This summer has seen a rash of stories of parents being hauled away in cuffs for such sins as letting their kids roam unaccompanied in a park, or keeping them in the car while performing a short errand, or even leaving them alone in their own home for a few hours.
My own childhood seems to have become illegal. I was the son of a single mother. During summers I would explore my neighborhood, visit friends' houses, walk to a pond to fish, ride my bike from our home in Bloomfield, N.J., to the abandoned lots of Newark, and jump it over curbs. I could be unsupervised from 10 in the morning until 8:30 at night, when the streetlights started coming on. If I was home with my grandmother, sometimes she would leave me alone to do grocery shopping.
As early as 7 years old, I was allowed to walk more than a mile to school. I traveled long commercial streets like Bloomfield Avenue, and went under the overpass of the Garden State Parkway, all during a time when violent crime rates were much much higher than they are today. The worst that ever happened to me was that I got punched in the head by a junkie. But I told my D.A.R.E. officer, spent an afternoon looking at photos of local junkies and ne'er-do-wells, and got over it, having learned the valuable lesson that I could take a punch in the head.
Often during this time, and especially in my own neighborhood, I was being silently and unobtrusively guarded by a community of people, many of whom knew my name, and knew something of my mother's situation. When I scratched someone's car with my broken bike handle, I would be returned to my home, and the note explaining it would be addressed to my mother by name. Some of the nosy Italian ladies watched the streets, looking for gossip. But they could help a child who skinned his knee, or bring him inside for a few caramels and a soda if it was raining and the kid had left his key at home.
Last month, when the first wave of these stories came out, I suggested it was a problem of helicopter parents enforcing their notions of parenthood on others. But the number and variety of such incidents suggest that something more is at work. The communities that are happy to watch the kids in the neighborhood, and help parents with an extra set of eyes and a few caramels, are just gone. We're arresting parents because civil society is retreating from children altogether.
Timothy Carney, a columnist for The Washington Examiner and a father of five, attributes it to a decline of "neighborliness." And that's certainly true. People see a kid, imagine a bad thing could happen to them, and then think they should call the cops. Whereas "neighborly adults look after other adults' kids when the parents are unavailable."
Gracy Olmstead, in a very smart article for The American Conservative, says that all of this waning of society and waxing of the state was predicted by communitarian libertarian Robert Nisbet:
Nisbet predicted that, in a society without strong private associations, the State would take their place — assuming the role of the church, the schoolroom, and the family, asserting a "primacy of claim" upon our children. "It is hard to overlook the fact," he wrote, "that the State and politics have become suffused by qualities formerly inherent only in the family or the church." In this world, the term "nanny state" takes on a very literal meaning. [The American Conservative]
My own childhood community in Bloomfield was then a well-established one composed of descendants of Irish and Italian immigrants, many of us going to the same church on Sunday. There were a few baseline expectations shared by the community about how children should behave in people's yards or in the streets. People could talk to each other from some shared moral premises.
But today those communities seem rarer, and so, too, those shared premises about how kids should behave. More than that, there's a fear of taking responsibility for kids in the neighborhood. Deliver a short report on a child's behavior and his parents may snap back, "Don't tell me how to parent my child." A neighbor's interest may seem invasive or even creepy. Lacking church or community, bystanders in a neighborhood refer their concern about a suboptimal parental situation (one they usually know little about because they are not very neighborly) to the only other institution empowered to look out for the welfare of children: the state.
The state's guardianship functions were developed to handle only the most extreme cases of neglect or abuse. The incentives of those within these departments incline them to suspicion and dramatic intervention. "We only get called in an emergency, so this must be one."
There are two ways to solve the dilemma. The first is a return of those communities, something that seems less likely in an America that is more mobile and more influenced by immigration, which results in constant neighborhood flux. The other is to reform the state's institutions so that they might actually assist parents — not just punish, shame, and harass them.