Debra Harrell was arrested recently after the McDonald’s employee let her daughter spend the day playing in a nearby park while she worked her shift. The South Carolina woman says her daughter had a cell phone in case of danger, and critics say that children once were given the independence to spend a few unsupervised hours in a park.
Is it a crime to parent “free-range” kids? Does Harrell deserve her problems? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, the Red-Blue America columnists, debate the issue.
The pundits beating their chests and filling talk radio airwaves are missing the point. We’re not criminalizing parenting. We’re criminalizing poverty. And that’s a very old story indeed.
Debra Harrell didn’t set her child free in a park out of any sense of trying to create an independent young woman. She did so because she had to work and couldn’t afford child care. She didn’t make the wrong choice; she just couldn’t afford to make any better a choice.
The result? She got thrown in jail and embarrassed publicly, all because she was trying to find the sweet spot between the conflicting demands of raising a child. It’s a conundrum that millions of the working poor understand intimately.
Notwithstanding the blather of Mitt Romney types who believe that “47 percent” of Americans are takers, lazily relying on governmental largess instead of making their own way in the world, many of those folks are working as hard as they can – and still need help to clothe, feed, and care for their families. A McDonald’s salary is, famously, not up to the task. And yet, it is adults – not the stereotypical teens working their first jobs – who increasingly fill those positions.
Harrell and those like her need more help than they’re getting.
We need child care that doesn’t cost more than a poor parent earns. We need rules to govern when a parent is on call for work, so that they can make the proper care arrangements. If we’re going to require work – and the logic of our welfare laws since the 1990s says we do – then it is unnecessarily cruel to turn our backs on parents who only have so many hours to give.
We are, despite everything that’s happened the last few years, still one of the richest countries in the world. We can afford to help poor parents help themselves. “Free-range” parenting should be a choice, not an obligation foisted on those who aren’t free to make any other decision.
Oh, but we are criminalizing parenting. And by “we,” I mean overly concerned passersby who believe that dangerous predators lurk behind every park bench and overzealous police who see any unaccompanied child as a would-be victim of abuse and neglect.
Think about Debra Harrell’s case. She made the best of a less-than-ideal situation, permitting her daughter to play in the park instead of keeping her cooped up at McDonald’s all day. Somebody thought the child might have been abandoned or in danger, but that clearly wasn’t true, as a simple phone call would have established.
Somebody assumed something would go horribly wrong. The only thing that went wrong was the bystander’s overreaction and the local police response, which led to Harrell’s arrest and firing. Lenore Skenazy, the godmother of the “free-range kids” movement, rightly calls this “worst-first thinking.”
It’s a matter of maintaining proper perspective. Reliable statistics are hard to come by – the last comprehensive study was published 12 years ago – but if the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children can be believed, the vast majority of children are taken not by strangers but by other family members. The number of “stereotypical kidnappings” – abductions by strangers, with children taken miles away and either “killed, ransomed or held with the intent to keep the child permanently” – is vanishingly small in a nation of 300 million.
Maintaining perspective also requires knowing the difference between leaving a child in a car for a few minutes on a cool day and deliberately leaving a child to die in the sweltering heat.
We’re rightly horrified at the Georgia man who murdered his 22-month-old child by leaving him in the back of a hot SUV while he was at work. But we should be horrified for a different reason when Philadelphia police earlier this month arrested a woman who allegedly left five kids in an SUV with the air conditioner on for 20 minutes.
All five kids were rushed to the hospital. Why? Because we’ve lost our minds, that’s why.
One of the most pernicious beliefs to take hold in American culture may be, “You can’t be too careful.” Clearly, yes, we can.
Ben Boychuk ([email protected]) is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Joel Mathis ([email protected]) is associate editor for Philadelphia Magazine. Visit them on Facebook: www.facebook.com/benandjoel.