Monday, July 14, 2014

Who Cares What The Neighbors Think? (When Parenting Becomes Criminal)

It's scary being a parent.  There are so many things to worry about, so many questions we ask ourselves every day.  Are they getting enough calcium?  Will they ever learn their multiplication tables?  Did they remember to brush their teeth?  What about intestinal parasites?  Are they wearing clean socks?  Will they accidentally step on a rusty nail and be afraid to tell me because I will inevitably freak out and then contract tetanus and die a slow and miserable death leaving me behind to waste away consumed by guilt and grief?

What will the neighbors think?

I'd like to say, "Who cares what the neighbors think? They can go screw off.  These are my children!"

Unfortunately it's not that easy.  And the headlines I'm reading are fuel for a worried parent's worst nightmare.

First, there is the South Carolina mother who has been jailed and charged with "unlawful conduct towards a child" after dropping her nine-year old daughter off at a busy local park (with her own cell phone in case of an emergency) while she went to work.  The girl is now in the custody of the Department of Social Services after an adult at the park called the police.

Next, there is the Ohio father arrested for "child endangerment" after his eight-year old son skipped church in order to play in the neighborhood.  The child ended up in a local store and police were called in by a customer who recognized the boy.  As a result of local news coverage, the father was fired from his job.

Then there is the Tutt family.  The Tutts were raising two biological children (they have three more biological children that are adults and live outside the home) and three adopted children, plus they were providing foster care for a sibling group of five, including a child with autism, and an infant that Child Protective Services had recently placed in their care (even with the knowledge that the Tutts were caring for such a large number of children).  The four-year old autistic child wandered away from the Tutt home.  The Tutt's eight-year old child went with him but not being able to persuade him to return home, stayed with him while his siblings went to inform the parents.  Mr. Tutt was in the family car looking for the children when they were instead picked up by a police officer.  Without entering the home, but apparently upset by the number of children there, and the fact that the autistic child had soiled his clothes, the police officer contacted Child Protective Services.   All of the children were removed from the home (two of them have still not been returned months later) and a pending adoption was blocked.

And there's the Houston area mom jailed for child endangerment because she was watching her children ride scooters in front of her house.  Except that she was watching from a window.  A neighbor called the police.

Most recently, it was a South Carolina mother charged with "cruelty to children" after leaving her two sleeping children (ages 2 and 1 year) along with a friend's child in her running, air conditioned car while she ran into a local grocery store for a first aid item.  A store employee called the police.  The big kicker here, the children's aunt was watching them from her own car parked immediately behind them.  She had sleeping children in her car, as well.

What Will The Neighbors Think?
There was a time in the not-so-distant past (back in my childhood... you know the stone ages?  Or as I nostalgically refer to them, the 70s and 80s) when parents were cut a lot more slack.  It wasn't uncommon for me to roam the neighborhood at will, without my parents really knowing where I was.  I would ride my bike with reckless abandon down steep hills without a helmet (Oh, for shame!) and I don't think my mother worried about the neighbors calling CPS.  She left me in the car on a regular basis, sometimes because I just didn't feel like going into the store with her.  No one ever called the police.  She used to send me unaccompanied to the store with a note to the clerk so I could purchase her cigarettes.  She was never locked up for child endangerment.  I played outside from dawn until dusk, barefooted and filthy and no civil servant ever swooped in to rescue me.

We've witnessed the emergence of a generation of helicopter parents, afraid to leave their sweet babies to their own devices, constantly circling to make sure no one steals them, or they don't accidentally stub a toe or something.  Their poor children are so supervised that they get little free time, little unstructured outdoor play, and no cool free-spirited summer adventures.  And so they seem to be raising a generation of people lacking in self-confidence who don't know how to take risks.

But even if we aren't afraid to let our children free range like we did back in the nostalgic Stone Ages, we have to be afraid of what those helicopter parents might think.  If they disapprove of our parenting choices, they might turn us in to the authorities or the Thought Police.  When over-protective, hovering parents become the norm, regular parents start to look like criminals.

You might say we live in a different time and a different age.  Things aren't as safe as they used to be.  Children aren't safe alone.  Abductions happen every day.  The kids in these news stories could have been kidnapped by strangers.

Perhaps. But it isn't likely.

Our cities aren't full of candy-carrying creepers driving vans around public parks looking to snatch the first unsupervised kid they encounter.  Despite parents' unwarranted fears and the super-hyped media news stories, abductions by strangers are incredibly rare.  Most kidnapped children are taken by family members. And here is an interesting little tidbit of information, according to a 2000 report by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Programs, children who are abducted by strangers are harmed less frequently than those taken by acquaintances.

But we live in a culture of fear (programmed into us, perhaps because frightened people are easier to control), even more so if we are parents.  We are afraid our children might get hurt, so we childproof our homes and put safety helmets on their heads and strap them in car seats.  We are afraid our children might fall behind their peers academically, so we enroll them in preschool (or even pre-preschool).  We are afraid they might get sick so we slather them with antibacterial gel and cart them off to the doctor every time they get the sniffles.  We are afraid they might get sunburn, so we hose them down with sunscreen.  We are afraid they might get killed by a stranger, so we don't let them play outside unsupervised.

Even though head injuries, and superbugs, and skin cancer, and "stranger danger" might be horribly frightening things, we need to find a sense of balance.  Insulating our children from experiencing life might keep them safe, but it leaves them living half lives.  Exposure to everyday germs strengthens immune systems, reduces the risk of developing allergies and asthma, and produces healthier human beings.  Your sunscreen might actually CAUSE cancer while blocking healthy vitamin D production.  And children who are allowed to play outside unsupervised get more exercise (super important with childhood obesity on the rise) and the less tangible (but incredibly important) benefits of independence and self-reliance.

You might not condone the actions of the parents in the previous news stories, or with my mother allowing me to roam the neighborhood, but should their actions be considered criminal?  Dumping these parents into the criminal justice system seems a pretty counterproductive way of fixing these parents' "mistakes" (although I'm not personally convinced they were actually mistakes). It reeks of government micromanagement of individual lives (and that is a scary and slippery road, my friends). It is not the government's place to decide what is accepted parenting practice.

Besides, giving these parents a criminal record and smearing their names in the local community does nothing to enhance the lives of these children.  It does nothing to protect them from the phantom dangers that are supposed to be lurking around every corner.  Neither does removing them from their loving if somewhat less careful than average (but who wants to be average?) parents.  What they have done is replaced the minuscule threat of stranger abduction with a very real (and more frightening) abduction at the hands of government.

For parents raising their children outside of the socially accepted norms (home-birthing, homeschooling, co-sleeping, non-vaccinating, extended breastfeeding, free-ranging, religious or hippie, etc.), the fear is real.  It only takes one person with an agenda to snatch your children from your home - and that threat is far more substantiated than "stranger danger".

Unfortunately, in cases of child abuse or neglect, the parents are considered guilty until proven innocent.

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