How the cops make the scourge of helicopter parenting even worse
by Ryan Cooper, The Week
April 16, 2015
In fourth grade, when I was 9 years old, I ran away from school. The previous day, I had been sent home with a note to my parents about how I had done something wrong, but instead of facing up to it, I tore up the note. Now a committed outlaw, I figured my only remaining option was a life on the lam, and so did the grade school equivalent of skipping bail. Having nowhere else to go, I made for my house, where I vaguely thought I could grab some supplies before my parents got back from work.
The school was about nine miles from my house by the state highway, and at the bottom of a sizable river canyon. Avoiding the highway bridge across the river—a route that was both dangerous and a dead giveaway—I scrambled up the side of the (quite steep) canyon, and made my way home through the forest alongside the highway.
But about two-thirds of the way there, I ran out of forest, and instead of cutting across the pastures towards my house, I walked for a short stretch by the side of the highway, in plain view. That’s when the cop driving past spotted me.
I was reminded of that episode when I read the now infamous story of the “free range” children from Maryland, aged 8 and 10, kidnapped by the police because they were out playing by themselves three blocks from their house in broad daylight. It’s a grim story—and indicative of a decay of trust in our society.
Here’s what happened to them. A man out walking his dog apparently called 911, fearing for the children’s safety. As a consequence, the children were forcibly detained for six hours. Their parents endured hours of panic when their kids did not return home on time — and they’re now under investigation for child neglect. (People have mottos for this kind of thing.)
This speaks to the galloping paranoia about strangers that has saturated the American parenting scene over the last generation. I’m still pretty young, and the way kids are raised around my D.C. neighborhood today, with an adult close at hand at all times, is completely alien to my experience.
Many have argued that this is the result of risk perception bias created by a scaremongering media constantly repeating stories of “stranger danger.” However it was created, as Freddie deBoer argues in a beautiful piece, such an attitude is wrong both coming and going. Children are immensely safer than they were 20 years ago, when I legged it from elementary school. On top of that, no amount of helicopter parenting can protect children from every kind of risk. Even the most graspingly neurotic parents cannot defend their children against the shattering tragedies that are part of being alive, because nobody can.
Risk perception bias is certainly a real phenomenon, but it seems like a general breakdown of trust among all parties is also at work here. Parents don’t trust their children to walk around the block without shattering their skulls. Regular people seem to think that 99 percent of humans are secretly cannibal murderers. And the police assume that all parents who don’t operate a Total Child Awareness program are child abusers.
Why? As my colleague Michael Brendan Dougherty observes, social mobility and the attendant residential churn are corroding neighborly trust. Other research shows this lack of trust to be strongly correlated with high income inequality.
It’s all the weirder because the actual bedrock of trust would seem to be fairly strong. Crime is back to the levels of the halcyon 1950s, and still falling. Plenty of regular, law-abiding people walk the streets of suburban Maryland. But it never seems to have occurred to the dog walker that if he’s concerned for those kids’ well-being, he could simply keep an eye on them himself while he’s in the vicinity, and assume that others will too, when he’s not.
But the worst actors in this story are the police, which brings me back to my outlaw days. Luckily for me, the cop who spotted me back in 1995 used some dang common sense. After I told him some preposterous lie about what I was doing, he gently coaxed me into accepting a ride. Figuring the jig was up, I told him where my mom worked. He drove me there, spoke to her for a few minutes, and deduced the obvious truth—that I was just being a dumb kid. And that was it (save for me getting in a lot of extremely justified trouble).
Now, I’m sure that still happens today, and being a middle-class white kid in a rural community probably didn’t hurt. But it is baffling that this can’t be the first step in each and every police action involving kids out by themselves. If the social contract is so frayed that any ignorant passerby thinks involving the violent arm of the state is really the best option to keep children safe, at least the cops can talk to the parents before they go about locking their kids up for six hours. It would save them a lot of hassle—and lawsuits to boot.
Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at TheWeek.com. His work has appeared in the Washington Monthly, The New Republic, and the Washington Post.