In a surreal story that made its way on Facebook, a South Carolina woman was arrested for child abandonment for allowing her little girl, age 9, play in a park all day while she worked at McDonalds to provide for the family.
Still, yeah, I get it. Nine may be too young for that. Though I’m pretty sure the odds of something bad happening to the girl would be greater if she rode in the car to her mom’s job and spent the day at McDonalds. But the initial result – the woman was arrested, her daughter taken away and she lost her job – was absurd overkill.
Luckily the backlash has gotten her reunited with her daughter and she’s back working as a shift manager at McDonalds. She still has a court date ahead though – and if it wasn’t for social media spreading her story, who knows what would have happened!
It still says something about our society. Everything is so controlled and regulated that parents have to worry that any misjudgment might get reported by some nosy adult. An 11 year old didn’t want to go into the store so her mom ran in leaving the girl in the car just a few minutes. An adult saw the child, called the cops, and the mom was arrested. Huh? The girl was happy, there was no abuse, but the police swooped in.
They said it was 85 degrees outside, the windows were closed and the car wasn’t running. But the girl wasn’t hot, and hey – she’s ELEVEN! I’ve known 11 year olds who babysit! She can open the door and join her mom in the store if she wants. It’s not like she’s a dog unable to operate the door handles.
When my kids went to day care I had to send food for lunch. Both were somewhat picky eaters, so I made sure that I sent food they’d like. It wasn’t always government approved healthy. Luckily I don’t live in Manitoba where I could be fined for such a thing. The unhealthy lunch in question? Left over roast beef, potatoes, carrots, an orange and milk. How could they feed their child such rubbish! Luckily the day care gave her Ritz crackers to make it healthy. I mean, HUH?
What this does, of course, is push parents away from allowing kids unsupervised creative play. If I let my kids, aged 11 and 8, go on a bike ride around town, will someone think it’s unsafe and that they should be supervised? If they go across the street to the playground, do I have to be there with them the whole time?
Of course not, kids need freedom to explore. If every activity is supervised and controlled, they’ll not learn how to improvise and make do with whatever life gives them. They’ll want some kind of formula or activity – or else be bored.
Parents respond to the societal push towards rigidity and control by allowing kids the freedom to do one thing nobody will get in trouble for: play video games. You can shop, drive, or do anything with your kids heads focused on screens and nobody will bother you. That is far more accepted than a little creative unsupervised free time.
The culprit here isn’t just the state, but all those businesses and companies that make money off of kids. Nobody makes money when kids run out to explore the local stream or trails. Yet if my 11 year old falls off his bike two miles from home, someone will certainly wonder why I would let him ride so far unsupervised.
Then there is fear. Parents imagine what could happen, no matter how unlikely, and think it will if they don’t protect their kids. People get so obsessed with safety that they lose a rational capacity to calculate probability. Many activities that people think are dangerous are far more safe than a car ride across town.
When I was 11 I explored Sioux Falls on my bike from one end to the other, and I’d zoom down hills reaching 40 MPH (I had a speedometer), having to be really careful no cars were coming down the cross streets. I’d spend hours away from home, stopping by friends, exploring or just being a kid. Yes, I’d read, watch too much TV and sometimes have to be pushed out the door. But no one was going to arrest my mom when my sister and I would walk to the park when I was nine (and she was seven).
Schools play into this by demanding more work, tests, and seat time, leaving kids only a few hours a day for real play – and much of that gets taken up by lessons, activities or clubs. Recess ceases in sixth grade, and parents complain about early release days. I don’t mean this as criticism of the schools or teachers – I was President of the PTA last year at my younger son’s school and really admire the work they do.
And in rural Maine I think we have a bit more common sense. When my youngest was in first grade he was playing with a nerf gun in the car – and proceeded to walk into school with it. My eldest told me that he took the gun in so I headed back to the school. The staff thought it was funny – and apparently my son turned it in voluntarily, realizing he shouldn’t have it there. But geez, in some suburban areas I’d probably have been arrested! Sending a kid to school with a toy gun! And, of course, many would think I was a horrible parent, worthy of jail, for letting my first grade son have toy weapons!
So I don’t worry that the parent police will get on my case here, and there are local streams, trails, and play areas for the kids to explore. Yes, unlike me they have to wear bike helmets when they ride, but at least they can ride. Let kids play. They’ll have enough serious time when they have to pay the bills and work. This time should be magical. They need to be in nature, not just learn about the environment. And give parents leeway to decide what their kid can handle.