“What the heck are we doing arresting parents for things that were perfectly normal 30 years ago?” Bloomberg’s Megan McArdle raged in a recent column. The focus of her ire was a series of reports of parents being punished for choices about their kids that the authorities felt were inappropriate. The reason for McArdle’s reaction is that in all these instances nothing happened to the child in question.
A woman in South Carolina allowed her nine-year-old daughter to play in a local playground while she worked. She was booked for “unlawful conduct toward a child” and has lost custody of her kid. A Connecticut woman was cited for a misdemeanor because she chose to run an errand while her 11-year-old sat waiting in the car. The Atlantic’s Colin Friedersdorf got a letter from a woman who spent four years battling local police and child protective services in an effort to reunite her family. She lost custody of her kids for the “crime” of choosing to leave her four children, ages 10- five, at home while she took a class at a local university. And earlier this year, Kim Brooks, wrote in Salon about facing serious charges and years of legal entanglement including settling for hours of community service for having let her 4-year-old sit unharmed in a car for a few minutes.
None of this is accidental or coincidence, it is systemic and has been going on for at least three decades. It is all part of an effort to replace parental authority and discretion with the regulations and standards of the state. “The African proverb ‘It takes a whole village to raise a child’ seems to serve now as a rallying call for the establishment of a communal authority to set new standards and methods of child-rearing,” writes Dana Mack in her 1997 book The Assault on Parenthood: How Our Culture Undermines the Family.
Those replacement child-rearing standards have been applied in the area of family law to punish parents like Tammy Cooper in La Port Texas, who was charged with child endangerment and child abandonment even though the arresting officer found her sitting on her front lawn watching her kids play. And Charles Eisenstein was cited for disorderly conduct and threatened with arrest for “endangering the safety of a minor,” when he argued with police about taking his kids to climb the ice formations along the frozen Susquehanna River. In his discussion of the loss practical wisdom and individual discretion, psychologist Barry Schwartz tells of a father who was removed from his family, forced to undergo counseling, and his kid put in foster care, because the dad mistakenly gave his seven-year-old son “hard” lemonade at a Detroit Tigers game. Schwartz explains that at nearly every stage of the process, whether it was nurses at the hospital who tested the son’s blood alcohol level (it was negative) or the welfare workers or the judge, the father was told, “We hate to do it but we have to follow procedure.”
According to Mack’s thesis, family law courts and social service agencies have been unduly influenced by an attitude that the “best interests” of a child is separate and often in competition with parental authority and the family unit. “Parents have been convicted of ‘child abuse’ for spanking, for grounding, for home schooling, and even for no reason other than a suspicion on the part of a mandated reporter or social worker that while conditions in the home are at present stable, they may be conducive to neglect or abuse in the future,” explains Mack.
As the examples from this summer indicate, family law and mandated reporter rules have now trickled down to local police who are invoking “potential harm” to children due to the decisions of their parents. This reality is surely bad enough and yet if we look more broadly at how public policy questions of children’s health and welfare are legislated, we see that parental discretion and judgment is often superseded by that of the state.
It is in this context that we must view the policy of the city of New York to put baby formula under lock and key in favor of pressuring mothers to breastfeed. And consider as well the federal mandates about breastfeeding courtesy of Obamacare. Or hospitals and daycare centers that, under state guidelines and regulations are prohibited from swaddling infants because it may pose a risk to the child. Not to mention the dietary restrictions for public school kids from the Department of Agriculture, and the standards for safe playground thanks to the Handbook for Public Playground Safety from the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Melissa Harris-Perry says we should welcome all this government intervention between parents and their children. “We haven’t had a very collective notion of ‘These are our children,’” she explains, “so part of it is we have to break through our … private idea that kids belong to their parents or kids belong to their families and recognize that kids belong to whole communities. Once it’s everyone’s responsibility and not just the household’s, then we start making better investments.”
The notion that the state hasn’t gone far enough in its effort to transform our understanding of who children belong to and who shall have authority for their safety and well-being, is surely a frightening prospect to all those parents already caught in the web of unjust parental punishment.