A couple of years ago during a trip to visit my family in Iowa, my then-7-year-old son disappeared from my sight. One minute he was there, and the next he ran over a mound of dirt with his cousin and across a field to some other street. We were at my step-brother and sister-in-law’s newly built house, which is in one of those nice shiny new housing communities. Theirs was one of only a handful of completed houses, so they were surrounded by lots in various states of construction: a basement here, a foundation there, an almost-complete house over there covered in weather-resistant plastic.
So we’re standing outside talking (or “visiting” as my family calls it), and Oliver and my step-niece go tearing past us without warning toward the end of an unfinished cul-de-sac. I looked over at my step-brother and sister-in-law for any sort of sign that I should stop my 7-year-old and their 6-year-old from running who-knows-where for who-knows-how-long with who-knows-what. Neither one of them seemed to notice. By the time I thought to ask “Is your daughter allowed to run off by herself like that?” the kids had already disappeared from view. My step-brother shrugged and said, “They’ll come back when we holler for them.”
My name is Somer Sherwood, and I’ve never allowed my son to play unattended outside. In fact, he’s never been off of our property without adult supervision, except for the one time I just described.
He’s having a very different childhood from the one I had. By the time I was his age, I was riding my bike all around the neighborhood, sometimes completely alone, and sometimes with a gang of other kids on bikes. We would ride over to a little stream where there was lots of moss and some frogs, and we would find big sticks and pretend we were fishing in the stream (I caught a lot of moss, let me tell you). Or we would walk down to the playground and swing for a bit or make each other dizzy on the merry-go-round. And eventually we might all break to go home and grab a grip of Barbies before heading over to this one tree where like four of us could sit comfortably on our own little branch-seats.
It makes me sad that my son does not have the same kind of freedom I had. For one thing, there are no other kids in our neighborhood. For another, we not only live in a metropolitan area that isn’t friendly to bike traffic, but we live in a city within that area that is gaining a reputation for not only bicycle fatalities but pedestrian fatalities as well. I will not let my son ride his bike around our neighborhood, or even cross the street alone in our neighborhood -- not because I don’t trust him or because I’m convinced someone is going to snatch him, but because I do not trust the drivers in the area in which I live to be looking out for children who might be riding bikes or crossing streets.
The park that’s closest to our house requires crossing a busy six-lane street on which there have been several car/pedestrian accidents in the past six months, including at least one fatality. Statistically, the chances of my nine-year-old being mowed down by a careless driver in my neighborhood are pretty good.
But there is one more reason I don’t let my kid play outside alone: other parents. While it was once not only accepted, but expected, that parents send their young children outdoors to play, doing so In This Day and Age is widely considered to be neglect at best and child abuse at worst.
Earlier this month, single mom Debra Harrell was arrested for dropping her nine-year-old daughter off to play at the park while she went to her job at a local McDonald’s. This mom is now in jail, lost custody of her daughter, and has been fired from her job.
My mom was a single mom, too. Besides letting me run around the neighborhood unattended, she also let me stay home by myself several times starting at nine. Not only was she a single mom with a job, but a single mom with a job who was also in college -- and sometimes she just could not afford to hire a babysitter. I had after-school care for a number of years, but I was technically a latchkey kid, and I clearly remember a couple of evenings being left to my own devices with clear instructions not to open the door if anyone knocked, and not to answer the phone unless I let it ring a certain number of times. I’m not saying it’s an ideal situation -- but it would have been far more devastating to be taken away from my mom by the Department of Social Services than it ever would have been to be left on my own for a few hours.
And the funny thing is, I would never leave my own nine-year-old on his own, either at home or at a park, even though I had these experiences myself as a child. I am just that overprotective as a parent, and I am the first to admit it. But I also have the luxury of having childcare, and a job that pays enough to cover the cost of that childcare -- I cannot judge the parenting decisions made by people whose circumstances are different from mine.
We spend way too much time policing other parents and not enough time helping other parents and their kids.
What bothers me most about the Debra Harrell story -- aside from the deeper issue of a single mother who most likely cannot afford childcare and so makes the best decision she can under her unique set of circumstances -- is that the police were called. If I saw a nine-year-old child alone at the park without a parent, I might ask at some point if her mom or dad knew she was at the park alone. I might ask if she wanted to play with my kid until her parents showed up. I might offer her a snack or ask if she wanted to use my phone. I don’t think calling the police would be my first reaction.
A child yelling for help? That’s when I would call the police. A child who is lost and crying that she can’t find her mom? That’s when we look for her mom, and call the police if we can’t find her. A child who is being abused? Absolutely I would call the police (and I have). In fact, I’ve intervened in all sorts of situations that involve other people’s kids -- by telling a kid to stop punching another kid, by giving a bottle of water to some random, overheated boy my kid became BFFs with in the space of 20 minutes, by grabbing someone’s toddler who was about to run into the street.
But I cannot get behind this culture of hysterical parenting we’ve created, which is based on an assumption that other parents are raising their kids the wrong way. Let’s help each other out, yeah? If a kid is playing at the playground unattended, let’s offer our help instead of criminalizing a parenting choice that just two or three decades ago was the rule, not the exception.
Speaking of childhood freedom, I know someone who grew up in Orange County and tells of a magical time when parents would drop their kids off at Disneyland every day during the summer, and collect them at the end of the day on their way home from work.
Now, I’ve been to Disneyland many times (though not as a kid with free reign of the whole dang place), so I know what a “lost” child looks like. I’ve been lost myself, that one time at Target when I was three or four -- when I looked up from the toys I was playing with to discover I had somehow become separated from my mom. I know that panic and I can recognize it on a child’s face in an instant. Children who are lost or in some kind of trouble look scared and unsure and worried. Children who have been dropped off at the park by their working parents usually look like they are having fun.
Somer is on Twitter, sometimes: @somersherwood