How did good parenting become a crime?

Parents get visits from family service workers over complaints they let their kids play in the backyard and neighbours call police when they see children walking home from the park without a parent. Have we taken this safety thing too far?

Photo: Laura Natividad/Getty Images

Naomi started letting her daughter walk to school alone when Elizabeth was in the second grade. It was a two-block amble from their East Vancouver home, and eight-year-old Elizabeth knew the way—they’d been going to the school playground ever since she could stand. They went over things like street safety, what to do if a stranger said “hi” and what Elizabeth should do if she ever felt unsafe. Still, for the first few trips, Naomi surreptitiously followed a half-block behind to make sure everything went smoothly until her daughter was walking alone to school and back through their quiet residential neighbourhood.

Months later, Naomi got a call from the school, which goes up to Grade 3. They weren’t comfortable, she was told, with students walking to or from school without adult supervision. “I heard them. I listened. I understood their point of view,” Naomi says. “And then I overrode them.” Elizabeth would be arriving every day, on time, by herself.

She did so for more than a year without incident, save one occasion when Naomi got a call from a teacher relaying concerns from a parent who’d seen Elizabeth take one foot off the curb and between two parked cars while she peeked at a cat. Otherwise, everything was fine. Or so Naomi thought.

Kids riding a bus by themselvesI let my kids take the bus by themselves—until the government said they're too young to ride alone Last year, with Elizabeth in her final weeks of Grade 3, Naomi got a late-evening phone call from B.C.’s Ministry of Child and Family Development, who set up a face-to-face meeting to itemize a list of concerns that Naomi describes as “ridiculous.” An anonymous tipster reported seeing Elizabeth about to cross the street, but stepping back up on the sidewalk in a way that suggested she felt unsafe. It was something Naomi says she taught her daughter to do, adding bitterly: “That was sent in as a concern because it looked like she didn’t know how to cross the street.”

There was more. Elizabeth had twice come to school without a lunch—in the course of four years. “I packed her lunch every day,” Naomi says. “Twice she forgot it and once I couldn’t deliver it to the school because I was in a meeting across town.” Then there was the time Elizabeth arrived at class all wet on a rainy day. As kids often do, she had outright refused to wear her raincoat. “I told her, ‘You’ll get wet,’ and she said, ‘I don’t care,’ ” Naomi recalls. “So I said, ‘Go ahead then and get wet.’ ” Perhaps most upsettingly for Naomi, someone reported seeing Elizabeth wearing a crop top. “She doesn’t own any crop tops. She’s big and sometimes she forgets to pull her shirt down over her tummy,” Naomi says. “By the way: way to slut-shame my eight-year-old.”

Naomi never truly feared that a social worker would recommend taking away her little girl, yet her experience has left her wary. (It’s why she asked that their last name not be used.) And she is only one parent among many trying to raise an independent child in a society that is safer and more careful—yet somehow more afraid—than ever. “We, as a society, pretend to give parents a wide range of discretion as to the choices they make for the nurturance and well-being of their children,” says John-Paul Boyd, executive director of the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family. “Somehow, social attitudes about children evolved from it being widely acceptable to tell their kids to get out of the house and don’t come back until dinner, to the point today where, in many cases, that would be enough to have child protection people descend on you.”

Fifty years ago, raising an independent child meant giving them the freedom to roam the neighbourhood, play outdoors as much as possible and learn from their mistakes. That’s harder to accomplish today: parents get visits from family service workers over complaints they let their kids play in the backyard; neighbours call police when they see children walking home from the park without a parent; and children are detained in mall stores for shopping without adult supervision.

It would all be less concerning if these were one-off cases of busybodies who are quickly invited to mind their own business. Instead, social norms and the law increasingly reflect the attitudes of the self-appointed guardians, with real-life consequences for parents who thought they were doing the right thing by affording their kids some latitude. The stigma of child-protection officials opening a file, or a police cruiser rolling up for all the neighbours to see, can last for years. In extreme cases, parents who set out to teach their youngsters independence have faced legal sanction and, if they don’t change course, even the threat of having their kids seized by authorities. In our rush to protect children, have we made good parenting a crime?

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One family tree is enough to track the pace at which a child’s world has shrunk. A 2007 British report traced a single family’s roaming privileges over four generations in Sheffield, U.K., looking at the movements of each when he or she was eight years old. In 1926, George Thomas was permitted to walk 10 km without adult supervision to a fishing hole. In 1950, Jack Hattersley, Thomas’s son-in-law, was allowed to walk almost two kilometres to hang out in the woods. By 1979, Hattersley would let his daughter, Vicki Grant, walk as far as the local swimming pool by herself, not quite a kilometre away. And in 2007, Grant’s boy, Ed, could go only as far as the end of the street, maybe 275 m from the front door.

Nowadays, at least in Canada, parents who let their kids play unsupervised risk raising the eyebrows of their neighbours or, in the case of Winnipeg mom Jacqui Kendrick, a visit from child protection authorities. In 2016, Kendrick got a knock at the door from a social worker conducting a “wellness check” after an anonymous complaint about Kendrick’s two eldest kids playing outdoors, supposedly unsupervised. The stay-at-home mother of three was more than happy to let her then 10-year-old and five-year-old play together in the fenced backyard, where Kendrick could track them through the window. (She never left her two-year-old alone.)

“I don’t blame [the CFS worker]. She’s doing her job and I understand that,” Kendrick says. “But it was upsetting. My kids are well-fed and well-loved. I couldn’t believe I was getting investigated for letting my kids outside.” Worse, she began to second-guess all her parenting decisions and worry: could any of this warrant her losing custody of her three children?

Not much came of the visit, Kendrick says, except that she and her husband now think twice when they’re out in the backyard and see a neighbour looking out the window, especially since they still don’t know who made the anonymous complaint. “If my toddler is outside and screaming bloody murder because she doesn’t want to go inside, you worry more about that,” Kendrick says. “We have a file. Even if it’s closed, it’s always there.”

It’s tough to pinpoint when everyone became so afraid for children’s safety, but many experts agree that the media—most notably the dawn of 24-hour TV news stations—helped spread the paranoia. News outlets started to devote enormous attention to child welfare and kidnappings in the late 1970s and early 1980s, says Paula Fass, author of The End of American Childhood: A History of Parenting from Life on the Frontier to the Managed Child. “It was just one story after another of a child disappearing.”

In 1979, six-year-old Etan Patz disappeared on his way to the school bus stop in Manhattan. In 1984, 10-year-old Kevin Collins was last seen at a San Francisco bus stop on his way home from basketball practice. The family of Michael Dunahee is still looking for answers after their four-year-old vanished at a school playground in Victoria in 1991. Not even a child’s own bedroom seemed secure: 12-year-old Polly Klaas was taken at knifepoint from her own home during a slumber party in 1993. “These were cases all across the country,” says Fass, a historian at the University of California, Berkeley. “It seemed there was no place that was safe.”

In fact, horror-story stranger abductions are exceedingly rare in both Canada and the U.S. In 2017, of more than 47,000 missing children reports Canada-wide, only 27 were attributed to an abduction by a stranger, according to the RCMP’s National Centre for Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains, and in this case a “stranger” could be a family friend, a neighbour or someone known to the family who isn’t a relative. “Children are more likely to be killed and abused by a family member than a stranger driving a white panel van,” says Boyd, who also teaches family law at the University of Calgary. “Today, if you were to tell your child to watch out for monsters, it’s not the guy in the van. It’s the creepy uncle.”

Rarer still are abductions that end in a child’s death. More Canadian children die of the flu—an average of 12 per year—than are killed after being abducted by a stranger. Between 1970 and 2010, about 150 children were abducted and murdered by a stranger or acquaintance, an average of fewer than four per year, according to a 2016 study by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection (the number does not include abductions by parents or relatives).

In the U.S. each year, only about 100 kids—a small fraction of one per cent of missing children each year—are taken by that stereotypical scary stranger, according to the Polly Klaas Foundation, a non-profit organization for child safety and finding missing children established after Klaas’s kidnapping. The majority make it home. Couple that with a long decline in child mortality rates plus a significant drop in child pedestrians getting hit by cars and, as the Washington Post put it in 2015, “there’s never been a safer time to be a kid in America.”

And yet perception of child endangerment has long had the upper hand on statistics. “The numbers are alarming, and they don’t tell the whole story,” warns the Missing Children Society of Canada, even though the society’s own site points to a drop in annual reported cases of missing children over the past three decades, from 57,233 in 1987 down to 47,168 in 2017. The RCMP further states that the majority of missing children reports are removed within 24 hours and 92 per cent are removed within a week.

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African American girl inside a bus in a city.

Photo: Gabriel (Gabi) Bucataru/Stocksy

Statistics, it goes without saying, are of little solace to those who have experienced the trauma of a missing child—such as the parents of 10-year-old Ariel Jeffrey Kouakou of Montreal, who went missing in March. He reportedly went out to visit a friend who turned out not to be home, and was last seen at midday in Des Bateliers Park. Police believed Kouakou drowned in the river after accidentally falling in, though as of this writing divers had yet to find his body. His parents maintain he was abducted and pleaded in front of cameras for his safe return.

The visceral power of such scenarios induces extreme responses among adults who see children left alone—and no assemblage of data is going to change their minds. Hands-off parents, as a result, don’t always get the benefit of the doubt. When Doug Dunlop saw his 11-year-old son, Tadhg (pronounced “taig,” like tiger without the “er”), detained by security in the corner of a Lego store inside a Calgary mall a few years ago, he learned of the store’s policy that kids younger than 12 weren’t allowed to shop unsupervised. Never mind that Tadhg biked to the mall on his own to shop with some of the $200 he’d earned from babysitting.

Dunlop wondered why they didn’t let Tadhg simply leave; a store manager told him they had a policy that he must stay with security until one of his parents arrived. Dunlop pressed the store manager: what’s the worst that could happen that they felt compelled to detain an independent 11-year-old boy? “He told me: ‘If I have to tell you that, you shouldn’t be a parent,’ ” Dunlop recalls. “This guy really thought my child might be abducted by a child molester from the Lego store in a public mall. It’s such a far-fetched situation. It’s ludicrous. If anyone tried to grab him, he’d scream and that’d be the end of it.”

When Dunlop took the story public in 2015, a Lego spokesperson issued a statement to the media, saying: “As a toy company, our utmost concern is for children’s safety, and as such we have a policy in place regarding unaccompanied minors. As this customer was under the age of 12 and alone, we followed our protocol and stand by our policy.” Dunlop, meanwhile, was met with waves of support but also scorn. His detractors warned him that the world had changed over the past decades. “It has,” Dunlop agrees. “It’s substantially safer than when I was a kid.”

Experts are torn over whether our capacity and ability to better monitor our kids has played some part in reducing the incidence of crimes and accidents involving children; advancements in technology mean a child born today may never go untracked. Hospitals put tags on newborns to ensure they can’t be snatched from the hospital without setting off an alarm. Nurseries are equipped with baby monitors. And when parents are ready to go back to work, they can install “nanny cams” to watch over their kids at home or enrol their children into daycares equipped with cameras so parents can watch kids remotely. Some parents give their kid a cellphone at a young age to keep tabs on them; some even buy GPS trackers for kids to wear on their wrists or shoes.

Other cultural transformations have also factored into our changing mindset, notably the proliferation of women’s participation in the workforce during the 1970s, even those with young children. “That meant not only were you not at home, but your neighbours weren’t at home,” says Fass, the historian. “There was no one looking out the window and watching your child. You couldn’t depend on a neighbour looking out for your kid; there was no one home.”

Not to mention families are having fewer children. Canada’s fertility rate—the number of children per woman—has dropped significantly since the postwar baby boom, from almost four children per woman in the late 1950s to about 1.6 today. If fewer children means parents have more time to hover over the ones they have, why wouldn’t they? Boyd says there’s some truth to this, like the proverbial hen with one chick who is overanxious and fussy. It’s not that parents of previous generations didn’t want to dedicate more time to their kids, it was just a tougher ask for those with four or five. “It was just an inability to spread your parenting attention that far around,” Boyd says. “You just can’t wrangle them all.”

And the fussing can be linked to aspiration as surely as to fear of harm. In a world of globalization and free-market capitalism, a growing number of parents watch over their children to ensure they get the educational edge needed to succeed, says Kathleen Gallagher, an education researcher at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. That means monitoring homework, engaging with teachers on grades and dedicating once-spare time to extracurricular education like Kumon or foreign-language classes. “It’s not this new emotionalism,” says Fass, “but a striving to control the child—to make sure the child is not exposed to predators, does their homework and satisfies the family’s desire for middle-class status.”

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It’s hard to imagine a neighbour calling child services to report a mom who isn’t letting her kids play at the park enough. But there’s no shortage of would-be informants watching for the opposite. In the summer of 2014, a South Carolina mom was arrested and charged with unlawful conduct toward a child after she let her nine-year-old—cellphone in hand—play at the park instead of forcing her to sit inside a McDonald’s where the mother worked. Weeks later, a mother in Florida was arrested and charged with child neglect after she let her seven-year-old bike to a nearby park alone, again carrying a cellphone to check in; someone at a public pool called police upon seeing the child pass by.

In 2015, a Maryland couple was investigated by child protective services on multiple occasions for letting their kids, aged six and 10, walk home together from a park near their house. On the second occasion, someone in the neighbourhood called the police, who picked them up and brought them to a local detention centre without telling the parents, even though the children knew their home phone number and address. The parents, Danielle and Alexander Meitiv, went on a frantic search when the kids didn’t come home by the scheduled time, and called 911. That’s when police put them in touch with child protective services to let them know they were under investigation for suspected neglect. (The parents were cleared, but not before starting a polarizing national debate over free-range parenting.)

Amid a growing child obesity crisis and worries over excessive screen time for kids, all of this places parents in a double bind. “Either they’re going to be reported for letting kids play outside or they’ll be admonished for not letting them play outside,” says Caroline Fusco, a University of Toronto professor and co-author of the forthcoming book Play, Physical Activity and Public Health: The Reframing of Children’s Leisure Lives. “And it often falls on mothers. There’s the assumption that mothers are taking care of kids and should be responsible for their physical activity.”

But fathers aren’t exempt from judgment. Vancouver dad Adrian Crook got international attention last year for letting four of his kids, the eldest of whom was 11, ride the city bus to school without him. And while his kids were well-behaved regulars on the route, a worried local informed child services. Crook isn’t some naive parent. His father was a police officer in Port Moody, B.C., who was hyperaware of the dangers lurking in the city. Even so, as a child Crook enjoyed the freedom to head down to the beach without his parents. He wanted to afford his own children a similar degree of independence, yet also had safety in mind when he carefully taught them how to ride the bus without him. Taking a bus, he notes, is statistically safer than having them walk or bike—or driving the family SUV through Vancouver’s busy streets.

That he’d carefully researched the bus route while teaching the kids how to stick together and what to do in an emergency didn’t matter. B.C.’s Ministry of Children and Family Development had him sign a “safety plan,” essentially stating he would not leave any of his kids alone at home or on a bus. As a result, he’s more afraid of losing his children to children’s aid these days than he ever was of a bus abductor. “If I left them alone for five minutes and somebody finds out, I could lose the kids,” he says. “It’s ridiculous.”

The irony is not lost on Michael Ungar, a professor at Dalhousie University and author of multiple books on child resilience. Crook’s kids might have been mildly at risk, he says, but much less so than if they were taken into custody by child welfare. “Do you know how dangerous that is for children?” he says. “Look at the statistics on people who come into foster care, and their life course afterwards. The trauma of being separated from parents and being bounced around foster homes. It’s unlikely all would have gone to the same home, so the siblings would be separated. Think about the danger those kids would have experienced by being cared for by the system that’s supposed to protect them.”

With so little consensus on the issue, we shouldn’t be surprised at the lack of legislation on what age a child can stay home alone or go to a park to play without mom or dad watching every move. The inconsistency has left the courts muddling through on a case-by-case basis. A B.C. Supreme Court justice three years ago upheld a decision that an eight-year-old child could not be at home unsupervised for the two hours between the end of the school day and 5 p.m., when his single mom completed her workday. But what about, say, a 10-year-old? Who’s to say?

A 2015 report from the Canadian Child Welfare Research Portal (CWRP) found a lack of legislative guidelines for what age children can be left unsupervised. Only three provinces had legislation for kids alone at home: in Manitoba and New Brunswick, anyone under 12 can’t be left unattended without making provisions; in Ontario, the limit is 16. Meanwhile, only one province, Quebec, had a minimum age for leaving kids in a car: seven years old.

Other institutions aren’t helpful in setting an age limit either. “Judges aren’t willing to set a firm age. Neither are children’s aid societies,” says John Schuman, a Toronto-based family lawyer. “They will all tell you it’s based on the maturity of the child—and the age in which that’s the case has been going up.”

One of the few places to try to codify supervision, Schuman points out, is the Children’s Aid Society in Ontario’s Durham Region, which has guidelines posted on its site saying no child younger than 10 should be left unattended at any time, day or night. Ten-to-12-year-olds can handle one to two hours of indirect supervision, the guidelines say, meaning a neighbour can agree to keep an eye on the kids if the parent steps out briefly; 13- and 14-year-olds can go up to five hours without supervision, provided an adult is available by phone in case of emergency, and anyone older can be left alone for an entire day. Durham CAS, says Schuman, “were the only ones bold enough to do that.”

The CWRP report found that most child-focused social service organizations recommend kids under 12 should not be left home alone or tasked with watching over younger kids. Yet, paradoxically, the child safety training organization SOS 4 Kids offers “home alone safety for kids” programs at multiple locations in the Greater Toronto Area—often in co-operation with local municipalities—for children as young as nine.

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Little boy flies through the air as he jumps off the side of a backyard jungle gym slide onto a sun dappled lawn.

Photo: Annie Otzen/Getty Images

The safety-obsessed parent has led to safety-obsessed schools, as teachers and principals grapple with society’s expectation of near-constant supervision. Earl Beatty Junior and Senior Public School in Toronto made headlines when it banned soccer balls, footballs, volleyballs and tennis balls during recess over safety concerns of students getting hit. A British school banned students from merely touching snow. (Amid ridicule, the principal stood firm, saying all it would take is one snowball with a stone in it hitting a child in the eye for people to change their minds.) Several years ago, a school in Aldergrove, B.C., banned kindergarten kids from touching each other after a couple of injuries on the playground. “This includes tag, holding hands and any and all imaginary fighting games,” read a note to parents of Coghlan Fundamental Elementary. Punishment would range from missing playtime to trips to the office.

One Texas elementary school reportedly went so far as to tell parents that, for safety reasons, their kids had to either take a bus home or get picked up by car—no student would be allowed to leave by foot, even if accompanied by a parent. Amid a flurry of negative media attention, the school district’s superintendent quickly clarified, saying students who leave by bus or car would be dismissed at the 3:25 p.m. bell, but those leaving on foot would have to wait until 3:50 (or when the lineup of cars picking up their kids was gone). Parents who failed to observe the rules were paid visits by Montgomery County constables.

The biggest fear for school administrators isn’t necessarily a child’s boo-boo; it’s litigation. Last year in Callander, Ont., M.T. Davidson Public School banned students from doing cartwheels because “the activity can cause concussions and neck and wrist injuries,” the school’s principal told local media. No cartwheel injuries to that point had been reported, a board trustee acknowledged to the CBC, but added, “We live in a society where people like to sue, and school boards tend to be one of those targets.”

Their worries are not entirely misplaced. American parents have taken schools and boards to court over everything from bullying to a child experiencing “anxiety, embarrassment and stress” from sharing a locker room with a transgender schoolmate.

And it’s not a U.S.-only phenomenon: in 2008, 11-year-old Jacqueline Gu was giving a friend a piggyback during recess at Southridge School in Surrey, B.C., when a friend gave the duo a playful push. Gu fell, fractured her elbow and—through her legal guardian—sued the boy who pushed her, the boy’s parents and the school for inadequate recess supervision. (The boy was found liable for negligence, while claims against his parents and the school were dismissed in a case that dragged on for years.) “It’s like we’re letting lawyers raise our children,” says Ungar, the expert on childhood resilience. “I can’t figure out why we have let this legal system override common sense about child development, where any risk is too much.”

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Earlier this year, a mom in Newmarket, Ont., Morgan DeCairos DeBoer, got an anonymous letter from a neighbour asking if she could get her kids to quiet down as they played in the backyard, as it was disturbing the neighbour’s TV and reading time. “We encourage you to correct your child when he screams by saying, ‘Please stop that yelling’ or something like that,” the letter said. “Perhaps if you supervised them while they were in the backyard it would help.”

DeCairos DeBoer had no idea whom to reply to, so expressed her frustration by posting the letter on Facebook. The response? Locals offered to lend her drum sets or throw a big party in her backyard.

Maybe it’s a sign that many feel we’ve been helicoptering over our children too closely, and that it’s time to get them outside again. Two years ago, Toronto city council overturned a ban on street hockey that had been in place since the 1970s. Hamilton followed suit in 2017. Some harbour “nostalgia for ‘when we were young we played until the streetlights came on,’ ” says Fusco, and worry about the health effects of reduced physical activity.

Others think navigating risk, making decisions and living with the consequences are part of a child’s development, which is impossible with mom and dad fussing from the sidelines. And in a few jurisdictions, the message seems to be getting through to lawmakers. Earlier this year, state legislators in Utah voted unanimously in favour of a so-called “free-range kids” law, stating that so long as the children are mature enough not to hurt themselves, they are welcome to walk to school, play outside and—yes—even wait inside a parked car without an adult nearby.

In Maryland, an updated policy for child protective services screening requires a caller reporting unsupervised children to “describe how the child’s health or welfare was harmed or placed at substantial risk of harm.” Cases of children simply playing outside or walking unsupervised “do not meet the criteria for a CPS response” without specific information suggesting the child is in danger, the policy says.

Crook, the Vancouver bus dad, says his case is currently under an internal review regarding the Ministry of Child and Family Development’s investigative process, but if nothing comes of it, he’s planning a legal challenge of the ministry’s decision that his kids are prohibited from being left unsupervised anywhere, for any amount of time and under any circumstances until they turn 10. “The goal is to draw a line in the sand,” he says. “It’s not like my kids seized control of the bus and steered it off the road. It was largely unsubstantiated fears overriding evidence-based parenting. I want a judge to say this was wrong.”

This story is a part of Let Them Play, a project examining kids and independence by Today’s Parent and Maclean’s

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