Nearly every day I read another article or hear about another parent who is threatened with police action because they left their child alone in the car for five minutes, let them walk home alone from school or play in their own front yard while they watched from the window. And I always come away from these stories feeling heart broken that, as a modern society, we have been reduced to fearing the retribution from, instead of relying on the kindness of, strangers. It takes a village, after all, doesn’t it? But, of late, The Village is responsible for creating more trauma for a family by calling 911 than by what’s caused by a 6 year old being left in a car for 3 minutes while their parent runs into the gas station. Isn’t The Village supposed to support and protect, not malign and accuse?
As someone who has helplessly stood by and watched children I love be mistreated, used as pawns and bartering chips in custody wars and forced to grow up way too quickly because of their parents choices, I am maddened by the idea that a child playing happily in a park down the street from their house is somehow being neglected or endangered. But, for the sake of argument, let’s say you spot a child in a locked, parked car on a “not-too-hot” or “not-too-cold” day and you’re concerned. Wouldn’t the better course be to stay near the car for a few minutes and make sure the grown up is coming right back (there’s your Village right there)? Or, if you’re so inclined, you could even have a gentle confrontation with the parent about the fact that you were concerned about their child being alone. Why would it ever be reasonable to record a cell phone video, call 911 and skulk away when the parent comes back to the car? If the child was really in harm’s way, wouldn’t you want to do something to actually help? Statistically speaking, our children are in more danger in a moving vehicle, strapped into the highest tech car seat on the planet than they are sitting in a locked, parked car alone for 5 minutes on a mild day. But do you know who is in more danger with the latter scenario? The parent. The parent is in danger of being judged by strangers and prosecuted by our courts because of a perfectly reasonable decision. Five minutes out of their life becomes five years repairing the damage caused by the “kindness of strangers.”
Last fall, I was in my car in South Philly and needed to run to the ATM at my bank before I picked up my kindergartener from school. I had my then 3 year old with me and, Murphy’s Law, after fighting her nap all afternoon, she fell sound asleep in the backseat the minute the car started moving. I could not stomach the idea of waking her up to carry her 50 feet to the ATM. But, even if I could, it’s my job as a parent to assess the situation, gauge risk and make the decision I’m most comfortable with (again, my child is safer in a parked car than a moving one, even if I’m 50 feet away). So, I jumped out of the car, fed the meter (because god forbid I get a parking ticket), locked the doors, sprinted to the ATM, withdrew the all important $100 and sprinted back. When I climbed into my car, all was as I had left it, with my wee one snoring in the backseat. But I was a sweaty mess, hands shaking and heart pounding. Why? Not because I was worried about my daughter. No, ma’am. I had images of a “Good Samaritan” seeing me, recording the incident and calling the police because they decided I’d done something wrong. I had low grade anxiety for a week afterwards.
My older daughter starts 1st grade next month and her public school is a 10 minute walk from our house. I have gleefully chortled with my friend down the street about the exciting prospect of our girls walking to school together in 2nd or 3rd grade. Or, maybe 4th? We’ll play it by ear. But then I think about the reality of allowing my children to walk by themselves and I worry. Not about them or their safety; there are several crossing guards along the way and we’ll do practice runs ad nauseum before their first “solo flight.” I worry that I’ll be perceived as lazy or careless or reckless for not being there every second. I worry that I’ll have a social worker or police officer outside my door asking invasive questions.
In truth, my child is more likely to be harmed by an adult she knows than a stranger in the mythical white van offering candy or a puppy. The modern day “stranger danger” is that Good Samaritan believing they know better and courts that will actually prosecute a parent for making benign and reasonable decisions about their family. You see, I know that it’s safer to be a kid in America today than any other time in history. But apparently that doesn’t matter to Nosy Nellie with the cell phone camera and 911 on speed dial.
Mollie Michel is a South Philly resident and a Philadelphia public school parent. A recovering non-profit professional, Mollie is also an experienced birth doula, Certified Lactation Counselor, and the mom of two awesome girls and a sweet pit bull named Princess Cleopatra. In her spare time, she is usually trying to figure out how Pinterest works, training for a(nother) half-marathon with her dog at her side, or simply trying to keep up with her increasingly wily daughters.