A little while ago, I did a post on the free-range versus helicopter parent issue, and my realization, four years into this parenting thing, that I tend a bit toward the latter side. One of the big issues for me was processing why I feel this way, while also emphasizing that I don’t necessarily have a problem with free-rangers: I think it’s really just that people like me have a hard time knowing what’s safe and what’s not, or what the relative risks are. I still hover over my preschooler and toddler, and I know they are too little to play outside without some modicum of adult supervision. But in two years, when they’re 6 and 4? How about when they’re 8 and 6?
Those were the ages of the kids in question in this story, in which the older child went home and left her younger brother to keep playing. Nothing bad happened, except that a neighbor became concerned and somehow managed to bring the 6-year-old boy home to his mother, the author of the post. He had been playing on a park bench about 150 yards from the mother’s house, visible through her kitchen window.
I’m revisiting this topic again because I find it so interesting. I have to be honest, I can see myself as the “nosy neighbor,” bringing what I view as an unsupervised babe in the woods back to the arms of his mama. Although, some context is needed here. It sounds like this neighbor was really more of a stranger, so I don’t know what led the boy to point out his house to her, and then allow her to accompany him back home. That strikes me as odd too. But I mention all of this to highlight the point that each of us as parents hold such differing views of what is acceptable and what is unacceptable when it comes to kids and unsupervised play. Maybe, if I had been that neighbor, I would have listened to the boy’s explanation that his mother was right over there, in that house, and I might have just said “ok” and left him alone. Maybe not. I don’t know.
I have begun to notice the same van parked in my younger daughter’s daycare parking lot every morning when I pull in to drop her off. There are always one or two children, looking like older school-age or perhaps preteens, sitting in the front seats of the car, laughing and playing. I assume their parent is inside the daycare dropping off a younger child. I also assume that the parent will be right out, in a moment, and will drive away with her kids safely in tow, and all will be well. I assume these things, but I don’t know them. I have to fight back rising feelings of my own visceral fear and impulse to protect young children every time I see this.
I know these two situations are not the same, but I raise them both to illustrate a point: that mom at the daycare feels perfectly comfortable that her children are waiting safely in the car, unsupervised; I feel completely uncomfortable and worry that I should do something in the same situation. I feel that way because I would never do this with my own kids. I have never really thought through the reasons why I feel this way; I just assume it’s something I should not do.
So neighbor lady may be someone just like me. She saw a child who could possibly be in harm’s way, but she may have realized that he was probably perfectly safe. But still, what if the proverbial bad guy happens to show up at just the wrong moment? What if it’s up to her to prevent that bad guy incident? This is what would play in my mind if I came across this mother’s 6-year-old playing in the park across the way. I wonder if the neighbor was standing there, confronting his mother, feeling absolutely nervous and uncomfortable about it, but also feeling like it’s worth it if it means a child is kept safe? I think that’s how I would feel.
Lest I be misunderstood, I do think it’s bizarre that the above situation turned into a CPS investigation, and I have to wonder exactly how the conversation between the mother and the neighbor went. Not that I’m assigning blame to any party, but I get the sense that there must have been something about that exchange that took things in that direction, right wrong or indifferent.
We could all probably use some perspective and awareness on both the free-range and helicopter parenting styles, and a reminder that the vast majority of us put our kids’ safety among our highest priorities. It’s unfortunate when opposing viewpoints lead to uncomfortable and troubling consequences, and I have to wonder if there isn’t some way to prevent these misunderstandings among the parent community by making a better effort to share with others both our mutual experiences and differing opinions.