Q. A couple in Maryland are being accused of negligence for letting their 10- and 6-year-old children walk home alone from a park. As a parent, this terrifies me. Are we legislating helicopter parenting now? Will I be judged (or prosecuted) for having latchkey kids?
A. America has two national pastimes, and both are back in the news this week: baseball and judging other parents’ decisions.
The parents in Maryland practice what’s known as “free-range parenting,” essentially endorsing the opposite of helicopter parenting, and this is their second very public brush with the law. My bet is that reality TV producers are swarming. A family with a strong, public, polarizing parenting style and a history of legal problems? All they need is a nickname and they’ll be basic cable celebrities.
Before we get to their judgment, though, can we all sigh deeply and say, “Oh, those poor kids.” They weren’t doing anything wrong. They were just walking home after playing, and now they’re the subject of public scrutiny. They may even wonder if their parents are negligent or if their neighborhood is unsafe. Every adult directly involved in this case who had a stake in escalating it to national water-cooler talk owes these kids a candy bar, and not a “fun size” one.
But to your question: Yes, as a parent, it’s understandable that you’d feel terrified. We’re bombarded with messages that our children are unsafe. When they’re newborns, we now consider video monitors, so we can see them at all times. When they get to elementary school, they now have lockdown and “shelter in place” drills. Police will, apparently, arrest you for letting your 9-year-old child play on a playground unsupervised. We’re encouraged to buy cell phones for ever-younger kids partly as a safety measure. Cable news shows should just replace their commercials with ads for panic rooms, given the tenor of their programming.
Surely, we think, these changes are taking place because the world is more dangerous than ever before, right?
No. Just the opposite. This is quite literally the safest time to be alive in recorded history. Harvard’s Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack of the One Earth Future Foundation recently made the case for our relatively peaceful moment in his book “The Better Angels of Our Nature.” In a recent Slate article, Pinker cited research (with a great graph of childhood victimization rates) showing that “Of 50 trends...there were 27 significant declines and no significant increases between 2003 and 2011. Declines were particularly large for assault victimization, bullying, and sexual victimization.” Your children are safer, in general, than you were as a child.
Now, that’s not to say I agree 100 percent with the free-range child folks. The Maryland law — which essentially makes it illegal to leave a child under 8 alone or in the care of someone younger than 13 — isn’t entirely without merit. There does need to be a law by which neglectful parents can be prosecuted. And laws, unfortunately, need to be specific. Maryland chose 8 and 13, and those numbers are debatable.
But the basic premise isn’t debatable: you shouldn’t leave young children completely unsupervised. Not because the world is full of supervillains, but because young children make terrible decisions. When I was in fourth grade, I walked home with my second-grade brother. We found a Pepperidge Farm summer sausage on the sidewalk, still in its wrapping. We took it home and ate it, victoriously. Surely, it fell out of somebody’s groceries, but it could as easily have fallen, spoiled, from their garbage. Kids need supervision for a number of reasons, not least because kids will eat randomly discovered food off the ground.
Ultimately, parents need to be given the latitude to make their own decisions, based on their children, their neighborhood, and their beliefs. Different communities pose different dangers. Different children react differently to stress and responsibility. A child’s temperament is as much a factor in their independence as their neighborhood. We simply don’t know the particulars and should be charitable in our assumptions unless they do something truly egregious, like the Cleveland mother who dangled her child over a cheetah pit.
There are dangers in the world, but we should be sober in assessing them. For many children in America, the most dangerous thing they can be exposed to is cable news. I’ve yet to see a law limiting exposure to that.
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