better than the other?
Because we are parenting at a time when society is obsessed with irrational fear and even I’m infected by it. I can’t let my 5-year-old play in our own backyard without obsessively checking on her every 30 seconds, half expecting to see the bumper of the van of the man who kidnapped her receding in the distance. And it pisses me off that I feel that way! I don’t want to parent based on fear or what some other parent deems acceptable!
Skenazy continues on Reason, “There’s been this huge cultural shift. We now live in a society where most people believe a child can not be out of your sight for one second, where people think children need constant, total adult supervision. This shift is not rooted in fact. It’s not rooted in any true change. It’s imaginary. It’s rooted in irrational fear.”
Parents should be able to employ whatever tactics they deem right or necessary in bringing up their children — with obvious exceptions like physically abusing a child. But letting a 9-year-old go to the park alone hardly constitutes abuse or neglect.
Writer and professor Stacia L. Brown weighed in on her blog:
There are parts of parenting that are predicated on privacy, on intimate negotiations of what will and will not be able to work under our own roofs on a given day. Bedtime, dinner, and discipline choices differ from household to household. We have all had moments where we’ve considered ourselves fortunate no one witnessed us bribing our child with candy or snapping at him when a gentler word would’ve been best.
But there are other parts of parenting where privacy is as perilous as it is necessary, like determining when your child is “mature enough” to be left alone for hours at a time. It can be difficult for families with latchkey children — and the strangers who observe their decisions — to know the difference.
At what point does incurious observation become concern? At what point should concern involve intervention? And once authorities have intervened, which infractions should warrant the removal of children from their homes?
Exactly. At what point is our right to parent in the way we feel is best being taken away by overzealous helicopter folks who seek to undermine our authority? South Carolina needs to focus on busting people that actually pose a threat to children, not a single mom trying to make it through a day on the job while letting her daughter enjoy some time fresh air at the park instead of stuck sitting in a fast food restaurant for hours on end.
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