Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Worst Mum in Australia?

Ok, so I did something old-school and got caught. Maybe this incident could rival that of ‘Worst Mom in America’ who let her nine-year-old take the NYC subway by himself and dealt with the unstoppable consequences, but I’ll tell you anyway: I left my kids in the car while I went into the grocery store. So now you know.

First, let me set the scene: it was the first day back to school after the school holidays, we had just got back from being away late the day before and my three kids were all tired and didn’t want to come in to the shop – not that I let them make all the decisions, but under the circumstances, I was happy to agree to let them sit in the car and wait. I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong – certainly not taking any chances.

It was what I considered to be a safe situation: it’s a small neighbourhood shopping area, close to the school, where I often see other mums doing the very same. It’s like a little slice of 1965 there: a cafĂ©, a bakery, a newsagent, and a small supermarket (like they all used to be in 1965). The kids were safely buckled in the car, and I had to get – literally – a few things. It wasn’t a hot day, it wasn’t a cold day. I said hello to the librarian from my daughter’s school, who was out in front of the shop talking to a friend, right in front of my car. I had parked outside the door of the supermarket – really, a large convenience store – so that my car was in view from inside the shop.

The complicating factor in all of this was that Liam, the youngest, had started crying right before I went into the shop: a combination of the time of day, overtiredness from the holiday and anger that his brother had a Scooby-Doo comic that he really, really, really wanted. Once I left, he worked himself into a frenzy of anger that to an outside observer could easily look like fear or distress.

I raced around the shop (no doubt resembling a contestant on The Price is Right), got what I needed and was in line to pay when I heard over the loudspeaker ‘Would the owner of a…’ I didn’t even hear the rest of the description; I knew it was me they wanted. I dropped my handbasket of groceries and went outside to see if anything was wrong. As I exited, I passed by a security guard who mustered up the meanest of looks to throw at me and spat something to the effect of ‘Your kids are crying…’ I thanked him sheepishly and returned to my car. As I saw the judgement on his face, I thought, ‘I bet you don’t have children…’ I unbuckled the kids, calmed down Liam and we all went back inside so I could pay.

Fast forward three hours later: the kids have just fallen asleep, all tucked in for the night and the doorbell rings. It’s the police. Never a good sign when a pair of police officers show up at your door.

Good Cop: We’re here about an incident that occurred this afternoon at Foodworks.
Bad Cop: [Glaring]
Me: Oh. My. God…

Did you leave your children in the car? What are their ages? A witness says they were there for 40 minutes. (They weren’t: four minutes – tops, but why even argue? It’s guilty until proven innocent, as any accused will tell you.) This is when I felt my anger flare. I did tell him calmly, though tearfully, that that was an exaggeration, but he didn’t care. It’s the fact that at the ages they are, they shouldn’t be left alone at all, regardless of the amount of time. (I had to pretend to take his point.) Mean Cop still just glared, trying to size up my sincerity. Was I liar? Was I negligent? Or had I just made a circumstantial poor choice?

Children still get kidnapped, even in places like this (a big country town) he warned. Yes, I know. Thank you sir, for your concern, I know you’re just following up, doing a job, and that is a good thing.

He left with all our details in his little standard-issue notebook and I was left reeling. And soon, asking myself a thousand questions.

Was the security guard who called the police really a concerned citizen? If his motives were pure, then that is a good thing. The world needs more people to take action and not be deer-caught-in-headlights bystanders. Or was he just a frustrated rent-a-cop trying to play Big Brother and wield a little bit of power over someone he misconstrued to be doing the wrong thing? The fact that he lied about the amount of time I spent in the shop makes his intentions a bit dubious.

Then I started to wonder: is there a ‘right’ age to leave kids alone? Is there a legal age that kids can be left unattended? Is there a ‘safe’ distance? Just recently I saw a child from my daughter’s class playing with a friend in another shopping centre. Her mum was inside a nearby coffee shop with friends. She was about 30 meters away and out of sight from her mother. Was that unsafe? Is it still ok to let the older children look after the younger ones (like people in large families used to do routinely) and if so, at what ages? Until recently, weren’t these decisions left up to the parent, who was guided by common sense?

What about the children I routinely see walking home from school alone: is that even considered safe anymore? Judging from the picking up and dropping off at schools, not to most parents. When I attended primary school everyone walked, twice a day: we even walked home for lunch. If there was a car outside at the end of the day, our first thought was, ‘I wonder who’s going to the dentist/doctor, etc today…’ Now, at that same primary school, the cars circle the block at 2:30. I can also remember being left in a running car outside the bank while my uncle went inside (and no, not to rob it).

Yes, children are kidnapped. But so are kids in high school, at university and beyond. In fact, in one lot of statistics I Googled, the peak age for abduction victims was during the teen years.

I certainly didn’t think for a second that I was leaving my children in a ‘risky’ situation. As the mother who let her nine-year-old child ride the subway alone will also tell you, lot of parenting is about risk calculation. For example: I’m always vigilant when I have to go inside to pay at petrol stations, due to the numbers of cars coming and going, which could provide an opportunity. We use our parental intuition to decide what is okay.

It seems that with the advent of ‘helicopter parenting’ came not only the micro-managing of childhood, but also that safety should be the top priority: it’s now playdates, indoor playgrounds and rubber on every outside playground surface. Monkey bars? Ha. And think hard: when is the last time you saw a child with a good old fashioned graze down their shin? Try finding a coffee table in anyone’s house with children under the age of five. Look at the ‘safety’ section at every baby shop: it starts almost from birth with the toilet latches and cupboard locks – which makes me wonder when did child-proof caps become not enough? Riding a bike down hill with the breeze flapping in your hair is a childhood pleasure that has become extinct. Yes, helmets are a good thing. But I still can’t recall one person from my own childhood who suffered any head or face trauma from a bike ride.

Our generational scourge as parents is the struggle to find an elusive balance - and that's once we have decided upon a parenting 'philosophy'. By hovering, wrapping our kids in cotton wool, fighting their battles, we make them think they are the centre of the universe – which we all know results in precious, dependent, entitled, obnoxious children. But allowing them too much freedom is risky in today’s world, or so the media tells us. Most parents want to raise children that are adventurous, self-sufficient, resilient, free-to-be kids: we all know how short childhood is, and the period of innocence shorter still. Only that seems to be getting harder to do.

Do I regret that I left my kids in the car or do I regret that I got caught? I still don’t think I did anything wrong or dangerous. And I don’t think the world is that much more dangerous a place than it was in the 70s and 80s when my generation was growing up - it’s mostly our perception of those dangers that has changed. Maybe that’s a good thing, we have more awareness, knowledge is power and maybe that has prevented a lot of bad things from happening. We’ll never know. Perhaps this incident has heightened my awareness. And I did feel a bit sad about it, a twinge of remorse perhaps: but not because of what I did. My remorse was for the way parenting – and not the world – has changed.

For another view on this topic, this is by freelance writer LJ Williamson and originally appeared in the LA Times:

Life Support: Let the children go on foot and on bike

…Although statistics show that rates of child abduction and sexual abuse have marched steadily downward since the early 1990s, fear of these crimes is at an all-time high. Even the panic-inducing Megan's Law Web site says stranger abduction is rare and that 90 percent of child sexual-abuse cases are committed by someone known to the child. Yet we still suffer a crucial disconnect between perception of crime and its statistical reality. A child is almost as likely to be struck by lightning as kidnapped by a stranger, but it's not fear of lightning strikes that parents cite as the reason for keeping children indoors watching television instead of out on the sidewalk skipping rope.
And when a child is parked on the living room floor, he or she may be safe, but is safety the sole objective of parenting? The ultimate goal is independence, and independence is best fostered by handing it out a little at a time, not by withholding it in a trembling fist that remains clenched until it's time to move into the dorms.
Meanwhile, as rates of child abduction and abuse move down, rates of Type II diabetes, hypertension and other obesity-related ailments in children move up. That means not all the candy is coming from strangers. Which scenario should provoke more panic: the possibility that your child might become one of the approximately 100 children who are kidnapped by strangers each year, or one of the country's 58 million overweight adults?
To read the entire article: