It Happened to Me: What Makes a Negligent Parent?

Several years ago an educated middle class family made national headlines after someone reported their children had been spotted walking home alone from their neighborhood park, a mile from their house. CPS got involved, and they received a warning that their kids, ages ten and six, were too young to be allowed to walk unsupervised. At the time, I thought those parents were completely crazy. Not yet a mother of kids that age, I thought they were the most reckless parents in the world. 

Fast-forward to today, and my almost nine-year-old daughter is an intelligent little human, perfectly capable of wandering past eyeshot for a bit without worrying me in the slightest, as long as I know where she will be and when she will return. Her six-year-old younger sister is confident, clever, and well behaved. Together, they are perfectly capable of running safe errands a short distance from me without any cause for alarm.

Or so I thought.

Recently, on a very typical weekend morning, I took both my kids to my neighborhood farmer’s market, like I had done dozens of times before. I headed straight to Local Coffee, where I looked forward to catching up with a friend whom I hadn’t seen in a couple months. My girls were going to play right in front of the coffee shop, in the square of artificial grass that invited endless cartwheels and “watch me, Mama”s.

But my youngest wanted some carrots. Happy that she was asking for greens instead of donuts, I handed her and her older sister $3 each, and told my eldest to “stay together, go get the carrots, and come back.” No problem, I thought. The veggie stands were only a couple hundred feet away, and my girls know the market like the back of their hands. This was a fairly low-risk opportunity to practice basic transactional skills and feel a little more grown up. I knew they would stay together and that they could be trusted, because they had proven this to me many times before.

A few minutes later, while I was sitting by a window in the coffee shop a minute’s walk from the veggie stand, I felt a tap on my shoulder. When I turned around, I saw a police officer AND a security guard standing with my children.

“Excuse me, ma’am. Are these your kids?” the officer asked. “We noticed they were wandering alone and wanted to make sure their parents were around.”

My face grew hot as all eyes in the shop focused on our direction, but I remained calm and replied, “Yes, I am. My daughter is almost nine years old. She was taking her sister to get some carrots, and she has done this many times before. We live in the neighborhood and come here all the time.”

Realizing that there was indeed nothing to be alarmed about, the officer replied, “No, of course, she is a very smart girl. I was just making sure.” He and the guard smiled and walked away, and my friend and I brushed it off and decided to leave the coffee shop then and there and wander the market together as a group of four. While I didn’t make a big deal about it at the time, I held their little hands a bit tighter. And I couldn’t shake a bad feeling for the rest of the day.

Why, I wondered, did the officer feel a need to escort my kids into the shop? Had he spoken to them in an age-appropriate manner, he would have learned that they were just alone for a few minutes, only to buy some carrots and then come straight back to me. Had their answer not been sufficient or believable enough, why wouldn’t the officers simply observed them for a few minutes in a hands-off way? Had that occurred, it would have been only a couple minutes before they would have seen them both return to check in with me, errand completed. There really was no need to come into the shop to talk to me, as it was clear that my girls knew what they were doing. I understand it is their job to protect people, to ask questions, but couldn’t they have handled it in a more subtle way that didn’t publicly undermine my parenting?

When I was a child, I wandered my neighborhood freely and meandered around Splashtown for long periods of time unsupervised. I had the kind of freedom for extended periods of time that my kids will not experience until they are much, much older. My dad was particularly lenient, often giving my brother and me $5 each and saying, “Check in in a couple hours,” which meant we could literally do whatever we wanted, including explore downtown freely. (My dad worked at an office on Alamo Plaza, and my idea of paradise was going by myself to Primarily Purple and Cats Cats Cats—both located a few blocks away in Rivercenter Mall—and spending way too long debating whether to buy catnip or purple heart stickers.)

It was wonderful, though I tease my dad now that he was a little too “free range.” I’ll never forget the time he and my stepmom left my brother and me alone for a few hours, and during this time my grandma called to tell us that our mother had been in a serious car accident. This was before cell phones, so there was literally nothing we could do other than wait on pins and needles until they returned and then blurt out the story in a worried run-on sentence. Or the time we went skateboarding with my stepbrother, and he got seriously injured a few blocks from home. Panicked, I had to run at top speed home to get an adult to come save him. (He had smacked his head on a concrete wall and a profuse fountain of blood started gushing from his head, causing my brother and me, ages seven and nine, respectively, to scream in terror before formulating a frenzied action plan.)

Somehow, we all survived. What a different world we live in today.

After my unpleasant incident at the market, I decided to google those free-range parents again I’d heard about years ago and see just how reckless they had been. I watched their story on YouTube, which you can see here. To my surprise, I found them to be articulate and informed, and their kids to be normal, happy, and well cared for. They were not at all the negligent, terrible parents I had remembered. To be clear, I wouldn’t dare allow my kids to walk a mile unsupervised in my own neighborhood, not for several years yet. But at the same time, I no longer judge these free-range parents so harshly. As a parent, I know there are eight- and nine-year olds mature enough to be left unsupervised for short periods of time, including my own daughter. I wouldn’t let her or her sister cross busy streets alone yet, but the farmer’s market is another story. Completely contained, all pedestrians, very familiar.

My recent experience at the market made me doubt myself. Was I being careless? Did I exercise poor judgement? I don’t believe I did, but clearly someone else doubted my decision.

I used to live in a small town where everyone knows each other. We visit this town frequently, and our kids have playmates they enjoy visiting there. Our friends in this small town regularly leave their under-ten-years-old kids alone for short spells in the coffee shop and allow them to wander around downtown without an adult. They even let them go to the tiny movie theater with other children, no guardians in site. Having already re-acclimated to life in the city, I have to admit even I was slightly taken aback by how much freedom my smart, responsible friends give their kids in this small town. Once the shock passed, however, my feeling turned to jealousy. I wanted the same for my children: the opportunity to test out independence without fearing that I’d get in trouble. The opportunity for them to gain real world skills in a low-risk environment. I longed for the simpler life that I knew my own children miss being raised in downtown San Antonio. 

One of the arguments I hear over and over against allowing kids to spend unsupervised time in public is this: what if they get kidnapped or abused or murdered? How dare you let them out of sight when you don’t know who else is around: pedophiles, kidnappers, “bad guys”?

As parents, we all have this fear. But the reality is that cities and public spaces have become safer over the years. When I was a child, not only was the risk equal or greater to what it is now, there were no cell phones to communicate with parents and smart phones to videotape suspicious behavior. Everything is being recorded now, and there are many more ways to call for help. My children even share a watch phone, a simple device with GPS that allows them to make voice calls to me and a few other adults that have been programmed into the device. 

I know there are dangers, but what about the dangers of not raising our humans to be self-sufficient? Isn’t it OK to let them practice adult behaviors in safe, semi-controlled environments? Of course I would be devastated if something terrible happened to them while they were not under my watch. Of course I would. But I also feel it is my job to let go a little bit at a time, and to let my kids stretch their wings. Unfortunately, I will be looking over my shoulder more often now. Because the last thing I need is to feel that I’m a bad parent. 

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