There’s an article about a couple of recent cases charging people (read: mothers) with neglect if they (gasp!) dare to go to sleep around their children.
A couple of weeks ago in Delaware, a woman put her 3-year-old down for a nap and then took a nap herself. The 3-year-old got up and somehow escaped the house. After the girl was found, police charged her mother with child endangerment.
In New York, a woman’s 3-year-old son got up in the middle of the night and wandered around. The woman woke up at some point and called the police. A man who had spotted the child had already called police. After the child was found, the police arrested her. Her parenting will now be monitored indefinitely.
I find this interesting because it is in many ways the natural outgrowth of a culture that allows less and less time to parents for actual parenting – parents are needed in the formal economy as much as possible, and in the US we provide little economic or cultural support to enable them to be with their kids – but higher and higher expectations of parents. This strikes me as the perfect metaphor for how our culture demands we parent – we cannot sleep, but we can’t be slowed by sleep deprivation either. It is literally a vicious circle.
Because I have an autistic child who wanders, I’m particularly sensitive to this issue. The reality is that even though we try, it is impossible to watch any child every single second of the day. We have fences, gates, latches – every child in my household knows that if Eli goes missing we drop everything and go find him. Friends and family also participate in keeping an eye on him – and he still slips off sometimes, because, after all, we have other things we must do too, and he doesn’t have anything to do but think about ways to go get to the creek or to scavenge cookies. We have always managed to keep him safe, but we’ve had some scary near-misses, particularly when we discovered for the first time that my son could do something we hadn’t expected – the first time he pushed out a screen and went through a window, the first time he climbed the 8 foot board fence we use to keep him safe to get the to creek.
This trend is troubling for several reasons. The first is that if parents have to fear prosecution, they may delay calling in police and other help when a child goes missing – and no one wants to see what could have been a trivial disappearance turn into something more serious by waiting too long. The second is that at the same time we demand higher and higher standards of perfection from parents, we make other parts of this riskier. Around the time Eli was born, an exhausted father in the state I was living in at the time put his infant son’s carseat on the roof of his car while he opened the door, forgot it was there, and drove off on the highway. The child survived, fortunately, but deep in my son’s colic, it was precisely the kind of accident I could imagine myself causing. I have memories from Eli’s infancy of getting into a shower and getting out again, with no memory of whether I had washed my hair, no sense of how long I’d been in the shower. I remember arriving by car at visiting family with no recollection of the trip – and yet I hadn’t been asleep.
Moreover, asking parents to do the impossible – not to sleep, to watch perfectly, to never make any mistakes in the care of their children sets them up for failure and seriously damages families. It makes childrearing into a marathon of stress and misery for parents who simply can’t meet those standards.
Having Eli has required Eric and I to have conversations I hoped I’d never have – about what happens if we can’t protect him. Eleven years of watching, constantly checking, constantly obsessing about where Eli is and whether he is safe has made us recognize that we simply aren’t perfect and are going to fail sometimes. We have done everything we possibly can to keep him safe, and it has worked – but we could lose the lottery one day – we could fail to protect him, because we’re human and imperfect. We also have had to balance his needs for safety with his right to a childhood in ways that most parents get to abandon once their children leave toddlerhood. We could have one of us stay with him always – but he has a need for space and independence. We could prevent him from ever going more than a few steps away from Mom and Dad – or we could accept a marginally higher risk, and let him back out in the yard with the 8 foot fence he *can* climb, trusting that our lessons about not climbing and our frequent observations will protect him.
Ultimately we make these same judgements with our own children. Last month, all three of my younger sons earned pocket knives. Each of them desperately wanted one, and we hesitated before giving 5 year old Asher a knife (to be fair, he is only permitted to use his under adult supervision – 7 year old Isaiah and 9 year old Simon can use theirs unsupervised as long as we never see any evidence of misuse). But Asher is responsible, and he does do an astonishing number of responsible things for a kid his age. We both felt instinctively that he was ready, and the children’s pride in being trusted was worth a lot. So far, Asher is the only one who hasn’t managed to cut himself .
Safer or stronger? How do you choose? It isn’t a great set of choices. I can’t say it is made better by the knowledge I could be arrested and lose custody of my other children for the judgements I’ve made, either.
Sometimes a wandering child is a sign of a serious problem – kids left alone for days by parents off doing something else, parents so drunk or drugged that they aren’t aware of their kids. I can understand why this raises red flags, and worries. At the same time, it is one of those fairly universal experiences – and bringing down CPS is a frightening thing both in perception and reality.
In older, less energy intensive societies, people love their children just as deeply. They cannot, however, helicopter parent them in the same ways when there is constant domestic work to be done and no money for a supply of professional caregivers. As free-range parenting advocates have pointed out, there are gains as well as potential losses in this model, where children have more freedom – and, let’s be blunt, more risk – but have also the chance to develop independence and autonomy.
I don’t claim these are easy choices – they are hard for me and my family, they are hard for most parents. What I don’t grasp his how blaming any parent for daring to sleep makes children any safer. Instead, it sets up parents to do the impossible – and refuses to acknowledge that it is impossible.