This summer has produced a series of banner headlines about parents who made the mistake of allowing their kids to spend time alone.
- South Carolina mom Debra Harrell was arrested because she allowed her nine-year-old to play alone at the playground a mile from her work.
- Florida mom Nicole Gainey was arrested when her 7-year-old son was spotted walking to a park by himself.
- Another mom was arrested for letting her seven-year-old play alone at a Long Island mall’s LEGO store while she shopped elsewhere in the mall.
- And this mom was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor for (conscientiously!) standing outside her van to smoke a cigarette, leaving her three kids inside.
This is not a comprehensive list, just the most prominent of past few months, and all have been ably chronicled by Free-Range godmother Lenore Skenazy on her blog and at Reason.com.
Once you get over the insanity of all this overzealous state-sponsored parental punishment and you remember that this isn’t happening quite as regularly as the headlines make it seem, it is worthwhile to parse out what is actually going on here. There are three basic issues at work:
The really bad news is that parents are being punished for doing the right thing because as we all know, kids need some freedom. The kind of behavior that is judged criminal today was not even considered unusual a generation ago. Commentators like Megan McArdle have remarked that she was allowed to roam the then-unsafe streets of New York City when she was a child. Today we have the luxury of much safer urban and suburban areas. Why shouldn’t parents be encouraged to take advantage and let their kids develop their sense of independence and competence? But knowing that kids should be let off the leash and doing that are two different things that parents find hard to reconcile. Here’s how one mom commented on one of the recent arrests:
We’ve been reading the “Ramona” books with my nine-year-old, and Beezus walks 4-year-old Ramona to the library at age 9. Ramona walks herself to kindergarten.
I am so, so torn about it. I want so much to just shove the kids out the door in the [morning] and tell them to be home by dinner, the way it was for me. But I’m scared to death to do it! Other than (apparently) the risk of arrest, how could I live with myself if something bad happened?
Call it Nemo Syndrome.
The second element is the Nanny State taking over from parents who are judged to have done the wrong thing. When police handcuff women for “abandoning,” “neglecting,” or “leaving a child unattended” and in every instance the child was unharmed, the state authorities are sending a message that you can be guilty for doing nothing at all.
These women were punished for the potential harm their choices could have caused. The children in the car could have died of dehydration and heat stroke. The girl who played unattended at the playground could have been abducted. But the potential for harm has never served as our basis for crimes and misdemeanors. It used to be about what you actually did. This shift from actual wrongdoing to potential harm is a worrisome trend that every citizen—parents and non-parents—ought to realize and work to change. One mother I spoke to after she was threatened with arrest for letting her 10-year-old walk alone to soccer practice, told me she complained to the police chief who ended up working together with her to improve sidewalks and educate police about allowing kids to fend for themselves.
The third element of these incidents is no less troubling but represents more of a cultural shift. What has happened to the concept of being a good neighbor? In just about all of these cases (and the many others over the past two decades), an adult who witnessed and worried about a child—a kid alone at the playground, walking by himself on the street or sitting alone in a car—didn’t actually take responsibility for making sure everything was alright. Instead of going over to the child and finding out why they were alone or just staying around long enough to see if the child was in any immediate danger, the concerned individual called the police. It is as if these people wanted to get another adult in trouble for behavior they decided wasn’t right. These are busybodies on steroids. Instead of complaining that parents are making bad choices, these people involved the police, which in turn forces the hand of the authorities who fear litigation if they “miss” something. As a result we get arrests, misdemeanors, and citations instead of people showing genuine concern and actually involving themselves in other people’s lives.
It is almost worse than the arrests themselves, to think about the sinful pride these “concerned” individuals must feel for getting members of their community in trouble with police.