Battle Hymn of the Latchkey Kid

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I had one of those “negligent” mothers who didn’t monitor my television habits very closely, so when I was a kid my favorite show was South Park. Oddly enough, I think I learned about the show at the church camp that my mother sent me to each summer. But I digress.

There’s an episode of South Park where the parents of the town are whipped into a mass hysteria over child abduction. Determined to protect their children from would-be pederasts, they commission the city’s lone Chinese resident to build a replica Great Wall around the town. Then, the parents sever ties with their neighbors after discovering that most abduction cases involve someone you know. When they find out that most abduction cases involve a biological parent, they send their children away to live in the woods to keep from abducting them. The episode aired July 24, 2002.

Twelve years later, the surreal fever dream of Matt Stone and Trey Parker has come to pass. In May, a homeless Arizona mother was arrested for leaving her two kids in the car during a 45-minute job interview; the charges were later dropped, provided “she complete parenting and substance abuse treatment programs and establishes education and child care trust fund accounts for her children.” In South Carolina, Debra Harrell was arrested for allowing her daughter to spend her days at a well-attended playground, instead of sitting inside a McDonald’s for eight hours – even though she provided her daughter with a cellphone for emergencies and established set check-in times. In another case, a widowed mother of four lost custody of her children (ages 10 to 5) after she left them alone at home for a few hours while she attended summer classes at the local community college; she regained custody two years later, but the children were subjected to sexual and physical abuse during their time in the foster care system. In all of these cases, concerned neighbors and other adults called the police. In none of these cases did the intervening adult or authorities attempt to contact the children’s parents before reacting.

All of this is, to put it frankly, bullshit. Despite the prevailing consensus among the helicopter parent set, children are not idiots. Two years of classroom experience has taught me that, with proper supervision and care, they can fend for themselves, solve their own disputes, and navigate traffic. These cases are less about ensuring the safety of the children involved, and more about the unfair imposition of middle-class norms on working families. I’m an only child, raised by a single mother who worked twelve hours a day. Naturally, I spent a lot of time by myself from a young age – responsible for feeding myself, clothing myself, and performing household chores (Cooking with knives! Using an iron!). I’ll have you know I started very few fires, and the experience improved my prospects in the marriage market considerably. Was the situation ideal? No. But single motherhood is not an ideal situation – every day, parents weigh risks to make the best decisions for their kids. We don’t need state interventions to make these decisions even more burdensome.

Instead of forcing working families to adhere to middle-class norms, perhaps it’s time we reevaluated the absurdity of the norms themselves. A generation ago, raising children was the work of a village; neighbors and extended family members looked after one another’s kids and supported each other in the effort. Today, social trust is lower than ever – we should be sad that a neighbor’s first instinct is to call the cops rather than talk to the parents themselves. We’re increasingly relying on governments to do what we used to do for each other. And governments – primed to punish, in most cases, rather than support – are a poor proxy for neighborly compassion and understanding. Do we really think any of the children described in the cases above would be better off in foster care?

We also need to confront the fact that the era of hyper-vigilance and hysteria over children’s safety is  wrecking the social fabric of our country. In a quest to keep our eyeballs glued to screens, the media feeds us a steady diet of horror stories about abused, abducted and murdered children. A number of people in the Harrell case cited the danger posed by strangers to defend the decision to take her daughter away, despite the fact that abduction by strangers is exceedingly rare. We have passed laws that treat child molesters and child pornography so harshly that we now prosecute amorous teenagers with sex crimes. Earlier this month, prosecutors in Virginia threatened to take a picture of a teenage boy’s erect penis (they planned to give him an erection with an needle) as evidence in a sexting case. The boy’s offense was sending a sexual picture to his girlfriend, also a teenager. Again – the state wanted to create child pornography to prosecute a child pornography case. This is madness.

The obvious libertarian angle here is the intrusion of unwieldy and draconian government actions into our private lives, and the usurpation of parents’ rights to raise their own children as they see fit. Certainly, we need to reconsider the broad discretion granted to caseworkers and judges and other officials to determine when a child has been endangered, and there are many commonsense reforms available. But libertarians concerned with citizens’ well being, as well as their rights, must face the fact that our unacceptably shoddy social safety net is one of the biggest obstacles facing working families today. Welfare reform that requires recipients to hold a job doesn’t work when unemployment spikes; today, over 74 percent of poor families with children fail to receive welfare benefits, up from 28 percent in 1996. Single mothers working minimum wage jobs often have to work more than one job to provide for their kids. And the cost of childcare has skyrocketed – the average weekly childcare expense for families with working mothers is up 70 percent since 1985. Jonathan Chait, writing for New York Magazine, put it best:

America has decided to punish Harrell if she fails to acquire full-time employment; her employment does not provide her with adequate child care; and the community punishes her for failing to live up to unobtainable middle-class child-care standards. There are many perpetrators in this story. Debra Harrell was not one of them.

The share of single-parent households in America has more than tripled since 1960. It’s high time our institutions – government and otherwise – adapt to this new reality. We need policies of support and compassion, not judgment and retribution.