A Washington Post article this week told the story of two Maryland parents who are being investigated for letting their kids (aged 10 and 7) walk home alone from a nearby park. Someone saw the pair and called the cops. Now the parents are being hassled by the county Child Protection Services, which threatened to take the children away (!!) if the parents did not fill out a “safety plan” and pledge not to leave the children unsupervised until CPS had scoured the house and done a complete investigation. The story has already generated more than 2500 comments, much of it attacking the parents, and one Post columnist berated them for being attention-seeking fools.
I know this kind of thing happens frequently, but this story hit me particularly hard because we used to live in that neighborhood and our kids went to that park. It stuns me to think that parents would be criminalized for doing the right thing — giving their kids an opportunity to be independent and learn to explore the world by themselves. My wife and I certainly could have been in those parents’ shoes. Our kids do all kinds of things by themselves, and we sometimes let 7 year-old Miriam walk to school alone because it’s fun and a good experience for her. Just yesterday, I let her sit quietly at the front of a grocery store reading her book while I went shopping with the other kids — it’s what she preferred, it was perfectly safe, but she was “unsupervised.” Should I be investigated?
Whenever I read these kind of things, I think, “Who was that person who called the cops?” I know that they mean well — they probably think they are being Good Samaritans. It takes a village, right? Don’t we want our neighbors to look out for our kids? Yes, of course. But Good Samaritans don’t call the cops; a good neighbor shouldn’t call in the authorities. If they are so terribly concerned, why not talk to the kids? Why not ask to see if there’s a problem? Why not call the parents rather than the police? Calling the cops without learning more about the situation is not a sign of being a good neighbor; it’s the sign of living in a state of fear where people spy on each other and report their findings to the authorities because they are too cowardly to talk to their neighbors.