Alice has always been a highly active kid. And tinier than normal. When she was less than two-years-old she could run and climb with almost as much dexterity as her five-year-old sister. She had a lot of energy that has always needed channeling, so we have always spent a lot of time at Boise's city parks. At 22-months-old, I felt comfortable letting her climb some of the smaller play structures at the park alone, careening down slides and climbing ladders. I was close by, of course, watching like a hawk. One day an angry mother came marching over to me. Your baby is on the top of that play structure. That is very dangerous. You need to watch her better. She glared at me as she climbed up tiny steps to be less than a foot away from her toddler. She's just fine, I snapped back. She can climb these things. But my eyes stung. I was watching her - grow stronger and braver and up and away from me.
I guess I'm not a "helicopter parent."
I always put my babies to sleep right next to my bed from birth. I'm too paranoid that I'll roll over on them and suffocate them in the night to co-sleep, but I'm too scared to put them in their own room. We lived in a tiny 1920s brownstone walk up apartment downtown Minneapolis when Lucy was born, so there was no other room for her to have to herself anyhow. She slept in a little woven Moses basket on the floor next to our bed, or in her carseat because it felt best for her acid reflux. (This was in the days before we knew this was dangerous.) Alice slept in a travel pack-n-playyard in our bedroom here in Boise for the first year of her life and Arlo is doing the same. Because I can't sleep if I can't hear their tiny breaths right next to me. I keep the fan running in the bedroom and check to see if Arlo is sweating, because both are precautions against SIDS. I'm not ready to let him sleep twenty feet away from me instead of one.
I guess I'm a "neurotic parent."
I've been writing about parenting and my kids for magazines and newspapers and blogs for the last seven years, so back in 2008 when Lenore Skenazy let her then nine-year-old son ride the NYC subway alone I was following the story. She wrote about it, and it made national news. In fact, it inspired a movement called "free-range parenting" and she launched a more successful career, a book and a blog about it. The basic idea is how to raise safe, self-reliant kids without going nuts with worry. Hmmm, I thought at the time, back when I had a four-year-old and a newborn. She seems smart and logical and wants to teach her son how to safely navigate life in New York. Seems fine to me.
Last year when those poor parents in Maryland were accused of child neglect for letting their six and ten-year-olds walk home by themselves from a park near their house, I was worried. Shit, Eric and I said to each other, we do that all the time. Lucy is a very responsible fifth grader, and we all spend a lot of time at our neighborhood elementary school, just four blocks from our house in Boise, Idaho. Alice is in first grade, but proved to me during the first month of the school year that she would listen to her sister and look all ways before crossing streets, never leave the sidewalk, and be aware of anyone asking her to come into their house or car. I met them half way for the first week or two, watching from a comfortable distance. Since the first of October, though, it's become old hat. They walk not only home from school, but to their friends' houses in the neighborhood, some a few blocks more than four. Would other parents in my neighborhood call the police on my children? I'd like to hope not. That wasn't the case for those parents in Maryland, though.
I guess I'm a bit of a "free-range parent."
We can’t rely on our neighbors to help look out for our kids, and that’s why our neighborhoods don’t feel safe enough. When you let a 10- and 6-year-old walk home on their own, it feels scary because they’re fully responsible for their own safety. What’s missing is the sense that we’re all responsible for everyone’s children, says a story in the Washington Post.
But how do we change this environment that makes us so detached now? How do we rebuild our village?
We can invite a next-door neighbor over for dinner.
We can make a point of attending neighborhood events, such as farmers markets or park dedications or festivals.
We can make an effort to chat with other parents when we pick up our kids from daycare or school.
We can walk instead of drive, so that we see our neighbors and have a chance of talking to them.
We can teach our children that if they’re alone and feeling scared, they can seek out a woman with children and ask for help. Teach them not to fear all strangers.
We can tie the shoe of someone else’s kid at the playground, or reach out a hand when someone else’s kid wants to get down from the playground ladder. We can ask a parent who’s juggling too much stuff: “Please let me carry that for you.” We can accept offers of help instead of demurring. These small things say “We’re in this together” when every message around us says “It’s all on you,” the writer tells me.
But, I do all of those things above, and I still feel worried about it. Especially this week, as those poor parents in Maryland were found guilty of unsubstantiated child neglect, which means CPS will keep a file on the family for at least five years and leaves open the question of what would happen if the Meitiv children get reported again for walking without adult supervision.
Last night around 4:30 or 4:40 Alice went out front to draw with sidewalk chalk on the driveway. Lucy did homework in the living room and I put Arlo in his high chair with toys while I started spaghetti with meatballs for dinner. Eric had to work late, and I watched Alice from the kitchen window. Our little 1950s ranch house is close to the street with traditional midcentury interior design - a front window above the sink overlooks the street out front to wave at neighbors while doing dishes. Around 5pm a Boise Police Department officer appeared before my eyes in the window, talking with Alice while looking at my house and back down to his phone. My heart stopped beating for at least 2 seconds. I left Arlo safe in his chair and the noodles boiling on the stove and bolted out the front door. Alice kept drawing.
Hello? I said. Hi there, he responded. Just admiring her artwork.
I saw his large black SUV parked down the sidewalk a bit, in front of my neighbors house. I immediately scanned the area for activity; it's not uncommon for BPD to make an appearance in my 'hood. If you've seen any standoffs or assaults or drug houses or possible kidnappings on the news in the past several years, the likelihood that they are taking place in my inner city neighborhood are high. I saw no other cars or officers or suspicious activity, so my heart calmed a bit. I also saw that Alice was fine - unfazed, in fact.
I saw her crouched down here and just stopped to make sure she was okay, he told me. I can see what her favorite book is, as Alice completed a large red and white Cat in the Hat. Yep, I stilled my shaky voice, It's Dr. Suess' birthday week. Did you know that? They are celebrating it at school. Hmmm, he nodded, and slowly ambled back to his rig, got in, and drove away.
I didn't make her come inside with me, as my mind raced. Did someone call the police on my kid being out front alone for the past twenty or thirty minutes? Did they not know I could see her from the window? Did the officer think she was home alone? Did he think I was a neglectful parent? Was he logging me and my address into the "possible bad parent book?" Was it because I live in a "bad" neighborhood?
Or was he simply doing his job as a kind, helpful civil servant, checking on a child crouched on the sidewalk to make sure she was okay as he told me? I hope - I believe - that's the truth.
But, all night long, I couldn't shake the fear that I had done something wrong. Not a fear that my child was going to be hurt or abducted or badly parented, but that I was going to be punished for my belief that she wasn't. The Maryland story and the NYC subway story and all the like stories were running through my mind. When Eric got home, he even felt nervous, worried. Maybe she should only draw in the backyard from now on. Maybe someone did call and report us and the officer just couldn't or wouldn't tell you.
I was just doing my job being a parent. Alice was just doing her job being a good kid. And the police officer was just doing his job to watch out for our community.
I don't know if I'm a neurotic parent, a helicopter parent, or a free-range parent.
What do I know? I'm a thoughtful parent, a careful parent and a trusting parent. It's the best I can do.