What I’ve posted so far on this blog are my attempts at being entertainingly witty, but that’s not entirely what I wanted this blog to be. Also, when you try to always be entertainingly witty, it gets forced, really quick. So I’m going to stop digging for the Sally Fields “you like me,” and just do what I came here to do: have some thoughts, write them down, hope others read and respond, and if not…. eh, at least I’m improving my typing skills. (This one even has handy links to things I’ve read, though they don’t appear to be a different color like links usually are. Hmmm… it’s like a link treasure hunt for you!)
I saw a Salon article the other day about a woman who was arrested and got 100 hours of community service, plus a mandatory parenting class, for leaving her son in the car while she did a short errand. The kid was happily playing his Ipad, and a passerby took a video of him alone in the car which he then sent to the police. Let’s get this out of the way right now. There are definitely circumstances where you should NOT leave kids alone in the car. If it’s warm enough for the car to get hot (and they do get unthinkably hot, much sooner than you’d expect) then no, take your kids out. Or maybe it’s too cold, or a bad neighborhood, or you’ll be gone long enough for them to get upset, then yeah: you gotta take your kids with you. It’s a pain sometimes, but there are some circumstances that legitimately are too risky for children to be left alone.
The extremely well written Salon article (seriously- worth the read; I think I ended up echoing many of her sentiments here) and another Huffpost Parent article about it address those concerns and refocus on the idea that, you know what? Sometimes it’s ok for kids to be alone. You’re not a bad parent for leaving your kid sitting in a public place by himself for a minute. Frankly, I think sometimes it’s a BETTER idea to leave them in the car. If I need to run in and grab some food for dinner and both of my kids are dozing in their car seats, it will take me maybe 6 1/2 minutes in that store by myself, and they will sleep blissfully unaware of their position while I do it. But if I decide to take them in, I will have to wake up the big kid, who will be an unholy exhausted terror in the store and you KNOW what people say about kids who act up in a store (and their parents, too). It will take me almost a half hour to seat-navigate-juggle-manage everyone and my shopping, and we will all be miserable the whole time. Or I could just skip buying food- AGAIN- because I couldn’t get everyone in the store, awake, at the appropriate time. I think this becomes exponentially harder with every subsequent kid you have, because that’s one more little body with a tiny stride who you have to pull along past displays designed to distract them with plastic junk and sugary food-bombs they now desperately need. Sometimes it is better not just for the parent, but also for the kids AND the general populace to let them chill happily in the mom-mobile while adult life happens around them.
Sidebar: Did you know in Europe this is a fairly common thing? There are actually places set aside to leave your stroller, with the baby in it, while you go inside and eat or shop. (Yup, that’s a Cracked humor article. Don’t knock the Cracked. It’s my favorite.) You can give your kids alone time and you won’t be arrested like you would in America. It’s just assumed that people are going to be human beings to each other and we’ll all keep an eye on the kid’s well-being. Grown-ups do grown-up things and kids chillax while they do. At least this is what I’ve heard. It sounds like Narnia to me. Back to the point-
Yet there is story after story of parents being reported and even arrested for leaving their kids for short times in safe conditions. Yes, there are many stories of very real neglect out there as well. I could be misguided on some of these. But it’s the larger fear of being branded a “bad parent” that I’m trying to address, so let’s focus on the cases where there was no evidence of any harm to the children. These are people who let their kids play unsupervised on their own street. Or left their kids in the car for just a minute. Or, god forbid, let them walk to school alone. These parents are criminals, according to our current social standards, for being grossly negligent and endangering their children.
What is it we are “supposed” to be afraid of in these situations? What is the danger exactly? Sure, kids are accident magnets and can find ways to get hurt while wrapped in cotton in a pillow room. Sometimes shit happens- whether we’re there or not. But I feel like the main fear is that someone will take your kids. From your locked car. Or right in front of your house. And that I find, frankly, ridiculous. I had hoped to find some recent statistics on this, but it looks like the last time a decent study was done was 1999. So I’ll take some liberties here, sorry fact-checkers. Let’s focus on the leaving-in-cars thing. In an extensive Google search (I mean, I went to like, the twelfth page of results. Who goes past page two?!) I found a grand total of three cases where kids were taken from cars, and two of them were when an adult guardian was standing RIGHT NEXT TO THE CAR. Situation was shady, is what I’m saying. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say this really doesn’t happen as often as our fears want us to think. We seem to have this perception that any child left alone will be physically hurt by horrible lurking men, or kidnapped and brainwashed by horrible unstable women. But the fact is that stranger abductions are incredibly rare. The latest stats from the U.S. Department of Justice (this is the 1999 one, btw) say it’s only one hundred fifteen out of EIGHT HUNDRED THOUSAND missing children reports. That’s a huge margin, you guys. Your kid is more likely to get hit by a car walking through the parking lot than he is to get kidnapped while hanging out in it. And when you combine that with crime statistics in general? Our national crime rates are at a 35 year low. If we are talking in terms of hypothetical threat possibilities, statistically? We are super-safe, you guys.
Now, you may argue that we’re super-safe BECAUSE we are so hyper-vigilant. When people are constantly on the look-out for bad guys, there isn’t much room for crime to wiggle in. I will concede that. However, I think it still proves my point. People are hyper-aware. So chances are, people are looking out for your kids, not looking to hurt them. Which brings me to my next point fairly nicely (ahhh, transitions!)
At my kid’s preschool this year, they did a parent book-club reading of “Free Range Kids.” Full disclosure: I didn’t read the book. I just had a baby. I can barely get through One Fish Two Fish and the directions on a box of pasta before I pass out from over-exertion. But they helpfully provided a TLDR version for us in the form of a smart little blog post that sums the whole thing up thusly: Stop. Worrying.
Our kids need to learn some independence. We need to let them enjoy the freedom and safety we have that is fairly unique to this modern world. There are so many places, yes even in our own country, where it is NOT safe to walk alone. Where you can’t be out after dark, where you do live in fear of militias and war and disease. But for those of us who live in unprecedented wealth and security, in community-oriented suburbs and increasingly safe cities- please, act like it. Feel guilty for our magical levels of first-worldliness if you need, but allow yourself to realize that this life IS a privelage, and you CAN enjoy it. The people around you are mostly very fine human beings.
And the last point of that post is the one I really want to look at: why do we feel like we can’t trust our neighbors? The people we pass in our community? Because the news shows us the most horrible stories it can find? Those things, and those frightening people, are lightning rare. We start to realize that the more we get to know people. Lenore Skenazy, who is the driving force behind much of the sentiment on this Free Range Kids movement (and author of some of the links above), gives some common-sense advice that is dumb-foundingly hard to swallow these days. Talk to your neighbors. (What!? Strangers?! Yes. Strangers.) Chat with the people in shops. Become familiar. And suddenly, the town isn’t full of potential danger, it’s full of humans, just like you, who want to live in a nice place. It reminded me of one last article I saw about the dreaded “Mommy Wars.”
For those who don’t live by internet hype, the Mommy Wars is the ridiculous name for parents giving each other a hard time. Stay-at-home-moms versus working moms. Tiger Mothers versus Kangaroo Care. Buzzword for one extreme versus slanderous term for the other. People are inundated with parenting methods and told that if you seem to be failing because this other person seems to be succeeding more, there must be feelings of animosity because your methods are at war with theirs. So judge them whilst self-aggrandizing yourself. The whole thing is borne of self-doubt and the worry that every parent has that we’re not good enough. But as long as we’re not like THAT loser, we’re ok, right? Anyway, the point of this article is, again: Stop it. Stop worrying. Stop nitpicking. We will all be better off as a society of parents when we stop pitting us against them. Find the “we” instead. According to this philosophy, when you see that mom with dark circles under her eyes glued to her phone, don’t assume she’s a terrible mother for ignoring her kids, and that you are the superior creature. Assume she’s had six hours sleep in the last three days and needs to email the doctor and a new babysitter and desperately needs a break. Have your kids play with her kids. Give her a wave and a smile. Find out her name, offer a bottle of water, and lend a hand. Be a neighbor, because we’re all in this together.
When you see those kids walking unaccompanied on the street, don’t wonder why their parents let them walk “dangerously” alone- make the way safe for them. Drive safely. Keep an eye on them. Be a neighbor. When you see that kid in the car, don’t call the police. Hang around for a bit. Wave and smile. Be a neighbor. (I suddenly recognize this is not as easy for men as for women. You could get creeper status really quick this way. Sorry guys- I wish my version of a better world could suddenly appear so you could be the nice gentlemen you are and not creepers. I’ll work on that for ya.)
I truly believe that the world becomes what we see in it. The kindness we put out there, just like the fear it is replacing, is contagious. If we can all admit that people are a little more trustworthy than we think, then we can all be a little more trusting, as well. Instead of finding fault and blame, find common ground and ways to support each others’ needs. It starts with not being afraid. Not afraid of what-ifs, not afraid of what others will say, and not afraid to live right along side the people around you. They’re not that bad, turns out. And we can, actually, all be in this together.