People who equate truth with fact are missing the point.

Sanctimonious Concern

In 1994, I lived in a rental house not much bigger than a breadbox with my then-husband and our baby. Next door was an even smaller rental house, barely the size of a garage.

The young woman (and I do mean young; I was 23 and she was even younger) who lived in that tiny house had a two-year-old son who seemed to perpetually surprise his mother with his presence. We chatted occasionally in our common backyard and I was left with the impression that she was flummoxed by the babyness of him. Now that he spoke and walked upright, he still hadn’t become a reasonable person, and that startled her.

One afternoon when my then-husband came in from work, he said, “You have to call CYFD on that girl next door. Her kid is playing in the car.”

I went out front and sure enough, there was my neighbor’s two-year-old son, sitting in the driver’s seat of her car, turning the wheel back and forth and making those driving noises that come pre-installed on some children. I scooped him up and carried him into the house and found his mother in the kitchen, cooking dinner.

“He was playing in the car,” I told her. “That’s not safe. Actually, he really shouldn’t be out there without someone to watch him since there’s no fence.”

“Oh,” she said, looking concerned. “I thought it would be OK. I told him to stay in the yard.”

“He’s too little,” I said, “and a car isn’t a safe place to play. He could accidentally release the brake, or he could get locked in there.”

She was embarrassed. “I’m sorry,” she said, apologizing because she felt bad even though she hadn’t hurt me.

“Well, he’s fine, and it’s all good. Just remember to keep the car locked, and let me know if you need help watching him!”

I went back to my house, praying that I had done the right thing. Maybe she did need professional guidance. She seemed so profoundly clueless. On the other hand, her son was well-fed, happy, and had never had any injuries that I’d seen. Our houses were very close and I never heard any crying beyond what’s normal for a child that small.

After our conversation, I never saw my neighbor’s son outside without his mother’s supervision again and I became more and more comfortable with my decision.

Across my adult years, I’ve had lots of interaction with the child protection system, mostly as a mandated reporter but also as a victim of malicious reporting. I’m also a parent and an observer of trends and what I’ve noticed is this: people are much quicker than they used to be to call police about suspected child mistreatment.

Is that good? Yes and no. I’m happy to wave good-bye to the days when what happened to children was nobody’s business but those children’s parents. Kids whose parents hurt them or fail to keep them safe deserve better, and we need a system with the power to intervene on their behalf.

On the other hand, 911 is no one’s personal nuisance reporting number, and child protective services is not the place to call when there is mild concern, or when a parent does something that doesn’t seem like the best possible decision. I think social media drives some of this because I’ve seen (haven’t we all seen?) ridiculous statements like parents who feed their kids junk food are ruining those children’s health and should have them taken away, or women who have planned c-sections are abusive, on and on. Every parenting choice that seems less-than-ideal to the observer gets the “abusive” placard hung around its neck.

I remembered all my interactions with cops and child protective services yesterday, when I read this piece at Salon about a mother who left her child in the car for a few minutes on a 50 degree day while she ran into a store to buy that child a pair of headphones. The legal problems caused by the bystander who took video of her car and her child and subsequently called police have dominated her family’s life for two years.

This represents a major cultural shift that I’ve witnessed in my 20+ years as a parent. When my eldest children were very young, in the mid-90s, I didn’t think much of leaving my children in the car under the conditions that it was not hot out, I would be no more than a couple minutes, and I could see my car from inside the store. By the mid-2000s, when my youngest son was a toddler and pre-schooler, I felt much more anxious about doing that. I was not more concerned about kidnapping, or someone stealing my car with my child inside, or any of the supposed risks that always taking my children with me are meant to ameliorate. No, I became worried about a bystander who might call the police about “neglect.”

I did once call the police about a child left alone in a car. It was nearly 100 degrees and I stood ready to smash a window if the baby (who was sweaty, but was also laughing at the goofy faces I was making at her through the window) seemed in distress. Thankfully the police arrived less than a minute after I called and they popped the lock and put the baby in an air conditioned police car until an ambulance arrived.

There are times to call police, but there are also times to speak our concerns to each other, and there are times to check our 21st century, first-world paranoia and let it go. The police, courts, and child protection agencies really do have better things to do than indulge our sanctimonious concern over how other people are parenting. Resources are limited and children who are being beaten, molested, or starved, need those resources devoted to them. There are children out there who are being left alone for hours, not minutes.

When we see a child in immediate danger, of course we should call 911, and when we suspect genuinely neglectful or abusive behavior, it’s time to notify child protective services. In the meantime, I think we all need to get a grip, because most of the kids are OK, and most of the parents, fallible though we are, are doing just fine.

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10 comments to Sanctimonious Concern

  • Have I professed my undying devotion to your clarity recently? No? Shame on me. Seriously. This is a Thing Which Has Bothered Me for A Long Time. I have been a mandated reporter, a camp counselor, a private childcare provider, a mother, and a child of the early Eighties. I am, to pat myself on the back, a pretty solid parent and caregiver. I left my six-year-old son in the minivan the other day. It was a bright, breezy spring day in the low 60s, the fin windows were cracked, and he was fiendishly completing a level of Angry Birds Go! on his Kindle in his weight-approved full-seat booster in the back seat. I needed to hand three prepaid UPS envelopes to a store clerk, whose position by the full-size plate glass windows of the storefront put my son in full view of my every move. I was chastised by the clerk for leaving my son in a “vulnerable” position. We were in my neighborhood, in a small shopping plaza. The car locks were engaged, and I held the remote in my hand. He could have walked home. And in three or four years, I might send him to run the errand. Maybe. I got back in the van hot with shame. F looked up at my obviously distressed expression, and was worried for me. I blew it off, but he knew something was up. Here’s the thing: if I’d felt unsafe? If it had been hot or stormy, or there had been creepy people around, or it was a vast lot with no sight lines? I would have made him come in with me, despite the fact that he would have turned a 45 second errand into a grim reminder of why doing errands alone is such a blessing for busy parents.

  • This is so true Adrienne, I feel like so much of parenting now is more about making choices because of what the neighbors will think than doing what we truly believe in. And I still have the strong belief that if you have that much time on your hands to stare at or complain about my parenting that I would certainly appreciate it if you could help me out for a second or two.

  • I saw the title of your post and thought immediately of the Salon article – which I sent to my sister yesterday after having read it.

    We had a private email conversation about the story, during which we both voiced many of your same concerns. So I applaud your willingness to publicly share your opinion.

    It’s growing ever more difficult to have an intelligent debate/discussion of differing views without being attacked online these days.

    So good for you.

  • I couldn’t agree with you more. I read that article and was upset that the mother of the children went through what she did because someone called the police on her. She didn’t mean harm to her child, she just wanted to rush in and get some headphones.

  • This is a great post and you make a good point. There is definitely a problem with some taking the whole “it takes a village” thing to the extreme. In this day and age, people have made other people’s children and business, their own. Some feel they have the right to dictate to parents what they should feed their kids, what kind of education, what kind of medical care, etc. When in fact, all that is – is a political agenda to be in control and remove a parent’s rights. Unless I am beating, starving, or locking my kid in a basement, it’s really no one’s business how many twinkies my kids eat or the fact that I don’t allow them to attend gov’t school, or that they play video games for more than one hour a day. In my world, the parents are still the ones who should have control; not the gov’t, not the nosy person on the sidewalk with the camera phone, and certainly not Child Protective Service, who is known for giving kids back to drug addicts and neglectful parents ALL THE TIME, yet they knock on doors of perfectly normal parents with barely a crumb to go on.

  • anonymous for this one

    I let my children sit and play in the car when they were little. They loved it and it kept them occupied for the 10 minutes or so while I unloaded groceries in the kitchen. They were too little to be able to release the hand break and even if they had the car was in park and not on so it would go no where. YOu cant put a car in gear without a key. I also routinely left my young children in the car, in their carseats while I ran into the store to grab a gallon of milk or whatever. I don’t understand why this is considered negligent. if you look at the numbers your child is WAY more likely to die in a car accident than to be kidnapped and yet no one calls CPS when they see you driving down the road with your two year old in a car seat. I suggest –there was an article there about the same salon piece you mention. There is a huge difference between leaving a baby in a locked car for hours in high heat and leaving them in the car for 5 minutes when it is 60 degrees out. Can’t sign my name to this comment as I’m afraid of all the pitchforks!

  • It not only takes a village, it takes compassionate villagers. Your response to your neighbor’s child was a perfect example.

  • I read that piece, too. I remember having conversations with my other parent friends a few years back about what to do in those types of situations. Is the child in any real danger if a parent dashes inside the cleaners to pick up a couple ironed shirts or grab a coffee or get money out of an ATM? Does it make a difference if the child is sick and has been sleeping poorly and has just, through some miracle, managed to fall asleep? The person watching might not know the various things the parent has considered when making said decision, but the parent sure as heck does.

    Our vision of the child that accidentally or negligently gets left behind for hours while the parent either goes into work or into a bar and is injured or killed as a result of being left colors our ability to see the very real difference that exists between the scenarios. Five minutes, there is very little risk of anything happeneing, four plus hours is different. And, as that author herself pointed out, it is far more likely that a child will be injured while driving than it is that the child will be abducted from the car. How many times do we have to hear those stats before we believe them? Before we learn that perceived risk is not the same as actual risk?

    I am sad I so often feel I can’t give my child the freedom of exploration he would do well in because it would make other adults uncomfortable. They don’t know my child like I do.

  • I remember my parents making my brothers and me go to the car while they finished dinner if we were misbehaving. Which, was kinda often. It was not abusive – we were safe and fine – but yeah, now? I’d never leave my kid in the car. I’m not sure whether it’s a good thing because the world IS meaner, or whether it’s just sad.

  • It makes me sick how quick parents are these days to call the cops on each other – and how quick the cops are to get involved! I don’t leave my kids in the car for a second, even when I know they’re safe, because I worry about all those “good Samaritans.” My kids need a village of parents, not cops, and friends, not judges.

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