PG-13 Neighborhood

bikes on sidewalksI came across this story about Child Protective Services in Maryland threatening to remove a 6 and 10 year-old from their family because the parents let them navigate the neighborhood on their own.

“Police lectured Alexander, a physicist at the National Institute of Health, about endangering his children during a tense exchange, the couple said. Their son called his mom on her cell phone at one point, in tears and fearful that his dad was about to be arrested. A child welfare worker showed up at their home days later with a safety plan Danielle said her husband was forced to sign, or risk having their children taken away.”

The story indicates that these are responsible and loving parents who feel comfortable giving their kids a certain level of independence yet are dealing with police intrusion into their lives and choices. A friend of mine pointed out that it was like the sidewalks were rated PG-13. The parents were under investigation in part because the older supervising child must be 13 to look after younger children under Maryland law.

Child independence is a fence-jumping issue because it is so important with regard to child health and cognitive development as well as parental health, and because it requires bucking the social norm. Back in the 70s, I remember walking to school the very first day of first grade with a pack of kids from the neighborhood – no adult supervision. This was just common sense. We got some physical activity before school, learned to get somewhere responsibly on our own, and all of our parents didn’t send an extra hour or more per day shuttling their kids around. Sadly, this is nearly unthinkable today. Our culture puts expectations on parents to very closely monitor kids until a rather advanced age.

Why? If it is to protect our kids from “stranger danger,” today’s greater fear of child abduction is unwarranted. The risk is roughly the same as or lower than it was back then. As far as cognitive development, kids need time to explore on their own without parents hovering over them. For example, one study indicates that “the more time children spent in less structured activities, the better their self-directed executive function. Conversely, the more time children spent in more structured activities the poorer their self-directed executive function.” Parents’ time should count for something as well. Time-strapped parents need to do other things besides hover over their kids 24-7 or stay locked in the house with them. Know any parents whose health hasn’t taken a hit since having kids? Despite the facts, our irrational culture makes it tough enough to be a parent. Then the law comes into play.

I looked up child-neglect laws in Oregon and here’s what I found: “The law does not specify the age at which a child can be left alone. However, a child under 10 cannot be left unattended for such a period of time as may likely endanger their health or welfare (ORS 163.545).” I find this incredibly vague and disturbing, and since enforcement tends to be complaint-driven, it leaves parents vulnerable to investigations called for by vindictive neighbors. We actually had a visit from Child Protective Services when we lived in California – only because a disturbed neighbor called them with some made-up story. Even a situation like thise where the social worker is able to pretty quickly determine that the complaint is bogus was still pretty emotionally distressing.

These days, my partner and I are still discussing how we will approach our children’s growing independence. It is distressing to have to take the law into account for fear of threats from Child “Protective” Services rather than making the decision purely based on rational judgement of what is best for our family.

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