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Several years ago, during one of our daily trips to the
gated tot lot near our home, my kids and I encountered a young girl sitting
alone by the swings crying. My gut reaction was that she must have fallen off
the swing and hurt herself. I leaned down to comfort her and asked her if she
needed help finding her parent or nanny.
Her response took me by surprise. She told me that her mom
left her. She also told me that she was 4. The mother in me went
into a panic, but the therapist in me stayed calm.
after all, don't always get the facts right.
As it turned out, her mother was walking along the path just
outside of the tot lot, on her phone. She didn't see her child fall, and she
didn't know that her child was crying. Was she guilty of neglect? Should I have
called the police?
It took just a few questions in a kind voice to determine
that her mother hadn't "left" her for good—or even for very long. She left her
unsupervised in a gated tot lot while she took a phone call about 100 feet
mother was arrested for felony child endangerment and neglect when she left
her 4-year-old son alone to roam the park 120 feet from her front door in
their gated community. A neighbor saw the boy playing alone and called the
police. The charges have since been reduced to misdemeanors, and the mother is
still trying to get the charges dropped.
Why was calling the police the first line of defense?
The stories are similar, and yet they had very different
outcomes. Why is it that people are so quick to call the cops on their
neighbors? What in the world happened to the village?
The world of parenting is saturated with contradicting
opinions: "Don't hover!" yell some experts, for fear that we are
raising kids who lack resilience and can't find their way in the world. Helicopter
parenting is a growing fear among some parents. "How do I know if I'm
hovering?" parents ask when I speak at parent education nights. "Where is the
line that I shouldn't cross?"
The truth is that the line is different for each child. Kids
grow and separate at their own developmental pace. While one child in a family
might seem fiercely independent and crave separation from parents early
on, another might need the safety net a little bit longer. There is no magic
line, because all kids are different.
The bigger issue, if you ask me, is that sometimes it
appears as if the village might be crumbling. If the neighbor had concerns about
the safety of the child, why didn't she knock on the door or ask the child if he
was OK? Why was calling the police the first line of defense?
Each time I read one of these cases in the news I consider
the possible alternatives. Would I leave a 4-year-old alone at a park? No, I
wouldn't. That's outside of my comfort zone. But I was once criticized for
being "that parent" (actual words spoken by another parent), because I went down
the slide with my 3-year-old. I didn't do it because I was hovering
over him, I did it because we were playing together and having fun. And yet, I
was tagged "that parent"—you know, the helicopter—simply because I played
with my child.
When we categorize parents based solely on observable behaviors, we discount the vast majority of the parenting process.
When I speak at parent education nights, I always caution
parents to stay away from the labels. What might seem like hovering to one
parent might be just right to another. What might seem like too much freedom to
one parent might be a carefully executed exercise in independence to another. You
can never truly know what another parent is up against until you get to know
that parent. Food allergies and asthma keep me close at parties, for example. I
can let my kids roam in other places, but when food is involved I have to be
When we categorize parents based solely on observable
behaviors, we discount the vast majority of the parenting process. When we
point fingers and jump to conclusions, we cause more harm than good.
If we bring back the village, if we help instead of judge
and ask instead of accuse, we can all work together to help our children
thrive. Let's make "parenting together" the new catchphrase that takes over our
feeds. Let's bring back the village and, in doing so, kick some of the newfound
parenting anxiety to the curb.