Reason.com

Free Minds & Free Markets

When the Nanny State Actually Tries To Nanny

This is not just about kids, but about the adults they will become.

Joanna AndreassonJoanna AndreassonAnytime you hear the words "for the safety of our precious children," grab your little ones and run. Someone who thinks he cares more about your kids than you do is about to make you grovel. If he's from the government, run faster.

Chicago mom Kim Brooks learned that lesson a few years back when she was hurrying to get everything ready for a plane trip home from visiting her parents in Virginia. Brooks knew that if her son didn't have a set of headphones, it would be a miserable flight for him (and anyone seated near them, I would guess), so she drove to the store to buy a pair. When the boy said he didn't want to come in with her, she made the kind of split-second decision all parents will have to make a thousand times before their kids leave the nest: "What makes the most sense for my family, right here, right now?" She decided to let him wait in the car, playing on an iPad, with the windows cracked open on a mild day.

Unfortunately for Brooks, a bystander saw and videotaped her heinous five-minute crime. The cops were already calling her when she got back to Chicago, and she was charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

Brooks relates this tale in Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear (Flatiron Books), the latest addition to a growing canon of work raising the alarm about how easy it is these days for parents to find themselves in serious trouble for having done something statistically safe but socially frowned upon. (Another great book in this genre, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt's The Coddling of the American Mind, is excerpted starting on page 62 of this issue.) Usually that means they had the temerity to take their eyes off their kids for more than a few seconds.

I'm talking about moms like Danielle Meitiv, investigated for letting her children, 6 and 10, walk home from the park together. Or Debra Harrell, held in jail overnight for letting her 9-year-old play in a sprinkler while she worked her shift at a nearby McDonald's. Or Natasha Felix, placed on the child abuse registry (yes, there's one in every state) for letting her kids—11, 9, and 5 at the time—frolic at the playground across the street without her. All these and countless more examples show how we have criminalized parents who, by choice or necessity, give their kids some unsupervised time.

Brooks called me shortly after her arrest and asked if I wanted to hear what had just happened. "No," I interrupted, "let me tell you what just happened." And I rattled off a typical scenario remarkably similar to the one she was about to divulge.

Brooks, hardly a shrink-the-government conservative, was shocked to hear how commonplace such experiences are. She was appalled to discover the vast power the state holds over us, including the authority to take away our kids if we refuse to act like crazed helicopter parents. And she was mad that these laws turn even working moms into housewives who must be on constant chaperone duty.

You don't have to be a hardcore libertarian to share the intuition that it's bad news when government is telling you how to raise your children. This new normal doesn't just place an unfair and unreasonable burden on parents. With almost no opportunities to play, explore, goof up, get lost, solve problems, and/or resolve arguments on their own (because there's always an adult hovering!), children themselves end up socially and emotionally stunted.

We need to support parents, teachers, and kids who are willing to go a bit outside of their comfort zones. We'd all be better off if a little more childhood independence became acceptable, perhaps even respectable, again.

Because in the end, this is not just about kids, but about the adults they will become. Feisty kids grow up to be feisty adults—the kind who are willing to fight for their freedom, even in a world that tells them any liberty is worth sacrificing "for the safety of our precious children."

Photo Credit: Halfpoint/iStock

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Liberty Lover||

    I grew up in a small town in the 50's and 60's. We had 3 gravel pits, two sawmill ponds, a forest and a major river by our house. My parents seldom knew where I was after I left in the morning and never worried if I was home for supper. I am guessing they would be locked up today.

  • BigT||

    What's the statute of limitation for those crimes? Your testimony above might still help the state get an arrest warrant.

  • I am the 0.000000013%||

    My parents seldom knew where I was after I left in the morning

    The only rule my parents had was if they rang the bell, which could be heard for miles in the extremely quiet rural area I grew up in, we had to be home within a half hour. That largely restricted our range to 4 square miles, though if we knew my parents were going to be away on errands we would explore further away.

    For the most part the bell was rung only for breakfast and dinner...

    What a great way to grow up. I feel sorry for kids growing up today.

  • Earth Skeptic||

    In addition, my mom had a second rule: in good weather and with no homework or chores pending, get out of the house and go do something. And, if noisy, do it somewhere else.

  • Tom Bombadil||

    My mother had a yodel-holler that will likely alert aliens to our presence many light years away.

    There was no time limit associated with hearing it. I just went home ASAP because damn she could cook.

  • JFree||

    I grew up in large cities in the 60's and 70's. With plenty of empty or 'new construction' lots to provide tons of opportunity to jump off 2nd stories onto mountains of gravel in between the forests of rebar and construction debris - and foreigners who really didn't like us. And the major concerns my parents had was keeping our tetanus vaccines up to date and telling us what rabies looked like in dogs.

    And as I think about it, it may well be that we have forgotten the actual purpose of all those childhood vaccinations. They are mostly diseases of 'unsupervised playtime' among kids. Back then - to parents - it meant we could play without dying of some disease that they remembered killing/maiming friends from their own childhood. So getting those vaccinations meant we kids could be both freer and safer. Now those diseases are all just words and the vaccinations are bureaucratic/medical checklists. Nothing to do with the way kids play.

  • ||

    So getting those vaccinations meant we kids could be both freer and safer. Now those diseases are all just words and the vaccinations are bureaucratic/medical checklists. Nothing to do with the way kids play.

    This is absolutely the case. Even people of my generation either never learned or don't recall basic 'medical' trivia and even among fairly rugged and 'outdoorsy' types. More than once I've been stuck with clean stainless steel, been asked by an adult "Are you gonna get a tetanus shot for that?", and wound up explaining what lockjaw is while I'm wiping the blood off my wound.

    Tetanus isn't an anaerobic bacterial infection and the poisoning resulting from the infection, it's a specter that lives in metal and upsets your humors if you break your skin with it.

  • Echospinner||

    Actually the bacteria does not live in metal. It is ubiquitous and found in soil and other places. The reason for the rusty nail concept is that deep puncture wounds are more likely to result in infection.

  • BigT||

    "Feisty kids grow up to be feisty adults—the kind who are willing to fight for their freedom, even in a world that tells them any liberty is worth sacrificing "for the safety of our precious children."

    Won't locking the kids up under constant supervision make them even more feisty? Prisoners riot, employees not so much.

    The greater danger is the 'fear of strangers' and lack of opportunities to develop self reliance skills.

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    The powers that be (those in charge of the government) want your kids to grow up to be timid, frightened sheeple.

    As for the rest of us, we would be better off with the rioting prisoners, than the sheeple the government wants.

  • Alcibiades||

    Better hope the authorities never get hold of the database of Reason's subscribers, oh the mining potential there for new "clients of the state" for CPS.

  • Jerry B.||

    of course, most of these cases probably start with some person who's been convinced the world is full of kidnappers and mass murderers who will grab any unattended child in a second, and so believe it's their duty to call the authorities.

  • spork||

    Then it is the authorities who grab the children, away from their heterodox parents. The real "stranger danger" is parents who have to be on the lookout for busybody informants. What a country!

  • Earth Skeptic||

    There must be a paranoid fear center in the brain that must activate regardless of the actual dangers around.

  • Dan S.||

    "Feisty kids grow up to be feisty adults—the kind who are willing to fight for their freedom, even in a world that tells them any liberty is worth sacrificing "for the safety of our precious children."

    Which is exactly what those in government want to prevent.

  • Dan S.||

    OK, that was already said in a response to a comment, I only read the top-level comments closely. Anyway, the "contributing to delinquency" charge makes no sense in terms of the government's usual "it's too dangerous" idea. But since being alone in a car seems to be what attracts the most negative attention, that's probably not a good place to leave kids. Letting them wait on the sidewalk outside the store might be better.

  • JFree||

    But since being alone in a car seems to be what attracts the most negative attention, that's probably not a good place to leave kids

    Probably better to ask WHY leaving kids in a car attracts that negative attention. IMO it's because IF/WHEN the kid gets out of that car, they are now in a parking lot surrounded by parked SUV's that now render them invisible and wanna-park SUV's driven by drivers who can only see and are only looking for parking spaces and using that 'perceived safety' (for the driver) to program their GPS or send/receive texts - not for invisible kids. Not quite the same as leaving your kid in a parked car by the side of a highway - but not as far removed from that as you may think.

  • Dan S.||

    I doubt that's the reason. More likely it's the fear that somehow, a stranger will get in the car and drive off with the kid. Heck, even though I know how incredibly unlikely that is, it would pass through my mind if I saw a kid left alone in a car. It may be best that motor vehicles always remain under the control of an adult, or be locked up, empty, when they're not. Children, on the other hand, do need time away from adults, and should not be locked up.

  • JFree||

    Yeah 'stranger danger' is a thang but I have never heard of that being expressed as the stranger actually hot wiring and stealing someone else's car with the kid in it. And if a kid is left in a car with keys in ignition and/or car running - well that's its own problem isn't it?

    More seriously, 1 in 4 pedestrian-related accidents (not deaths) occur in parking lots. This ain't just the boogieman.

  • Shirley Knott||

    Hot-wiring, no. But carjacking with a kid in the back seat makes the news every so often.

  • JFree||

    As an adult - how many times - in a parking lot - have you had to yell at a driver who is backing out of a space and doesn't see you or isn't looking? Or just stop and let them do their thang because you KNOW they aren't paying attention. How many kids do you think are MORE visible to those drivers or paying attention to white-back-up-lights or can get into a driver's head?

    THAT'S the source IMO of most 'bystander concern'. Now maybe that's just because it's frequent enough for me and would petrify me if I saw a kid trying to navigate that sort of regular event. And a kid in a car is just a door handle away from doing what they really want to do and wandering around there.

  • Bubba Jones||

    I am stunned that Chicago police followed up on a non event from Virginia.

    It's one thing for a nearby cop to play hero, but this required tracing the license plate of a rental car, then identifying the current renter, then finding the number/address in Chicago, then enlisting the help of the local police, and then they followed up in essentially real time for a non emergency?

    What the everlasting fuck?

  • Don't look at me!||

    No other crimes occurred in Chicago that week.

  • Tom Bombadil||

    Ironically,

    Kids are so awful nowadays, nobody even wants to kidnap them.

  • Still Curmudgeoned (Nunya)||

    The proper response should be complete silence. Answer only that you are who they are requesting, only that after much discussion. Nothing else. Force them to prove everything with zero admission to anything.

  • Ron||

    fall back response I loaned the car to a total stranger with a child and i have no clue what they did

  • Robert||

    Sorry, but 1 descriptor I don't want in adults I deal w is "feisty".

  • JFree||

    We'd all be better off if a little more childhood independence became acceptable, perhaps even respectable, again.

    True dat. But American adults have already decided that they prefer driving trucks instead. There is no fucking chance that kids are gonna just start roaming streets again where they are now near-invisible to drivers. If you don't recognize the connection it is because you yourself don't actually walk the streets anymore in order to see eg what an intersection in a residential area looks like anymore. When adults have to stick their heads out into the traffic in order to see the oncoming traffic that some parked SUV is blocking the view, then a kid has no chance at all. And every new parent knows it - as does every sedan buyer who is no longer buying a sedan anymore.

  • Tom Bombadil||

    It ain't that tuff.

  • JFree||

    Then you don't actually walk anymore. The simple act of 'crossing the street at an intersection' no longer follows the same rules I learned as a kid. 'Look both ways before you step off the curb'. Fat lot of good that does when an SUV is parked right there and blocking your view of traffic from the near side and drivers views of you attempting to cross (assuming drivers are even still paying attention to peds - or stop sign lines - which they aren't). Kids can't 'negotiate permission via eye contact' from drivers to cross even in a ped zone. And a significant (more than 20%, less than 50%) portion of drivers have no default intention of stopping at a stop sign line because that means they might have to stop twice at that intersection. They will only stop at the point where THEY can see oncoming traffic from cars. If a ped is under their wheels at that point, that's the peds problem.

  • JFree||

    Another example of the conveniences for drivers that make things dangerous for peds/bikes/kids - right turn on red.

    From 1982 (when it was still kind of new and drivers still generally stopped twice). Accident increases are 40 % for pedestrians and 82 % for bicycles in New York State; 107 % for pedestrians and 72 % for bicycles in Wisconsin; 57 % for pedestrians and 80 % for bicycles in Ohio; and 82 % for pedestrians in New Orleans. Analysis of police accident reports suggested that drivers stopped for a red light are looking left for a gap in traffic and do not see pedestrians and bicyclists coming from their right.

    Americans did not respond by continuing to walk/bike and get into accidents. Or by drivers becoming 'better' or giving a damn about someone else's safety. We responded by stopping walking/biking (including kids) and driving more instead. Which reduced the number of accidents - but didn't change the underlying 'safety' for those who can't drive. And there is no 'lesson' here that can be taught to kids attempting to cross the street.

  • Seamus||

    If a ped is under their wheels at that point, that's the peds problem.

    It's also the driver's insurance company's problem. And the driver's problem, if the police think the driver's conduct was bad enough to deserve charging. (And few things get a cop's attention better than running over a kid. Other than the opportunity to shoot a homeowner's dog, of course.)

  • Cloudbuster||

    Given his comments in this thread, JFree is particularly obsessed about the issue of people driving SUVs. He knows what's best, damn it, and I bet he'd like to stop you from doing it. For your own good and the good of society.

  • Don't look at me!||

    He has the sads because he can't afford one.

  • JFree||

    Hey if you actually think kids are safer nowadays playing OUTSIDE an SUV surrounded by yet more of them than they are INSIDE an SUV belted up and being driven everywhere; then you are, well, an idiot. And obviously clueless as to why kids are not actually playing outside anymore. Because they are INSIDE being driven around everywhere.

    But hey - try an experiment. Put your kid right in front of your SUV and see when he becomes invisible when you roll forward. Then pick the little brat up and put him behind your SUV when you back up. Your kid will I'm sure enjoy being part of a science experiment.

  • Echospinner||

    One emerging issue is hybrid and electric cars. You can't hear them coming behind you.

  • Tony||

    I grew up encased in bubble wrap and look how I turned out.

  • Gary Trieste||

    I had this happen to me.
    CPS nanny-staters told me I couldn't bring my kid to McD's, weigh her, or give her soda. Then they took her away from me, and despite dismissal of all allegations, I didn't get to see her unsupervised until 7 years later.
    They are extortionate kidnappers, and even though what they do is illegal, they can and there is nothing you can do to stop them; the judges just rubberstamp whatever they say.
    Look at my video of them putting me into CPS supervised visitation hell: https://youtu.be/NIsnbUxAPhs

  • kevinq||

    America: Land of the free*
    *Permit may be required
    *Some restrictions may apply
    *Subject to change without notice

    Jury Nullification; learn about it, use it, spread the word!

  • Dori_G||

    This world needs Little Libertarians.

    www.LittleLibertarians.com

  • GeorginaKFredrickson||

    Children must be protected. The educational process should consist of lessons of self-control and a confident attitude. I think that educational resources and resources essayreviewexpert.com that help to do homework can contribute to mental development. The government must select professionals for educational purposes.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online