There has been a rash of stories recently where a parent has been chastised, had children’s services show up, or even been arrested for making a parenting choice that some say is or should be illegal. (We don’t trust parents anymore!)
The thing is, we’re not talking about sexual abuse, starving children, physical abuse, providing unsanitary living conditions, complete neglect, and so on. No, the vast majority of these stories are simple. Stories like:
- A mom who left her 4-year-old in the car for 5 minutes, on a mild day
- A woman who left her 9 and 12-year-old siblings in the car
- Parents who allowed their 6 and 7-year-old children to go play near a creek less than a thousand feet from their home, easily visible out a window
There were more. All of these parents had contact with the police and/or CPS for these (one time) situations.
Worse, there are lots of people who defend the involvement of CPS or the police in these situations!
Let’s be clear. Some of these are things I definitely wouldn’t feel comfortable with and don’t do. Some are downright ridiculous. At worst, though, we could call them a lapse in judgment. Not abuse. Not neglect.
There is absolutely no common sense in this. It’s driving me crazy.
I Don’t Trust Your Parenting, So I’m Calling the Authorities
People no longer have any rational sense of what is “safe” and “unsafe.”
Some are freaking out about a child being left in a car on a mild day, with the car in full view of the mother at all times. (Even if that child is older, say, up to 12 years old.) They’re freaking out about children under 13 being left home alone. It’s helicopter parenting on steroids.
People are hyper-judgmental. Maybe it’s because the culture as a whole is so judgmental that people want to be the first to be judgmental. Maybe it’s that they never learned that “what works for me, may not work for others.” Whatever the reason, some people now look at others’ parenting choices not as different choices, but as outright abuse.
I am just blown away by this. When did we get so crazy that every, single, little thing that someone else does that “might” be different or not the greatest decision become actual abuse? And since it obviously isn’t, when did we start to think that it is?
Our intentions have changed, too. Instead of seeing a questionable situation and wanting to help, people want to tattle. Yes, grown adults are tattling. When the 4-year-old boy was left in the car (for all of five minutes), a bystander videotaped the entire thing on a cell phone, and after the mother had returned and the child was clearly safe, the bystander forwarded the video to the police (who then showed up to arrest her). If the person’s concern had been for the child, then they would have dropped it entirely once it was clear the child was safe. They might have approached the mother and expressed concern. They might have held privately judgmental thoughts. But to call the police about a safe child — that’s just tattling!
Just so we’re clear, when people say “if you see a child alone in a car, call the 911” they mean, in case the child is in danger, so that someone can help before it’s too late. They don’t mean, when the child is fine and the mother has quickly returned, in order to get the mom in trouble.
Adults telling on other adults is absolutely childish. Adults who tattle are acting just like 5-year-olds. Grow up, already — if the action you’re considering won’t help the situation or any of the people in it, just don’t do it. That 4-year-old? He’s now 7 and completely traumatized. Every time his mother leaves the room or he sees a police car, he panics and thinks she is going to get taken away again. That’s the ultimate result of that situation. The child wasn’t helped at all, and the mother certainly wasn’t either. One could argue the child is actually doing quite a bit worse because of that stranger’s “help.”
Have some common sense, people. Please.
By the way, if someone does approach you about something simple, I recommend smiling and saying “Thanks” and hoping they leave it at that. But if they threaten you, or follow through on that threat, I’m a fan of saying “I’m suing you.” (or, “I will sue you if you make that unnecessary call.”) Protect your rights — don’t let people bully you.
Bubble Wrap Your Child — No Risk is Acceptable
Some people are defending the police and the stranger’s actions in that case (and the others like it) because “What if something had happened. The parents would never have been able to forgive themselves. Taking any risk is unacceptable.”
Look, I’m not advocating leaving 4-year-olds in cars. I don’t leave my 6-year-old in cars, even though I’m sure she’d be okay for five minutes. I don’t feel comfortable with it. Maybe when she’s 8 or 9 and knows how to safely exit the car, lock it, navigate a parking lot, and come to find me on her own inside the store, should she need me. Maybe then. Or maybe not, because of nosy busybodies who would assume I’m a neglectful parent to leave a 9-year-old child in a car for five minutes…
I definitely think that this was a lapse in judgment to leave the 4-year-old. But that’s all it was. It wasn’t neglect. It wasn’t abuse. It wasn’t even that risky.
There are no baby snatchers lurking around every corner. Statistically, most children who are abducted are taken by a non-custodial parent in a divorce situation or by someone they know. They are not snatched by strangers out of cars. There aren’t people with guns looking to shoot lone children, either, especially in a busy parking lot in broad daylight. Crime rates are actually down from when we were children in the 70s and the 80s, so it’s really not a “more dangerous” world out there. We didn’t grow up in the “good old days.” The actual statistics just don’t bear out that common myth.
The only real risk is in hot weather — a child could overheat and suffer heatstroke or worse, possibly in as little as 15 minutes. But let’s just say that parents are smart enough not to leave their children in cars on hot days (because don’t do that — that is dangerous for real).
The single riskiest thing that mother did with her child that day was driving him in a car at all. Car accidents are the leading cause of death in children under 5.
I don’t see anyone suggesting that we not ever drive children in cars. This is an acceptable risk to us, although it’s a very real one. It’s one we don’t even take that seriously, based on the number of people who argue with me that car seat laws are ridiculous and “we all survived” (we didn’t, but those people aren’t around to tell their stories) and don’t use car seats properly. You want to decrease your child’s risk? Use a car seat properly, every single time you drive, following maximum safety recommendations, not legal minimums. I take this very seriously, personally. It’s a simple, real thing I can do to decrease a very serious risk.
Instead of taking this risk seriously, we worry about baby snatchers.
But worse, we have this perception that we ought to protect children from any and every risk that they might face. This is not only impossible, but also inadvisable. We have forgotten that our job as parents is not to keep them as children, or as pets (I swear some people do treat their children like pets), but to raise them into functional, confident, productive adults. When some people talk about not leaving their (typical, not special needs) child alone until they are 15 or 16 years old, cold dread seeps in. I wonder if they realize that their children will be considered legal adults in only a few years. The world won’t be so kind to an adult who is normal, yet developmentally 5 or more years behind.
Our goal is to constantly give our children age-appropriate challenges and allow them to take appropriate risks. I’m not going to let my kid jump off the roof, but if he wants to jump off a low fence, fine. And if he scrapes his elbow, he’ll learn something from that — without serious injury.
I teach my kids to use “dangerous” things safely as soon as I feel they’re mature enough to do so. I taught all my kids to use knives starting around 2 years old. Yes, really. And the older ones can use them quite safely at this point (they are almost 5, and 6). I started teaching my oldest to use the stove at age 5. At first, I stood next to her, guiding her every move, explaining how the stove worked, ready to move her or take over if she wasn’t being careful. A year and a half later and she can do simple cooking tasks alone, like boiling water to make herself some tea.
I’m not suggesting we just let kids go and do whatever they want. But if we remove all risk, then they won’t get a chance to learn in a safe space. That’s what kids really need — a chance to take a calculated risk, with an adult’s guidance, and loving arms if anything goes wrong. We need to teach them how to handle this, while we’re still there to help them when they fail. That’s our job as parents.
The Fear Changes
Last night, I was talking to my 6-year-old daughter. She was asking for ballet lessons. We were talking about what that would be like and I was remembering when I took ballet lessons, 20-some years ago.
One year, I had a Saturday early afternoon class. I had PSR (Catholic religious education, for those not familiar) Saturday morning, and the dance studio was about a mile away. I was around 8 years old. When PSR was over, I would grab my books and my dance bag and walk over to the studio for class. My parents would pick me up from the studio after.
I’d never let my daughter do that now.
Not because she is only 6. I don’t know that I’d let her at 8 or 9, either. Not because the world’s a more dangerous place — it’s not. Not because I don’t think she could handle it — she’s quite a confident, outgoing young lady.
Why wouldn’t I let her? For fear that some nosy, busybody would see her, think it was inappropriate, and call the police, or children’s services.
The biggest fear I have for my children when they are out and about is that someone will call the authorities. How ridiculously sad is that?
I don’t fear kidnappers or crazy drivers or drugs or sex (or rock’n’roll). I fear nosy people calling the authorities because they don’t like my parenting decisions. (Some of you are going to say I’m paranoid. I’m not getting into this publicly, but I’ll tell you it isn’t paranoia. It’s happened.)
When I was a kid, we had “neighborhood safe houses.” These were volunteer parents who would allow children in trouble to come to them if something should happen while they were walking to and from school. Because from the time I was in first grade (the same age my daughter is), I walked to our neighborhood school, 7/10 of a mile away and across a major road. These parents would have a sign in their windows, and the expectation was we could knock on their doors and they would help us and get us to our parents. Not that they would call the police or children’s services. Not that there was anything wrong with us walking to school alone in the first place.
Something’s seriously shifted. And I don’t like it one bit.
Hope for the Future — We Need to Trust Parents
I’m going to buck the trend, and I hope you will, too.
I’m going to allow my children to take risks I feel are age and maturity-level-appropriate. I’m going to challenge them to learn about what they can do. I’m going to teach and train them how to handle things like crossing busy streets or speaking politely to strangers. (Yes, they can talk to strangers. They do it all the time. Knowing how to talk to strangers is an important skill — we do it every day at the grocery store, the bank, the playground. Not getting into a stranger’s van because they offer you candy is something totally different.)
I’m not going to give them all the answers. I’m going to let them figure some of them out themselves. I’m going to ask them questions and make them think. I’m going to guide them along the path.
I won’t let them take unnecessary risk. I make them get in their car seats and strapped in properly every time we get in the car (even if it’s just around the block). They wear helmets when they ride their bikes. I don’t let them swing from the chandelier or use glass jars as baseballs or jump out of the windows (or even open the second story windows if they don’t have a screen). These things that could seriously harm or kill them aren’t worth it to learn “the hard way” and that’s where my job as a parent protecting them comes in.
But climbing a tree? Walking across a quiet neighborhood street to a friend’s house? Taking a short walk around the block alone (maybe in a couple years)? These are non-dangerous things that they’ll want to do. That they should do. And I won’t let this ridiculous fear that paralyzes people paralyze me. I will teach them to be a point of sanity and common sense in a messed-up world. I’ll teach them to have common sense, and use it liberally.
Refuse to buckle to the fear and the pressure to helicopter parent. Refuse to bow to those who think you’re a neglectful parent because you’re not following your kid around 24/7. Let them have some (appropriate) freedom.
Where do you stand — are families today too cautious? Or is it warranted?