Opinion

Stop helicopter-parenting other people's kids

We've reached the point where parenting "mistakes" are being reported to the cops

Surely the joys of parenthood include all the happy occasions to judge other parents inferior. But should we arrest them?

This week Salon published a heartrending story by a mother who let her child play with an iPad in the car while she went into a store for a few minutes. It was about 50 degrees outside. Some bystander decided to videotape the incident, and then, without confronting her, filed a police report. A warrant was put out for the mother's arrest for contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

The only problem that I can see in her account is her willingness to believe she did something wrong at all.

Unfortunately, she's not the only mother who has been targeted for supposed parental malfeasance. Last month, FreeRangeKids, a blog that argues against helicopter parenting, posted a story of cops being called on parents whose children were simply playing outside, unsupervised. The same site recently reported about a father who made his son walk one mile home while he thought about some misbehavior, which resulted in the father being given a one-year probation. The judge cited the mere existence of child predators as a reason for the verdict.

What is wrong with these tattlers? My own moral instincts tell me that the bystander of the Salon story should have been charged for harassment and filing a false report.

The novel phenomenon of American upper-middle-class helicopter-parenting, in which kids are scheduled, monitored, and supervised for their "enrichment" at all times, is now being enforced on others.

It's an odd way to "help" a child who is unsupervised for five minutes to potentially inflict years of stress, hours of court appearances, and potential legal fees and fines on their parents. Children who experience discreet instances of suboptimal parenting aren't always aided by threatening their parents with stiff, potentially family-jeopardizing legal penalties. The risk of five or even 10 minutes in a temperate, locked car while mom shops is still a lot better than years in group homes and foster systems.

This trend is likely to get worse. Vox published a half-baked argument that the spanking of children should be illegal, though it admitted that the vast majority of American parents have used spanking as a corrective measure or at least think it is sometimes necessary. Even for someone as disinclined to spank a child as I am, it is hard not to see the problems in this argument.

The author's chief strategy is to float a small raft of social science studies that spanking leads to delinquent behavior, lack of cognitive development, and basically a crummy life. But some of the studies cited claimed no causal link between spanking and the unwanted outcome. They were also based on tiny sample sizes and relied on surveys done over just a two-week period. Didn't spank your child in those two weeks? Well now you're a statistic that counts against spanking altogether.

Other anti-spanking studies also didn't control for relevant socioeconomic factors.

A 2010 study published in Pediatrics found that spankers are more likely than nonspankers to be young, depressed, under a lot of stress, and substance abusers — so it's hard to know whether some of the purported effects of spanking might actually be caused by poor parenting skills in general. [Slate]

And some studies counted factors that were not germane, like abusive behavior, including hitting children with objects and slapping.

Of course, Vox's argument does not take into account what might happen to a child's development and life outcomes if his or her parent is arrested or legally harassed for improper parenting. It does not look for or acknowledge differences in spanking: Whether it is swiftly restorative, or the beginning of a longer period of emotional alienation from parents.

It might be useful to at least compare spanking to helicopter-parenting that exposes children to intense self-criticism sessions, extensive time-outs in which they are exiled from parental affection, and constant psychological probing. Vox's argument suggests that spanking teaches children violence by example, but doesn't consider that other noncensured forms of parental correction may teach emotional blackmail, manipulation, and over-reliance on behavioral rewards.

Nope, just a few correlative studies that readers won't examine critically and a heaping of class-based moralizing disgust! That's explainer journalism for you.

The sight of healthy kids playing in a park unsupervised, or a child playing with an iPad in the backseat of a car on a cool day, should not ever be the cause of immediate legal peril for parents. People should not be so terrified that something bad can happen to a child that they end up causing a calamity with their good intentions.

We're rapidly approaching the point in which it's not enough for helicopter parents to micromanage their own kids — they have to manage other parents' kids as well. But in the latter case, they do it by strafing their peers with legal threats and putting them in the big "time-out" in a local jail.

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