(Don’t) Leave Them Kids Alone

We’ve created a society of smothered children and self-appointed nannies

For leaving her four year old waiting in a locked car on a cool day for five minutes, writer Kim Brooks was required to perform 100 hours of community service, bargained down from possible jail time. Her crime: “contributing to the delinquency of a minor.”

Her four-year-old, for the record, spent his “delinquent” time playing a game quietly in the backseat of the car in a mellow suburban neighborhood before smiling happily at his mother upon her rapid return. Quite delinquent, indeed.

The woman in another car, a stranger to both Brooks and her son, was not charged for recording video of both Brooks and her son and their car license plate on her cell phone. No one asserted that the woman filming a 4 year old boy with her cell phone was some kind of lecherous pervert spying on kids. No — the woman policing this mother was accounted a citizen hero: one of the many nannies keeping a watchful eye for the Nanny State.

Brooks was so outraged over her experience that she sought out other moms who’d been forced to do time for simple things like leaving their children in locked cars while running quick errands. The fact that she isn’t alone isn’t news. Lenore Skenazy started an entire non-profit group dedicated to pushing for the kind of free range parenting legislation now on the books in Utah. Parents who choose to let their children walk home alone from school or play in parks unattended now need laws to protect the kinds of choices their mothers and grandmothers made without a blink of an eye. The real question is: When did this all start, this nannying among “concerned citizens” who feel their phone is a device best suited to snap photos and record video of minors in the name of justice?

Brooks asserts that the charges are based on the idea of good versus bad mothering, an outcropping of The Mommy Wars. She cites statistics that reveal adults would be less likely to blame a father for leaving his child unattended if he had to do it for work-related reasons. Brooks attributes this to a sexist belief that women, if they choose to be mothers, must devote themselves wholeheartedly to the task so much so that their children are never left alone. I’m going to go out on a limb and say her observations and the data she bases them on are the results, not the cause of the problem. Yes, mothers — especially stay at home mothers — are expected to essentially sacrifice themselves for their children (this includes the desire to pick up a prescription in 2 minutes or less). Yes, we as a society expect children, especially those under school age, to never ever be left alone. But, why?

It didn’t take me very long as a stay at home mother to realize that children are now best not seen and not heard. Most weekdays our local parks look more like old West ghost towns than thriving centers of exploration and play. Why? Because two working parents have little choice but to plop their babes into video-monitored daycare centers under lock-and-key. Grocery stores and waiting rooms, two places that used to be filled with playing children, are now outlets for beleaguered parents to escape to while the kiddies are at supervised activities. Children as young as 18 months can now join soccer leagues. Babysitting is a cottage industry requiring certification and demanding a Bernie Sanders-form of minimum wage. Children are never, ever left alone anymore primarily because we’ve created an infrastructure that never leaves them alone.

This infrastructure is the result of a two-working parent economy. An economy created by the demand that women have greater economic value outside of the home. Push women out of the house and you need someone to take care of the kiddies. Paying someone to devote 8 to 12 hours of their day watching your child means they need to be watching them, not letting them toddle freely on the playground, let alone roam around unattended. Watching children has become a service. And Americans dislike paying for poor service. So, watched children must be “educated” from an early age. We now dub maturation points “milestones” and rely on developmental specialists and toys to do for infants and toddlers what infants and toddlers have done naturally for centuries without paid assistance. But, if we’re going to pay to have our children watched, we want to see results: Happy, healthy, “enriched” children.

Mommy Wars forced stay at home mothers to account for their time with their children, so they started taking them to enrichment classes. Banging drums and Baby Einstein justified their choice to stay at home with their kiddies. It also ensured that their children wouldn’t fall behind the kids who were getting enriched in “school” from the tender age of 6 weeks onward. As child-rearing became a career in its own right, enrichment programs, toys and games became a billion dollar industry funded by stay at home and working moms alike.

Extracurricular activities for school-aged children are the natural next step in the line of watching and “enriching” toddlers and preschoolers. By the time children are in kindergarten, most parents have been acculturated to believe that children need that watchful eye. Not only does that watchful eye provide the security that mom and dad cannot, it simultaneously educates children into becoming productive members of society. Therefore, any extracurricular activity must meet this two-pronged requirement of security and enrichment set forth in the earliest and most formative years of a child’s life.

The same psychology of security and enrichment pushes parents into buying cell phones for pre-pubescent children. The security is in being able to reach them at any time and track their every move both in real life and on their phones. The enrichment is found in everything from educational apps to 24/7 access to their teacher and class materials. The social media aspect is merely an inevitable (if dangerous) side-effect, a virtual version of what psychologist Gabor Mate calls the “primary orienting” peer relationships these children form from daycare onward in which peers who are there replace parents who aren’t.

Culture decided that motherhood wasn’t economically valuable. So, moms went to work. As a result, the care, supervision and early education of children has become a billion-dollar industry. It has also fostered a culture that Hillary Clinton once described as “the Village”. When you combine the need for paid security with the Village mentality, you create an army of citizen nannies with cell phones on the ready to video incidents of bad mothering and report them accordingly. In other words, we’ve marketed ourselves into this overprotective mentality. And it’s literally — and legally — biting us back.

Now that we’re forced to monetize what mothers did naturally for ages, the idea of encouraging mothers to stay home with young children, and to allow those children to explore neighborhood parks and play freely with little supervision, sounds deeply absurd. Why? Because it is a poor investment: Children aren’t being supervised, they aren’t being enriched; how could they possibly become productive citizens? After all, that’s why we’re spending millions on daycare, Baby Einstein, after school soccer leagues and babysitters, right? To make the world a better place, right?

Then why does it seem so much worse?