• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

Growing up independent is illegal? Mom arrested in US for letting nine-year-old daughter play alone

Unable to find daycare, McDonald’s employee Debra Harrell would bring her daughter to work, and have her play on a laptop. After it was stolen, her daughter asked to play in the park instead, so she sent her off with a cellphone. For two days, the girl frolicked with about 40 other kids. On the third day, an adult asked where her mother was. “At work,” the girl said. The adult called police, who declared the girl “abandoned” and arrested the mother, according to Georgia news station WJBF.

Critics said the seeming criminalization of her actions made parents question their own attempts to teach their children independence, lest they be judged similarly.

“Since I’m a parent, Harrell’s arrest scares me,” wrote Jessica Grose at Slate.com. “How can I appropriately parent my child when doing something that seems relatively safe, if out of fashion, can get you arrested?”

Frank Furedi, a sociologist at the University of Kent who has closely studied risk perception around parenting, said he recalls sitting in Central Park in New York City reading a newspaper while his son played at a distance but within sight. At least three adults came over to him to say ‘Sir, do you know your child is playing on his own?’”

“The default position is to react every time a child is alone and assume the worst and not really use judgment,” he said. “It’s that we spare ourselves the burden of thinking. It’s a performance of responsibility.”

The real role of adults, Prof. Furedi argues, is to help grow children into independent adults.

An academic friend in London and her husband tried an experiment recently, he said: They sent their children, 7 and 8, to the shop alone together to buy bread, while watching at a distance. Within the first five minutes, Prof. Furedi said, they were stopped by four or five concerned people.

“It was almost a hurdle, an obstacle course for the kids to get to the bakery… and make a transaction independently.”

Perhaps the most famous case of hysteria around sending kids out on their own is Lenore Skenazy’s. The former New York City news reporter wrote about letting her 9-year-old ride the subway alone and quickly became “The World’s Worst Mom.”

She has made a career of it. In her blog writeup of the South Carolina arrest, she skewered a statement made by a woman interviewed by the local news affiliate — that the child could have been snatched.

“Just because something happened on Law & Order doesn’t mean it’s happening all the time in real life,” she wrote. “Make ‘what if?’ thinking the basis for an arrest and the cops can collar anyone.”

Lewis Smith, communications and media program coordinator at the Canada Safety Council, called the South Carolina response excessive.

“It’s hard to say whether the child would have been in any immediate danger,” he said.

“Officials and police officers and onlookers want the best for the kids but sometimes they don’t go about it the best way.’’

When it comes to leaving children in a hot car, Mr. Smith said, there’s “a lot of backlash,” with parents arguing that they should not be villainized or deemed unfit for ducking into a store while keeping their eyes trained on the car — a case far different from forgetting a child in the backseat, as many cases of hot car deaths entail, or leaving the car in a massive parking lot. “But emergency situations in hot cars happen all the time and very quickly.”

On Monday, shoppers in Texas smashed through the windows of an SUV to rescue two children left in the car while their mother got a haircut inside the strip mall. A video of a North Carolina father taking on a “Hot Car Challenge” to raise awareness of the risks of leaving children in the car in the summer for even 10 minutes has gone viral this week. “I want to know how it feels to be left in the car, sitting in the back seat, strapped into a car seat with the windows up and doors probably locked,” Terry Bartley says in the clip.

Here in Canada, a Toronto man was arrested this week for leaving his child unattended in a hot car in a crowded parking lot. Officers forced down the window and rescued the one-year-old girl, who was found to be hot to the touch, her skin red and her hair drenched with sweat.

Still, the “grey area,” as Mr. Smith calls it, remains murky for all parties — law enforcement, child protection, the parents and the public.

“Under certain circumstances, I think it’s reasonable to leave your kids semi-supervised for a very short time in a vehicle. (Why do I feel like I’m going to have my kids hauled away?!),” wrote a Hamilton mother of two in a Today’s Parent magazine piece titled ‘Is It ever OK to leave your child alone in the car?’ this spring.

“I think the number of parents who agree with me — and sometimes do it, too — is higher than anyone admits.”

National Post, with files from The Canadian Press

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