We have criminalized 1970’s and 80’s parenting

This NYT Op-Ed “Motherhood in the Age of Fear” from Kim Brooks, based on her new book, is so good.  I’ve certainly complained here before about just how incredibly stupid we are about modern parenting, but this really brings a lot of different strands together in a particularly compelling and disturbing way.  You really ought to read the whole thing:

We now live in a country where it is seen as abnormal, or even criminal, to allow children to be away from direct adult supervision, even for a second.

We read, in the news or on social media, about children who have been kidnapped, raped and killed, about children forgotten for hours in broiling cars. We do not think about the statistical probabilities or compare the likelihood of such events with far more present dangers, like increasing rates of childhood diabetes or depression. Statistically speaking, according to the writer Warwick Cairns, you would have to leave a child alone in a public place for 750,000 years before he would be snatched by a stranger. Statistically speaking, a child is far more likely to be killed in a car on the way to a store than waiting in one that is parked. But we have decided such reasoning is beside the point. We have decided to do whatever we have to do to feel safe from such horrors, no matter how rare they might be.

And so now children do not walk to school or play in a park on their own. They do not wait in cars. They do not take long walks through the woods or ride bikes along paths or build secret forts while we are inside working or cooking or leading our lives…

I was beginning to understand that it didn’t matter if what I’d done was dangerous; it only mattered if other parents felt it was dangerous. When it comes to kids’ safety, feelings are facts.

As one mother put it to me, “I don’t know if I’m afraid for my kids, or if I’m afraid other people will be afraid and will judge me for my lack of fear.” In other words, risk assessment and moral judgment are intertwined…

That same year, an Arizona woman named Shanesha Taylor was chargedwith two counts of felony child abuse and sentenced to 18 years of supervised probation, all because she had no child care and had to leave her two younger children in the car while she went on a job interview.

In a country that provides no subsidized child care and no mandatory family leave, no assurance of flexibility in the workplace for parents, no universal preschool and minimal safety nets for vulnerable families, making it a crime to offer children independence in effect makes it a crime to be poor.

I spent plenty of time alone in the car when I was a kid.  I wandered all over my neighborhood learning independence.  It was great.  And the point is not anecdote, but as a society we have completely given into irrational fears about child safety. That’s not okay.  And our public policy with regards to parenting sure as hell should not be reflecting that.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

3 Responses to We have criminalized 1970’s and 80’s parenting

  1. Nicole K. says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I walked to school by myself or later with my sister (about 2 blocks crossing about 3 streets) from 5 years old until we moved to a different state at the start of my 8th grade year. I mostly rode the bus or walked to a friend’s house after school, but it wasn’t unusual for me to walk 2-3 miles by myself if I either didn’t feel like riding the bus or missed it after school. From about age 7 onwards I stayed at home without parents being present or walked over to a friend’s house after I either left a note or called to let them know where I was. On weekends I could pretty much ride a bike by myself anywhere within a 2-3 radius of our house and further if a friend or two (the same age) were with me. My parents did not worry at all about what we did and where I was unless it was starting to get dark or they had something planned. And it was like that for almost everyone that I knew except for kids who had behavior problems like severe adhd or similar. We walked to a community pool by ourselves in the summers while my parents worked. Those are some great memories.

    I think that instilled a sense of indepence in me at a very early age that has been a great asset to me. For example, I was excited to go to boarding school at 14. And except for the semester that I was expelled and summers I was a visitor in my parents house. At boarding school we had pretty regimented schedules during the week in the daytime, but Wednesdays were half days because we had long travel times for sports competition and it also allowed for extended practices.

    At 18, I moved to Raleigh to go to NCSU and after leaving the dorm halfway through my freshman year proactively to avoid being evicted (zero tolerance marijuana policy) I got an apartment and have been a visitor at my parent’s house ever since. And although I love and respect them both very much, I would not consider living in their house for an extended period unless I need to for something like recovering from a surgery.

    Even though I live alone and pretty much always have, it works for me because I’ve got introvert tendencies and my narcolepsy reinforces them because it makes being in large groups or around excessive noise extremely draining and exhausting for me. So I think learning to be comfortable by myself and unsupervised as a kid has helped me to be OK for the periods in my life where I have been living almost completely alone for extended periods for various reasons.

  2. R. Jenrette says:

    Less independence for children is one of the results of urbanization. When people live in closer quarters they all feel more regulated., children and adult alike. If the home owner doesn’t take care of his lawn as his neighbors do, he feels pressure. If he has a junky car, he may feel pressure. If he doesn’t keep his garage in good order, he feels pressure.
    His children cannot go very far from home without pressure to stay off neighbors property.
    The suburbs were promising and many families moved to them for more space but somehow the pressure followed them.
    Where parents today fail is in allowing children to fail at something and recover from the failure on their own. The earlier children learn to cope with their mistakes, the easier it is for them to figure it out. Parents today seem pressured that their children never make mistakes or fail at anything so they do what it takes to make the correction. This teaches the child that he/she is not capable of handling life’s crises himself. Not good for building self confidence.

    • Nicole K. says:

      I grew up in a city of about 42,000. It was near Omaha which had a population of about 420,000 at the time. It was also 3 miles from a very large Air Force base, so there were always people moving in and out on a fairly regular basis. Furthermore, about 10 years earlier a serial killer, who was later executed in the electric chair, was an assistant scoutmaster in the boy scout troop I later joined and was arrested after he kidnapped and did unspeakable things to a 13 year old boy delivering newspapers that he kidnapped less than a mile from my house. People just didn’t freak out the way they do now. I am positive if something like that had happened in 2003 and 2013 rather than 1983 and 1993 kids would never be allowed to be unsupervised or left alone. And I don’t think that is a good thing.

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