Who gets to decide?

A few days ago a South Carolina mother was arrested and jailed for letting her 9 year old play at the park while she was at work.
This is probably not a decision I would make, nor most of the mothers I know. Those of us who live in large urban areas tend to keep close eyes on our children, perceiving that they are not safe anywhere out of our sight. But as many articles and other bloggers have pointed out, children are not truly safe anywhere- certainly not in moving vehicles or around their mother’s adult boyfriends.
In another case a mother who left a four year old in a car for a few moments in a locked car (it was not a hot day), while she ran into the store, was similarly punished for her misdeed.
The question for me is who gets to decide? What does being a “bad parent” look like and who gets to determine that?
What about those kids in the neighbourhood who don’t wear bike helmets? I am particularly fond of bike helmets because in “pre-helmet days” a boy I knew died of when he was hit by a car. I have been known to stop other people’s children on the street and tell them to put on a bike helmet. As a member of the community, as a mother, with the badge of adult children who survived my parenting, if I see something I think is wrong, I have the right, perhaps even the obligation to say so- to the child or to the parent. What anyone chooses to do with my excellent, but unsolicited advice is their business and how they choose to parent their kids is not my decision.
Who am I to know what is really going on? Perhaps the child forgot their bike helmet or left the house without their parent knowing. A reminder might be all they need. Sending the police after them doesn’t seem the helpful thing, so unless the child is in imminent danger, I would not involve the authorities.
Parenting is an individual matter. Everyone does it differently, with their own set of beliefs and philosophies as to the judicious use of spanking, letting kids stay up late, strict rules or no rules. Hockey, karate, ballet or nothing.
And we all have our bad days. The ones where we yell at our kids or have a lapse in judgement. If authorities swoop in and take away children every time a parent makes a mistake, the state will be raising all the kids. What a good idea.
We know how that can turn out. The worst cases of child abuse are often committed by people assigned by the state to care for children. In Canada only a generation ago we had residential schools, many of them a child’s worst nightmare. Ireland is uncovering evidence of terrible tragedies in orphanages. Children dying while in institutional care- all too common. The government is not a good parent and has no right to define what a good parent is. The state should cease its meddling and only step in when it is clearly capable of doing better than a child’s present situation.
Parents who lock their children in basements, beat them or give them illegal drugs should be thrown in jail. Children that are clearly in danger or are routinely neglected need to be protected, but if we start calling everything abuse and neglect the jails will be full and children will have no-one.
Thankfully, I have never had to face what this mother had to decide.
Her decision was not the best one, but maybe she felt it was the only one. Perhaps she had no family in the community and could not afford other supports such as day camp. She was trying to earn a living. At MacDonald’s.
I think compassion and common sense is called for. That village everyone is always talking about needs to come alongside. We can guide, teach and support. The community needs to step in so the state can butt out.

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