Dear Gruff Stranger Who Recently Gave Me Parenting Advice,
What harm do you imagine could come from leaving my kids in the car for three minutes on a 60ºF day while I ran in to buy the forgotten milk? The car was parked, the doors were locked, the keys were with me, and I left the windows and the sunroof partially open. At six and under, my kids were strapped into car seats. I don’t even think they noticed, as content as they were to flip through a new stack of library books.
You’re right about one thing, though. You could have called the police. No doubt it’s breaking some law to leave my kids unattended. Once on the scene, the police might feel the need to do something because you requested assistance. I would probably at the very least have gotten a citation but could have been charged with a more serious offense.
Let me stop you before you tell me about the woman who travels the country warning about the dangers of leaving our kids in the car, or hand me one of those flyers about how hot cars can get on the inside. I am aware. I am simply asking the following questions to you and the others who parent my kids from afar (read McSweeney’s for a great comeback):
When did you give up hope and decide to suspect me of negligence? Where is my village to help me raise my children?
Your Fed-Up Neighbor
If it takes a village to raise a child, ours is letting us down.
The milk incident is not an isolated case of drive-by parenting. I’ve been shouted at for, among other acts of apparent negligence, not holding my kid’s hand on a sidewalk. As I watch the families literally put leashes on their kids in growing numbers, I no longer judge them. I judge the litany of threats and cajoles they might have received prior to making the decision to leash their kids.
Lenore Skenazy of Free-Range Kids reported a story back in May in which two neighbors were arrested and taken to jail in DC after letting their seven-year-old daughters go for an unattended walk through the woods in their neighborhood. What happened to sending kids home with a stern warning?
I am more afraid of strangers reporting me for child negligence than I am of strangers stealing my children.
I keep waiting for the pendulum of child protection to swing back, but if anything it extends further. As our preoccupation with safety rises, fewer parents give their children freedom to roam. It has become odd–even alarming–to spot an unsupervised child. A middle-school student spotted alone waiting for a bus recently provoked a response by the Rhode Island legislation forbidding unaccompanied minors to walk home from the school bus. And of course, we all know about what happened to the mom who let her nine-year-old play at the park while she was at work.
We shouldn’t stop supervising our children altogether; teaching boundaries and safety are important and necessary. Laws work when they protect children from the truly negligent parents. But when Good Samaritans impose their overprotective ideals on my standard of care, I am no longer willing to let them threaten or terrorize me.
This parenting gig is hard enough without the courts breathing down our necks. I mean, hey, I recognize leaving my kids in the car that day was not ideal. And if you can parent without ever leaving your kids in the car alone for a second, my hat’s off to you. Good job! Go on with your bad self! But should I go to jail for my style of parenting? No.
Hannah Rosin, in The Atlantic this past March, points out that lowering the level of acceptable risk has not actually resulted in more safety. In fact, our current trend toward risk aversion has the potential to create a generation of “more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology.”
What are we protecting our children from? Is it not my job as a parent to help them learn to navigate the world on their own?
A friend relayed a fascinating story from a trip to Berlin. At a neighborhood block party, her sister-in-law scribbled her phone number on her four-year-old son’s arm with a sharpie pen and sent him out to frolic on the grassy square while the adults chatted nearby. She kept an eye on him, of course, but knew that if he got away from her, her neighbors—not the police—would know how to reach her.
So what can you do to balance safety with freedom? Here are four steps you can take to raise free-range kids:1
1) Debunk the myth of stranger danger.
The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children notes it is far more common for people you know than strangers to abduct or otherwise harm children.
2) Be the hummingbird.
Children & Nature Network explains how to be a “hummingbird parent,” who remains nearby but unseen and swoops in only when there is a threat to safety. C&NN gives practical ways to get kids outside without the accompanying fear of risk. If you have a child ages seven and up, try participating in “Take Your Kids to the Park and Leave Them There Day.” The more kids we see unaccompanied, the less alarmed we’ll be.
If you are a Good Samaritan who sees a child out alone, ask questions. Children as young as three years old are mature enough to follow and relay a parent’s instructions, so you should easily be able to tell the difference between a lost child and a child with a destination.
3) Speak up.
If you fear retaliation by the government for giving your kids a free-range childhood, tell your representative how you feel. The topic of child protection will remain a political hot potato until we let Congress know the fight for our children’s freedom is one worth taking up.
Got a story worth sharing? Tell Lenore what’s going on, whether positive or negative, so she can share it with the greater “Free Range” community.
4) Let your kid do dangerous things.
Gever Tulley, the founder of the Tinkering School, gave a TED talk in which he argues we should give our kids more “dangerous” opportunities for self-direction. Obviously he wouldn’t want you to let your child do anything truly dangerous; some limits must be set. Ariadne Brill wrote a great article for NPN about setting limits with kindness.
It is unlikely we will rely on neighbors as a safety net; for most of us, reconstructing the village isn’t possible. What we can do is create a happy medium in which we give our children the respect and responsibility they are capable of and deserve.
Are you with me?
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