Where’s the line?

Last week, it came to my attention that a woman in my town had been arrested for leaving her 7 year-old at home alone. It seemed she was left alone for a few hours in the evening when the woman went to work. I didn’t get all the details and it wasn’t highly publicized, but it did spark an interesting conversation on a community message board about what is an appropriate age for children to stay home alone and for how long and in what circumstances, etc. Opinions differed. Most people felt that the maturity of the child needed to be accounted for and that age alone shouldn’t be the main determining factor.

A few days later, I read about the woman who was jailed and whose child was taken away from her because she let her play alone at the park in their neighborhood at age 9 while she worked her shift at McDonald’s. She had a cell phone with which she could contact her mom and vice versa. While 9 years old seems a touch young to me, I don’t know this girl. Maybe she was almost 10. Maybe she was extremely mature. Maybe as the daughter of a single mom she learned how to be resourceful and self-sufficient from a young age because that is what she saw her mom doing to make ends meet. And I don’t know the park, but I read that it was a popular town park with many kids playing (and presumably many adults watching them). Sure didn’t sound like a dangerous place. I was in disbelief when I read that the police, tipped off by a concerned citizen, took the child into custody and arrested and charged the woman with felony neglect. The child is STILL not home with her mother.

So, it is better for a 9 year-old girl to sit inside a McDonald’s all day than to play in a park in the summer with lots of other kids? Or she should have been left at home perhaps in front of the television? And let’s talk about the concerned citizen for a minute, shall we?

You are at the park with your own kids. You notice a little girl who doesn’t seem to belong to anyone. She isn’t hurt, she isn’t crying, she isn’t stealing from the other kids, she isn’t rummaging in the trash for something to eat. If you are nosy enough, you ask her, “Where’s your mom?” When she tells you that her mom went to work at the McDonald’s is your immediate reaction, “My Lord, this child has been abandoned! I need to call the police”? No? Isn’t that what all concerned citizens would do?

Right. Here are some alternatives just off the top of my head: ask the child if she is OK, ask the child if she needs anything, ask the child if she would like to play with your child, ask the child when mom is expected to come pick her up, ask the child if she wants to call her mom and have you bring the child to the McDonalds, tell the child to have her mom call you because you know of a great inexpensive babysitter/camp/childcare situation that might work out for a single mom who clearly thought her best option was to let her child play at the park with other children than to stare at the walls and eat french fries at McDonald’s. Or of course, you could mind your own damn business.

Caveat: I do recognize that people minding their own damn business is how true abuse and neglect go unnoticed and unreported for far too long. I am not suggesting that people turn a blind eye to the safety and well-being of their fellow man and definitely not when the safety of a child is in question. But that is just the point. The safety of this child doesn’t seem to have been in question.

Without knowing the whole story of the concerned citizen who felt that her best option was to call the police, it sounds to me like a little bit ignorance mixed with judgement and quite a bit of shit-stirring.This was not a toddler left alone. She was 9. There are 9 year-olds who get their periods, God bless them. But now, she is a 9 year old under the custody of the state forced to be away from her mother and endure this legal ordeal. Surely playing at the park with other kids is preferable to that.

I’ve read several other stories about parents arrested for making choices about letting their kids play outside allegedly unsupervised, or for leaving their kid in the car for 5 minutes while they run to the store. Free Range Kids is full of these types of stories. It boggles my mind. These parents who are getting arrested are NOT abusing their children, they are NOT neglecting their children. They aren’t leaving their children locked in a car so they can go bar hopping. Or, I don’t know, drowning their children so they can lead a carefree life, ahem, Casey Anthony. These are parents who are making decisions for their kids who they arguably know better than anyone else. Parents who should know if they are capable of walking up the street to the bus stop by themselves or staying home for a couple of hours while mom goes to work.

I’m borderline helicopter mom. I have a hard time admitting it, but it is true. G has accused me of being overprotective. I don’t even like letting my boys use a public restroom on their own. But I do it. And I let them play outside sometimes when I’m busy inside. And I have left them in the car while I run to the ATM machine. And I have each of them lying on the couch when they were sick to run the other one up to the bus stop. Judgement calls. The problem that I see is that parents don’t seem to be allowed to make these kinds of judgement calls anymore. I learned that there are actually state laws which govern how old your child must be to stay home alone. I bet there are many laws and rules about things that used to be within a parent’s right to decide.

So where do we as a society draw the line? How can we reclaim the rights as parents to decide when our kids are old enough to bike to the park alone? Or play on their DS for 10 minutes while mom runs into the store for milk? When are we going to stop punishing parents for doing the best they can, like letting their daughter play at the park while working at the McDonald’s to put food on the table and start punishing parents who don’t support their kids or who exhibit true signs of neglect and abuse?

We are doing our kids a disservice by hovering over them and planning everything for them. We are doing parents a disservice by taking away their ability to exercise their common sense and judgement when it comes to raising their children. We are creating a society of dependent, helpless, entitled children from families of impotent, ineffective parents. This is not the future I want to live in.

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