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What Happens When Your Way Isn't Mine

Photograph by Twenty20

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.

Four-year-olds, after all, don't always get the facts right.

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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 away.

A Sacramento 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 more vigilant.

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.

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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.

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