Every time I log onto my computer nowadays, I seem to find yet another story about a parent who’s been arrested for sending an eight-year-old on a bus to church (but he snuck away to play with his neighborhood friends) or for letting a nine-year-old play in a park. People across the political spectrum are becoming concerned about what seems like a growing tendency to criminalize normal parenting.
Practically all of us can cast our minds back and remember some occasion on which our parents would, if judged by these new standards, have merited arrest, criminal charges and perhaps jail time. For me the most memorable is the time when my grandmother left my nine-year-old self in charge of my 18-month-old brother for most of the afternoon, while she took my two other siblings to help her clean the apartment building that she and my grandfather owned. My mother was annoyed when she heard about this. She only thought it was acceptable to let me watch my brother for much shorter periods while she ran the occasional urgent errand. Confident that I was a perfectly competent babysitter, I thought the whole argument was ridiculous. But apparently, if this had happened twenty years later, they both could have ended up in cuffs, with my brother and me potentially carted off by Child Protective Services.
How do we explain this insanity, which Gracy Olmstead has rather aptly named “Bad Samaritanism”? As usual the reasons are varied. Technology is one part of the problem, because it empowers people to interfere without inconveniencing themselves. Calling the police or snapping a picture takes mere moments, and most people are now equipped to become Bad Samaritans on a thirty-second whim. In this case, it would be better if it were actually a bit more troublesome to involve law enforcement, since most bystanders would probably then ignore cases in which a child didn’t actually seem to be in immediate distress or danger.
Another phenomenon, now much discussed, is the tendency towards helicopter parenting. Hanna Rosin famously wrote about this in her recent essay, “The Overprotected Kid.” Many others have noticed how many parents nowadays want to wrap their kids in bubble wrap and ward them away from every possible hazard. That can generate risk-averse adults with poor coping skills. Unfortunately the law now seems to be taking it upon itself to further the trend.
But there is another piece to this puzzle that deserves attention. When society goes to great trouble to relieve people of the obligation to become parents, it can then grow complacent about piling responsibility on those who do have children.
When children are seen as a part of life, people exercise some common sense about how they should be treated, and about the sort of care they need. When children are seen more as an exotic accessory, then society feels freer to tax and regulate and especially judge. So you don’t want to spend 18 years hovering over your offspring, ensuring that his ears are clean and his toes are unstubbed? Well, good news. Widely available contraception and abortion have ensured that you don’t have to.
Most people aren’t brash enough to confront parents in public. That’s partly, I expect, why Bad Samaritanism seems so attractive; it enables people to tattle without facing the accused. Another popular method of airing grievances is to complain about them in online forums, where harried moms like me can learn just how much we’re offending people without even realizing it, by breastfeeding in public places or allowing a child run down a grocery store aisle. Airplanes especially foster hostility. “If you’re going to bring a young child on a plane,” a person huffily told me once in an online forum, “The least you can do is have the decency to ensure that he is quiet.” Oh dear. What would be the most I could do?
As a parent, I do feel an obligation to minimize my children’s impositions on strangers. But I also tend to take for granted that people will be tolerant of very minor inconveniences, such as the extra five seconds it takes to lift a toddler to push an elevator button instead of pushing it myself. Some clearly are; I can see whenever I take my children to public places that many people get pleasure from watching them. Rancorous online discussions occasionally remind me that some people do not.
Purely from a demographic standpoint, it is unwise to place such onerous expectations on parents that nobody wants to help raise the next generation. Even now, I frequently find myself glancing around and thinking, “If I walk this library book fifty feet to that return slot, will I end up in court staring at a cell phone picture of myself ‘leaving the kids in the car’? It would be an enormous headache wake three small kids up from their naps and cross a busy street with them, but is it worth it just to ensure that doesn’t happen?”
Hopefully public outrage can persuade public authorities that terrorizing normal parents is a bad idea. Still, the truth is that families will always be at risk in a culture that sees childbearing as more exceptional than normal. If parenting is regarded as a kind of hobby, the general public will not see why they should facilitate it, nor will they feel pressure to keep their parenting standards reasonable. We need to find ways to put children and families closer to the center of public life. Only then will parents be permitted to be human.
Rachel Lu teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas. Follow her on Twitter @rclu.