I recently left my son in the car while I ran into the drugstore. It was hot outside, so I left the windows open and popped inside. He is 11 years old—I gave him the option to walk home on his own, or come inside with me. He adamantly refused to leave the car. I hesitated. But I wasn’t worried about his safety. I was worried about mine.
Only recently has it dawned on me that I could be arrested for leaving my kids in the car, or letting them play unattended in a public space. Here I thought that I was a culturally-approved free-range parent, but am I actually a criminal-on-the lam instead?
Parents are at the mercy of so many hypocritical forces. We are known as smothering helicopter parents if we keep our kids within our view at all times and we are neglectful parents if we leave them alone for five minutes. No wonder recent news stories range between studies on how our kids can’t survive on their own, to articles about mothers being jailed for child abandonment.
Check out this Salon.com post about one woman’s odyssey after she was charged with leaving her five-year old son in the car for five minutes on a cool day. The mandatory parenting classes she was forced to take lasted only a few weeks, but the psychological scars it left on her family may take a lifetime to heal.
If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to criminalize the actions of parents. It would seem to me that a well-meaning citizen could wait by the car for the parent to return before assuming neglect. Or that the police would understand the difference between leaving a child in the car for five minutes and child abandonment. A court system that separates (or even threatens to separate) a parent from a child because the parent was away from the car for a short period of time, is one that is broken—and yet, it seems to keep happening.
I’m not sure how we got to this disconnected place: we lament our kids not having grown up during the free-wheeling '70s, yet we are calling the cops on one another when a child is left alone for five minutes. We seem to have a disproportionate anxiety about our children’s safety, even though the numbers do not support our fears. As Ross Douthat wrote in a New York Times op-ed:
"Crime rates are down, abductions and car deaths are both rare, and most of the parents leaving children (especially non-infants) in cars briefly are or are letting them roam a little are behaving perfectly responsibly."
Raising our kids in a culture of fear is counter-productive to bringing up healthy and happy adults. We are letting our anxiety trump common sense. Douthat believes that it's a combination of our personal fears, combined with the overscheduling of our kids, that makes unsupervised play seems “weird" or unnatural. In addition, people don’t trust each other as much anymore and, instead of solving problems, we just snap a photo and pass it on to the police or social media. This is a phenomenon Douthat refers to as the “bad Samaritan.”
I wonder, too, if our own feelings about women not being at home with the kids is part of this whole mess. Our stereotyped ideal of a stay-at-home mom is someone who would never put her child at risk, who would never selfishly leave her children in the car alone for even a second or let them walk to the store on their own.
Even though 70 percent of women are currently in the workforce, career women are sometimes portrayed as selfish—guilty of putting themselves first instead of their role as a parent (ahem, Matt Lauer). Do they deserve to be punished? Or maybe I'm letting my Women’s Studies courses get ahead of me here, and I'm seeing conspiracies where there are none.
But there is one thing of which I'm quite sure: when we are grandparents and we tell our kids about the nonsense that went on when they were kids, they will shake their heads at us and laugh at our own stupidity. But, in the meantime, we need to support families who need it, and lay off the ones who are just trying to get some stuff done.