Surveillance masked as concern
When my daughter was tiny I lived in constant fear I was going to mess up in some major way. I worried that the nights she spent loudly crying because teeth were coming in would cause my neighbors to call the police. I worried about what she might say in preschool. I worried that someone would see the scrapes and bruises that come with being a toddler as abuse.
I lived in fear someone would swoop in and take my child away.
Which, in hindsight, was utterly ridiculous. My child is, and has always been, a happy-go-lucky little person who is clearly well-loved.
I'm not sure where my paranoia came from. Maybe my reporting. A number of the stories I covered when my daughter was little were about child neglect or child welfare. There were at least three child deaths that made the news while I was working in Birmingham while my kid was a baby. The state was coming out from under federal oversight of its child welfare department. Covering that story I spoke with a number of social workers who were frustrated by what they saw as a lack of resources and an overload of cases.
I think, when you are immersed in horror stories, it's hard not to internalize them. Hard not to allow them to frame how you approach the world.
While being a reporter is immensely rewarding and I miss being out in the field almost every day, I do not miss the rotating list of unreasonable worries.
Why am I thinking about this? Well, because the current "free range" kid debate is drudging up old frustrations and fears.
In case you haven't been following the news, a Maryland couple are being investigated because they let their 10-year-old and 6-year-old walk a mile to a park and play there with no parental oversight. (It should be noted, in order to get to the park they had walk by, and cross, a busy roadway.)
The parents decided to let their children do this after running a number of smaller "tests" to see if the kids would respond responsibly to their freedom. The first time the couple faced neglect charges a cop saw the kids walking home and gave them a ride the rest of the way. The couple's most recent run-in with authorities comes after a "concerned" neighbor called the cops when the children were seen out on their own again.
Can we acknowledge how ridiculous this is? Especially when there are children who are being abused by loved ones or guardians, children whose parents do not feed them or clothe them or send them to school, children who are isolated and unloved?
My 11-year-old sometimes scooters to elementary school. It's not quite a mile away. Is someone going to call the cops on me for that? Sometimes my kid plays outside unattended. I have windows open so I can hear her running amok, but amok I let her run.
What exactly are we doing when we investigate parents who seem to be simply trying to give their children freedom to be kids?
One thing's for sure -- calling authorities on "free range" families ties up resources that could be better used in other ways. It also smacks of a kind of a paternalistic behavior on the part of "concerned" neighbors who seem to believe they know better than the parents of these children.
What bothers me most about all of this is the faux concern that seems to permeate so much of it.
Last summer a South Carolina mother was arrested after leaving her 9-year-old daughter alone to play in a park while she went to work at a nearby McDonald's.
Again, someone "concerned" about the child's well-being alerted authorities.
The child was not being abused, was not injured, was not scrounging in the park for food. She was simply doing what children do ... playing.
But, like the two Maryland kids, she was doing so alone.
Tonight, while flipping around for something to watch on TV, I came across a Simpsons episode I hadn't seen in a long time. In the episode (Sweet Homediddly-Dum-Doodily), Bart, Lisa, and Maggie are fostered with the Flanders family after Bart comes down with lice, Lisa loses her shoes to bullies, and children's services workers find the Simpson home a shambles after Homer has surprised Marge with an ultimately not-so-relaxing trip to the spa.
An absurd series of events -- lice, bullying followed by walking through mud, Maggie found lapping at the dog's water bowl -- leads to the kids being taken from the home and Homer and Marge forced to enroll in a parenting class. (One Homer probably needs.)
The episode is just so incredibly sad as both Homer and Marge pine for their children, cared for 10-feet-away by Homer's nemesis Ned Flanders.
All three of these stories, one fiction; two non-fiction, are tied together by the idea of surveillance. In the case of the Simpsons it's surveillance of school officials that triggers surveillance of social workers; in the non-fiction stories the surveillance is triggered by the "concern" of people who think they know better than the parents in the situations.
It's all just so frustrating and, frankly, infuriating.
I keep thinking about The Atlantic's 2014 story about overprotected kids. The kids in the story live in the U.K. and are playing in what seems to be a junkyard. They swing on frayed tire swings, play with metal, and even have the opportunity to play with fire.
The kids are largely left to their own devices, although there are adults who watch over the children, though they rarely intervene. While the idea of my child playing with fire is terrifying (she is a firebug like her father), Atlantic writer Hanna Rosin suggests children might need to have those types of experiences.
By engaging in risky play, children are effectively subjecting themselves to a form of exposure therapy, in which they force themselves to do the thing they’re afraid of in order to overcome their fear. But if they never go through that process, the fear can turn into a phobia.
I certainly don't think every experience a child has needs to be risky, but I do think at some point children have to be given the freedom to roam and play without the constant hovering of parents.
I do not want my daughter shackled by fear of the world -- whether that is fear of accidents or of strangers in white vans. I want her to grow confident in her ability to navigate her surroundings.
That's what I'm concerned with.
It's easy to judge the parenting choices of others -- in fact, it can become a kind of parenting Olympics. All parents are guilty of it at times, I'm sure.
What I refuse to be guilty of is becoming another tool for surveillance.
I refuse to confuse concern with surveillance ... or punishment.
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