Won't Somebody Please Think of the Children?!

Focus on your own kids and stop criminalizing parenthood


Unsupervised kids? Their parents could be locked up today (Bettmann/CORBIS)
Credit: Bettmann/CORBIS

In July, the story of single mother Debra Harrell's plight went viral. Harrell was arrested in July for letting her 9-year-old play at a park while she worked to support her family. A shift manager at McDonald's, Harrell couldn't afford daycare or summer camp during the break. Instead, she let her daughter use her laptop inside the restaurant for most of the summer.

But after their house was broken into and the laptop stolen, Harrell let her daughter go to a busy nearby park with a cell phone. Three days later, a parent confronted Regina, Harrell's daughter, and called the police after she found out Debra was at work. The park mom never bothered to call Harrell first and understand her situation before reporting her to the authorities. Harrell was forced to spend 17 days in jail, temporarily lost custody of her daughter, and almost lost job as well.

Though sadly far from unique, Harrell's story focuses attention on a rising flurry of similar episodes. It seems the jaw-dropping frivolity of many of these calls is far more newsworthy than any alleged "child endangerment."

Consider the case of Nicole Gainey, who was arrested less than a month after Harrell for letting her 7-year-old son walk to a local park with a cell phone. A parent at a community pool on the way there confronted her son and called the police. Even Gainey's bail bondsman agreed the charges were out of line.

If you think you could get away with a bit more conservative limits on your child's independence, you could still be wrong! Parents have had the police called on them for letting their kids play in adjacent fields, on paths 1,000 feet from home, and even in the same cul de sac outside their house! These days, you don't even have to leave your kids' sight to be considered neglectful. British mother Paula Andrew found this out the hard way when police responded to anonymous call. The cops were told that her daughter looked  cold.

Most of us know the type of folks responsible for these calls. "Helicopter parents" have distinguished themselves for "hovering" over their kids' lives, whether planning their days from sunrise to sunset or going to excessive lengths to shield them from real or imagined harm. Not content to micromanage their own children, more and more helicopter parents now feel entitled to expand their messianic crusade against risk to the youth of their entire neighborhood. In the process, these parents sully the honorable cause of child welfare, distract attention from more realistic dangers, and criminalize parenthood itself.   

Making Sense of the Numbers 

Make no mistake, helicopter parents' worries are rooted in real tragedies. A 10-month old baby recently died after her foster father left her inside a hot car for two hours while smoking marijuana. Clearly a reprehensible act of neglect. In 2013, 43 children were tragically and preventably killed by heatstroke inside parked cars. But in our furor over child endangerment, we've lost a valuable sense of proportion. Just ask Kim Brooks, who left her four-year-old in the car on a 50 degree day for four minutes, only to be reported to the police by the time she returned. Following the ordeal, Brooks' son was more scared of being unsupervised because he feared the police would show up.

Helicopter parents (and legislators) aren't logical when deciding what constitutes "neglect" or "endangerment." Considering that roughly 400 children are injured in car accidents every day and that your child is over 15 times more likely to die in a moving car, rather than a parked one, should we ban kids from automobiles altogether? Whether it's flying or lea, we focus on far smaller prevalent, but more publicized risks despite taking statistically greater ones every day without a second thought.

The most recent Reason-Rupe survey sheds light on the fear that underlies these issues. Nearly 2/3rds of adults polled said kids today face more threats to their physical safety than when they were growing up.
But, a look at basic crime statistics shows how baseless this is. For all our fears of "stranger danger," children are in far greater statistical peril from their own parents, acquaintances or relatives. In fact, from 1998-2008, only 3% of child homicides were conducted by stereotypical strangers we spend so much time warning about.

Reason-Rupe's findings corroborate other recent studies on falsely high perception of crime. Contrary to our perceptions, America has become dramatically safer in recent decades. Murder, rape, robbery, and assault have all fallen to their lowest levels since 1963, when postage stamps cost 5 cents and segregationist George Wallace became governor of Alabama. Our perceptions, not reality, are what we should be afraid of.

The Real Risks

Hovering over your kids in a futile attempt to protect them is a parent's prerogative, wise or not. But reporting a neighbor to the authorities over their more permissive parenting could endanger a child even more—one study finds nearly a third of kids who go through foster care end up being abused.

Helicopter parenting is a more troubling long-term problem than we might realize. Therapists are seeing that kids raised in these households having a harder time coping with real world pressures. Recent studies report a 16% increase mental-health visits from 2000-2012 and increasing rates of depression and anti-depressant use among college students. While plenty of factors surely contribute to this increase, the trend can't be surprising for a generation taught from an early age to see the world as a series of hazards their parents need to protect them from.  

But the most distressing outcome of helicopter parenting may be its political implications. The latest Reason-Rupe poll shows that people in support of a more expansive government involved in more aspects of our lives tend to think kids should be older before they are allowed to do things like play in the front yard unsupervised. Libertarians shouldn't be surprised that those suspicious of kids doing things without adults around are more afraid of adults doing things without Uncle Sam. Whether it's protecting us from others with drones above or from our choices in talking shopping carts below, helicopter government seems to become more commonplace every day.

Above all else, the best thing we can do to ensure our children become well-adjusted, self-reliant critical thinkers, is to follow the advice of "free-range" parenting advocates like Lenore Skenazy (a Reason contributor). Let the young ones take risks, make mistakes, and learn to deal with failure. The sooner we stop invoking the children to justify ridiculous decisions, the better off both us and our kids will be. 


NEXT: Nick Gillespie and Emily Ekins: Millennials Are Politically Unclaimed

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  1. I grew up about half a mile from the Appalachian trail in nh and as a kid (late 80s/ early 90s) I was allowed to go play in the woods by myself, up to 3 or 4 miles from our house. Weird that would be illegal today. I dunno what the tuck else there is to do in New Hampshire

    1. In rural areas and small towns, you may not find that level of paranoia. Here in my corner of VT I see kids riding by on bikes all the time. Even in our largest city (43,000 people. We expect to get a subway system and football stadium any day now) kids walk home from school. The relative crime level is fairly low here though.

      Seems I’m about the same age as you. Back in the day, I used to bike into the next town to a state park which was a small mountain with picnic/camping areas on the summit. 8 miles round trip and that’s quite a ways for a 12 year old. Cops never showed up though.

  2. Maybe Reason should change its name to LIES. This woman wasn’t arrested for “letting her child play at a park”. She was arrested for abandoning the kid outside for ours at a time while there was no adult available to supervise or otherwise act responsible for the child’s well-being. Basically the kid was locked out of her own house for the whole day…how many times did this happen? I’m sure it was more than once.

    Your political movement is going absolutely nowhere if this is your biggest issue.

    1. I guess that’s a matter of perspective. Mine, for example, is that letting your equipped with a cell phone child play at a park while you’re at work, especially one that’s well populated, is nothing close to abandonment. In fact, I was applaud a mother who had raised a child independent and smart enough to be able to amuse herself at a park without their mother hovering and directing every activity. I would also view her allowing this as much less harmful than forcing the child to sit in Rotten Ronnie’s all day, or at home alone in front of the boob tube.

      Obviously your perspective differs from mine.

    2. The surest sign that a child is abandoned is when they are given a cellphone. This is not our biggest issue, but the implications of this are quite serious. Namely, that a child who is not at home and by themselves is considered to be ‘abandoned’ and ‘locked out’, as you put it, by the parents. This makes common childhood activities and parental discretion into a legal matter where there need not be one.

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