Friday, July 25, 2014

Criminalizing Parenthood

This is how I understand this story: a single South Carolina mom named Debra Harrell with a nine-year-old daughter, trying to make ends meet with a $8 an hour job at McDonald's, had been bringing her child to work with her, where the girl spent her summer vacation days playing on her laptop until someone broke into their apartment and stole, among other things, that laptop. Deciding that staying home alone might not be the safest situation for her child, what with burglars and all, and now with no laptop, this mother of meager means, at her daughter's behest, dropped her girl off at a well-populated playground located adjacent to her place of work, with a mobile phone, to play outdoors with other children as she worked. She was arrested and, presumedly because of the arrest, fired from her job. (Due, I'm sure, to the publicity this case has generated, McDonald's has since rehired her, citing a "misunderstanding about her job.")

There is so much wrong here, it's hard to know where to start, although the first thing I'll point out is that $8 an hour is simply not a livable wage. I understand that "minimum wage" jobs are "supposed to be for teenagers," but in our current economy families like this one are having to live on those wages. I'm genuinely excited that I live in a city that has recently approved a $15 per hour minimum wage, nearly doubling the former wage floor, and it's scheduled to adjust upward as the cost of living increases. There are many, including many small business owners, some of whom are members of our Woodland Park community, who worry that this will force them out of business, and they might be right. I get that, but I'm still excited because we, as a community, are trying the one, most obvious thing one can imagine to fight poverty, the solution the children always suggest when discussing the plight of poor people: give them more money. But that's not what I want to write about in this post.

I also don't want to write about the vicious Catch-22 in which this and millions of other parents find themselves. On the one hand, society tells her, through both public policy and popular culture, that she must work because otherwise she is a parasite, so she gets a job, albeit a low paying one. On the other hand, she has a nine-year-old child who is out of school for the summer. Child care is beyond her means, her home is not safe, and while she may well have many friends who would be willing to babysit, they too have jobs during the day. Honestly, what's a parent to do? If we're really going to be a nation that cares about families, as every politician in America asserts, it's clear that we need either subsidized child care for low-income families or, even better in my book, an expanded social safety net that doesn't force parents to chose between their jobs and their children.

And I really don't want to write about the cold corporate cruelty of an employer like McDonald's which apparently fired this poor mother for a decision, good or bad, that she made as a parent. I also don't want to write about the issues of race and gender that are the roots of this story, but it's there and raw and real.

No, I want to write about another aspect of this story that, like all the others, is just the tip of the American iceberg: a mother was arrested for letting her nine-year-old play alone at a playground.

I know this will sound a bit curmudgeonly, but when I was growing up in that very same South Carolina, all the nine-year-olds played alone in the playgrounds, and this was in an era with a much higher crime rate, and we had already been doing it for years. In fact, as a six-year-old, I walked to and from school, which was a half mile in each direction, and I didn't have a mobile phone. Even as four-year-olds, our parents would shoo us out the front door and not expect to see us again for hours, and by the time we were seven, we were riding bikes which took us miles away from home. As a nine-year-old living in Greece, my seven-year-old brother and I would spend entire days on our own roaming wherever our interests took us in a foreign country where we didn't even speak the language, and sometimes we would take our three-year-old sister with us. It never occurred to us to tell our parents where we were going because, more often than not, we didn't know ourselves.

Today, all of the mothers in our neighborhood would have been arrested: every last one of them. We have criminalized parenthood and our children are the victims of this crime wave. I was discussing this with a Woodland Park parent this week. She works at one of our local elementary schools where she sends her own kids outside to play unsupervised on the playground each afternoon as she finishes up her work day. She's not the only one; many of the school's employees do the same thing. Apparently, every one of them is risking arrest.

Objectively, at least when it comes to crime, our world is a much safer place today than it was during the 70's, yet we expect parents, under the threat of legal consequence, to keep their children under a watchful eye 24/7, and it's not just crime we worry about. We also don't trust children with their own safety, with some "experts" asserting that children shouldn't be left alone in a car until they are old enough to drive. You can't leave a 15-year-old alone in a car?

We live in a world in which a nine-year-old playing with a laptop inside a McDonald's for hours on end is favored over playing outdoors with friends -- and our entire society is suffering from this.

We are raising our children to be incompetent.

We are raising our children without real freedom.

We are raising our children to be unreasonably afraid.

We are raising our children without the benefits of outdoors, exercise, and friends.

We are raising our children without the skills, confidence, or wisdom to be functioning adults, infantilizing them until they're suddenly grown up and expected to make their way in the world.

And most of us don't even realize it; we take this as the normal state of affairs. If you were born after about 1980, you likely have no idea what I'm talking about because it's all you've known. As a younger parent, as my child approached the age of this poor woman's daughter, I began to worry about her. Not about her safety, but rather about her lack of freedom. I'll never forget how nervous I was the first time I left her, as an eight-year-old, home alone as I drove to the grocery store to pick up some milk. I made sure she knew what to do in case of fire, flood, doorbell, or injury. I raced to the store, I raced back, and she survived. We did this not out of necessity, but rather as an act of parenting, forced upon me in part because she was literally begging for the opportunity be "be alone," a cry for freedom that touched my heart.

This was the beginning of our program, probably illegal, of increasingly ramping up her experiences of being on her own in the world because, after all, that's what we're ultimately raising our children to do, and experience is the only teacher. With her enthusiastic agreement, she was home alone for longer and longer periods of time. I would sometimes come home to find that she was proud to have prepared her own snack or bathed or practiced some other self-help skill. I began to send her into stores to run errands for the family. One day, when she was about 11, as we awaited the train, we chatted up a cop about safety tips for young women traveling on mass transit alone, then implemented it the following day, starting with solo a trip downtown and back. By the time she was 14 she was regularly getting herself around Seattle on her own, yet "experts" would have her incapable of even being left alone in a car. Not only did she survive, but she thrived, often saying, proudly, "No body else's parents let them do this."

Lest you think I wasn't sufficiently "worried" about my child, let me assure you that the reason I was doing these things was because I was worried about her. I didn't want her first experiences at being alone in the world to coincide with, say, an adolescent surge of hormones or the advent of a driver's license. Being a newly sexual being or a new driver is challenging enough without also being overwhelmed with the thrill and chill of being out from under a parent's watchful eye for the first time. That, to me, seemed like a set up for disaster. I didn't want her to head off to college without sufficient experience in the basic life skills required to be safe and healthy in the world.

One of our experiments came when she was 12. We were at the Westlake Center mall in the heart of downtown Seattle and she wanted to shop "on her own." This is not a criticism of this particular mall, but its location means that at any given moment there were more than a few nefarious types milling about. Nevertheless, we agreed that I would sit over a cup of coffee while she browsed for an hour. As it turned out, I remembered something I needed to pick up, so decided to quickly run my errand in the meantime. It's not a large mall, so it didn't surprise me when I spied her riding up an escalator. I thought she saw me, but then she turned and fled up the next escalator toward the third floor. I chuckled to myself, assuming that she had pretended not to see me, not yet ready for her hour of freedom to end, so I went about my business. Later, she told me about a "creepy guy" who had said "Hi" and who she thought might be following her. When I'd seen her on the escalator she had been in the process of putting distance between herself and him. She had then ducked into a shop, taking safety, as the transit cop has suggested, in the company of others. My heart was in my throat as she told the story, even as I knew that this was both a life lesson for her as well as proof that I was, as a parent, doing the right thing.

If I were a poor, black woman I wonder if I could even confess all of this without being arrested. Maybe I'll get a knock on my door this afternoon. I am a criminal parent, apparently. That said, my daughter will be 18-years-old in October, legally an adult, and I am more confident than most of the parents of her peers that my child will be as ready as possible for the attendant rights and responsibilities.

I don't know any more than you do about the details of this South Carolina mother's story. What I do know is that unless things change, at best, her nine-year-old will now go back to spending her summer sitting in a McDonald's after learning the lesson that her mother is a criminal for trusting her with a little freedom. Maybe she's "safer" today, but I assure you, she will not be safer in the future. I don't know what to do about the rest of us, but in this case you can help Debra Harrell and her daughter by making a donation through this funding site.

Over the last few months, one of the internet memes among us progressive parents and educators has been about giving our children a "70's summer," one like we had in the golden age of childhood, full of play and free of academic stress. This is a good thing, but for the most part I see it continue to happen under the ever-present watchfulness of hovering parents. It's a step in the right direction, but without the freedom, it's not the same thing.

Of course, in advocating this I'm walking into a Catch-22 of my own: all it will take is for one parent to take my advice and have it all go horribly wrong. There is always that chance. This is the dark side of freedom for all of us, no matter what our age. Of course, each time we put our child in our car we are engaged in what is statistically the single most dangerous thing we can do with children, yet most of us think nothing about it. Gever Tully calls it "dangerism," this phenomenon by which societies come to both formally and informally accept the various risks of freedom. We each have to make these decisions for ourselves: that is perhaps the ultimate freedom.

I honestly can't tell you if Debra Harrell made a good or bad decision about her nine-year-old daughter. There are so many factors involved ranging from the neighborhood itself to the maturity of the child, but I think we can all agree that in this case, the authorities went over the top. We have to trust one another as parents, even if we disagree, and our laws need to allow more room for common sense. Ultimately, we have to trust love, and nothing in what Ms. Harrell did leads me to think she is anything but a loving mother doing the best she can. Perhaps she made a mistake. Perhaps she should be role model for us all. But whatever the case, she is not a criminal for letting her child play alone at a playground.

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Anonymous said...

Hi Teacher Tom. I thought that this was a very thoughtful piece and I am in 100% agreement with everything you wrote. I'm not a parent but I am a Montessori teacher of children ages 6-9. One of the goals of Montessori education is to help children become independent. Dr. Montessori advocated for children to take their own field trips called "going out" in which they would leave school on their own, use public transportation, and go visit for example a paleontogist or a museum for their own interests. Hard to imagine doing that today...

Trina Brunk said...

really, really appreciating seeing a lot of my own thoughts reflected here in your writing. I especially like hearing about the choices you made at each step of the way as your daughter grew and the respect that you have for her need for freedom. I've got three young boys and my philosophy is similar to yours but my boys are still quite young, so it's nice to hear how splendidly she's doing. Thank you Tom.

Ruth said...

Hi Teacher Tom. An excellent blog. I had a difficult experience with risk which I would like to relate. When my daughter was nearly 4 and my son nearly 2, they both got whooping cough, one after the other (The whooping cough was very mild, and my daughter whooped only twice, a month after the cough started (which is when she was diagnosed), and the son didn't whoop at all.) All my friends were pregnant and would not come near me or my children. My husband was away 6 days out of 7. I had to shop but didn't dare take the children into the shop. I had to leave them in the car, parked on a slope with the wheels turned in in case my active son might play with the gears or brake. I knew that my daughter would not let him get out of the car, and he could not open the doors. I had to do this for over two months. It was a very frightening experience but was not "criminal" in the little town of Springbok, South Africa, where we lived. In the US today I would have been a criminal, but what could one do. A creche would also not accept children with whooping cough, even if one could afford it. It was certainly better to leave them in the car, near the shop, than at home alone.

Janine said...

Great post. This story makes me so angry. As if her life wasn't crappy enough, now she has to deal with the embarrassment of getting arrested. I was only born in '86 and still did a good amount of running around a so-so neighborhood. But my parents were white so I'm sure it wouldn't be thought of as criminal. (I know you didn't want to write about race but I would consider that a huge factor in this case.)

Anyways, great post. I read most of what you write even if I don't comment. Keep at it! :)

Becky said...

Really awesome post (as most are)!!! I totally agree with it, and will keep these words with me as my daughter gets older. For now, her independence is being outside when I'm in and vice versa. This post really should be posted on the wall of every school, pediatrician and obstetrician's office. Try getting it published. The word needs to get out. The more people who live this way, the less people who do will be criminalized and the larger the safety net of community there will be out there for independant kids.

Anonymous said...

A couple of things:
1) So agree but...
2) The last time the US cared about families and its people was probably in the 50ies. In reality it is suffering from a suffocating choke of fear driven by its military, intelligence and administrative apparatus. Any and every risk must be annihilated and mitigated. Any freedom or right of individual expression is wiped by a web of rules.
3) This brings me to the dictatorship of rules and law. We saw the excuses where people said "but I did what I was told". Just imagine our new excuse! We did it because it was law! That is even more terrifying as it sounds even better an excuse to hide behind. As if laws weren't fallible or wrong.
4) in a society of fear and a widening income gap research has proven that compassion by the better off is next to undetectable. I could well imagine a Fox comment like " why don't they eat cake". And I can well imagine some 1%er reading the news and be horrified. If they would their child...they'd have a coronary. They simply cannot bother to understand that this might actually be a valid option.
5) And from a coloured person no less! Still prevalent even if not admitted publicly.

The nation that Americans think they are hasn't existed for a long time and the american dream is about as relevant to its society as what I had for breakfast. The event you describe (although you are right in saying we don't know all the details) is a sad reminder of it. As is the belief in weapons and violence as a valid answer to a dispute, military gear for law enforcement, an overly secular society,...

I honestly hope America wakes up soon and realises they are their own worst enemy. That caring and a sound trusting society are actually something wort pursuing. Why am I interested? Because the Worlds nations look at the US as a role model not recognising the dangers and I don't want to live in a world where people cannot find compassion for a struggling mother.

Unknown said...

White parents have also been arrested for similar things, fathers as well as mothers. No one is safe.