See Something? Who Are You To Say Anything?

In a surprising burst of lucidity, Ross Douthat’s New York Times column, The Parent Trap, offers some excellent beef before reaching his requisite listicle.

For instance, they might have ended up like the Connecticut mother who earned a misdemeanor for letting her 11-year-old stay in the car while she ran into a store. Or the mother charged with “contributing to the delinquency of a minor” after a bystander snapped a photo of her leaving her 4-year-old in a locked, windows-cracked car for five minutes on a 50 degree day. Or the Ohio father arrested in front of his family for “child endangerment” because — unbeknown to him — his 8-year-old had slipped away from a church service and ended up in a nearby Family Dollar.

Or (I’m just getting warmed up) like the mother of four, recently widowed, who left her children — the oldest 10, the youngest 5 — at home together while she went to a community-college class; her neighbor called the police, protective services took the kids, and it took a two-year legal fight to pry them back from foster care. Or like the parents from two families who were arrested after their girls, two friends who were 5 and 7, cut through a parking lot near their houses — again without the parents’ knowledge — and were spotted by a stranger who immediately called the police.

Or — arriving at this week’s high-profile story — like Debra Harrell, an African-American single mother in Georgia, who let her 9-year-old daughter play in a nearby park while she worked a shift at McDonald’s, and who ended up shamed on local news and jailed.

My usual reluctance to take quotes so freely is blunted by the fact that Douthat did a rewrite of one of Radley Balko’s excellent, and critically detailed, posts, The Criminalization of Parenthood.  Douthat credited Radley’s work, noting the “nightmarish” pattern that “we should recognize, name and resist.”  This comes straight from the wheelhouse of Lenore Skenazy’s Free Range Kids, without the usual stretch to distinguish dubious parenting choices from crimes.

While Douthat then provides a list of causes based on the nature of applicants to private Manhattan pre-schools, because . . . the New Yorker’s View of the World, it strikes me that he’s failed to recognize the most fundamental cause for some people to feel empowered to rat out a parent because they just aren’t managing their children the way I think they should!!!

Everything that fails to comport with the way the most sensitive soul in the neighborhood feels it should must now be a crime.  Do it for the children. Do it for the women. Do it for . . . just do it.

Parents always question other parents’ parenting skills and choices.  We naturally believe with all our heart and soul that whatever choices we made were better than theirs, whoever they may be.  This is human nature, given our own belief that we are right and anyone who disagrees with us is wrong.  Conversely, everyone who agrees is brilliant, confirming that we, too, are both right and brilliant.  These thoughts are nothing new.

But the problem in Douthat’s parade of bad parenting isn’t merely some prissy busybody’s decision that some parent has inadequately bubble-wrapped their kid.  The problem is that they conflate their parenting choices with righteousness, such that anyone who doesn’t share their sensibilities has committed a crime. It’s a crime to neglect your child, with neglect defined as doing anything less than providing absolute safety and comfort to children as the most delicate flower perceives it.

And it’s not just with children.  It’s with everything.  It’s bullying, for adults, on the internet, in the workplace.  It’s revenge porn.  It’s the required law named after every death that makes us sad, except for Eric Garner.  It’s the notion that we can’t possibly tolerate any harm coming to the object of our protection.

The irony is that while some are speaking out against overcriminalization in some quarters, the same people are screaming for greater criminalization in others.  They suffer from a patent infatuation with creating crimes to prevent whatever harm touches their sensibilities, and believe, with the trendiest of passions, that as wrong as everyone else may be to demand the crimes they find excessive, their demand for crimes is wholly justified and absolutely necessary.

So the otherwise nice people who want only sunshine and happiness see a parent who doesn’t suffer their personal form of obsessive-compulsive parental disorder, and calls the cops.  The gentler souls don’t dial 911, but still feel empowered to walk up to some other child’s father to lecture them on perverts in vans handing out candy, certain of their virtue in correcting this clearly wrongful parenting behavior.

Who made you the ruler of the parenting world?  Who gave you the authority to dictate to every other parent how they should care for their child?

Yet, the scold believes in his righteousness, enough so to act upon it.

Years ago, there was a saying in the parent’s handbook, “spare the rod and spoil the child.”  Today, that’s Endangering the Welfare of a Child in the First Degree.  This isn’t to suggest that beating kids is a great method of child rearing, but to remind all the self-righteous that their beloved nanny used to beat their mother to a pulp when she misbehaved.  Are you ready to lock granny up?  If not, what moral authority do you have to call the cops on someone else, whose crime is not meeting your expectations of safe enough?

The criminal law is not a child-rearing tool.  If you spent a few seconds thinking beyond your overly passionate feelings, you might consider whether a child would do better to be reared by a loving parent who isn’t inclined to keep them locked in protective custody throughout the formative years, than as a ward of the state.  How does turning a parent into a criminal, losing a job, perhaps even a home, make a child’s life better?

The criminal law is a mindless, dangerous bludgeon. It was meant to be that way, used only for the conduct that is sufficiently awful that it commands such a horrible tool.  This fantasy adoration of law as a social engineering tool is wreaking havoc with other people’s lives, and yet the busybodies who mindlessly believe they’re entitled to impose their whims on others are too clueless to comprehend that they, not the parent who doesn’t use enough bubblewrap, are the danger.

If my imagination was fertile enough, I might be able to predict what the next harmless disagreement might be that will be pushed into the crime of the century, the threat to the continued existence of mankind.  But someone will come up with something. Of that, there is no doubt. Because what use is the law if not to force every person to conduct their lives to meet the approval of the most emotional social scold.

12 comments on “See Something? Who Are You To Say Anything?

  1. Pingback: The retreat of civil society and the advance of the nanny state « Quotulatiousness

  2. David

    I tend to agree with the general theme of over-reporting by bystander busy-bodies for these examples (though one or two might have been understandable why a reasonable bystander might be concerned). But isn’t the more usual problem generally the so-called “bystander effect” whereby people don’t report when they “should”?

    In the ideal/better/minimally acceptable world, the role of police and CPS would understand that a report means only they should investigate, not that they are obliged to lay charges or take children just because someone made a phone call.

    When I went to elementary school there was a program not offered at the local school so I and other students used to take public transit buses and subways to school daily by ourselves with no problem (and with knowledge and approval of the public school) at least as early as age 10. If we could handle that, we were definitely competent to wait in a car and to leave the doors locked unless or until it got too hot or some other danger presented itself!

    1. SHG Post author

      But isn’t the more usual problem generally the so-called “bystander effect” whereby people don’t report when they “should”?

      Did you just hear about Kitty Genovese? It’s not a binary proposition: There are things that demand involvement, a dying man lying on the ground where you can call for help or walk around him. Distinguishing between real needs and personal emotional hysteria separates things. It may not always be easier, and may be harder for some than others.

      1. David

        It’s not a binary proposition, but there’s a spectrum and the level at which inquiry may be made and/or police or CPS asked if everything is okay is << the level at which it's clearly/provably wrong.

        That is, based on incomplete information and lack of expertise and not foreseeing the consequences, I don't think it necessarily unreasonable for someone to call police or CPS to report a concern. If I see someone lying on a ground and there's a pool of blood I know I should call 911. On the other extreme if I see someone lying down who appears to be a homeless person sleeping and not in any obvious (to me) immediate distress, there's probably no need, as far as I know – and I could be wrong. But there's a whole spectrum of intermediate situations where the typical observer will not know enough to know if someone needs help, and I or someone else will imperfectly decide whether to call for help based on incomplete information, and that doesn't necessarily turn me or someone else who calls into a busybody.

        1. SHG Post author

          That’s what I refer to when I say it’s not always easy. But most of the spectrum really isn’t that fuzzy, and largely involves one person’s preferences versus another’s. People call 911 because someone else IS DOING IT WRONG!!!, not because there is an imminent fear of actual harm.

          Society survived for a very long time before the spectrum became so difficult for some to navigate. I suggest that it’s really not all that hard most of the time to figure out what commands action and what is a busybody’s excuse to impose their sensibilities on others. And when in doubt, err on the side of letting the parent’s judgment prevail, no matter HOW WRONG HE IS DOING IT!!!

    2. RAFIV

      “In the ideal/better/minimally acceptable world, the role of police and CPS would understand that a report means only they should investigate, not that they are obliged to lay charges or take children just because someone made a phone call.”

      In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they ain’t. Same holds true for your “deal/better/minimally acceptable world”. Sadly, reality doesn’t even approach your ideal. DCF/CPS routinely remove children – even over the objection of field workers – because management fears not acting will expose them to public censure; or, in other words, damage their pension and lifetime sinecures. As for the Police. Well, some days I believe they operate on the assumption that everyone but them is a felon and that they conduct themselves accordingly.

      1. David

        I’m not sure we disagree. To use a different example, we’ve probably both read cases where someone calls for help with a suicidal family member who then gets shot and killed by police. But without knowing how good or bad the police in your community are at dealing with these types of situations, without the benefit of hindsight and despite the result, it wasn’t necessarily wrong to have called the police to begin with.

        1. SHG Post author

          I’m not sure we disagree either, but if you were in agreement with me, there would have been no purpose under the sun for your last comment, so there must be some disagreement despite the lack of clarity in your comment as to what that may be.

          Your analogy to a suicide is inapt, so I’m just going to ignore it rather than go down that completely unrelated path.

          1. David

            I’ll try to be pithy and clear. If I fail, I’ll drop it.

            Having read your post and the story linked to, and the brief summaries of examples, I don’t understand the basis for the conclusion that this is emblematic of prissy busybodies reporting what they consider to be crimes. Ridiculous and wrong enforcement by police and CPS, yes; but with the barebones details, it’s hard for me to reach any conclusion regarding the motivations of the observers – were they prissy or just had a very, very mild concern that they thought they should report to a body they thought wouldn’t go overboard? I’ll assume you know more about these stories and the motivations of the reporters and why they called.

            My suicide/police action comment was in response not to you but to what I understood Rafiv’s comment to be, that because of the consequences of calling police one shouldn’t, my point being that one can’t know prospectively what the result will be.

  3. Fubar

    The criminal law is a mindless, dangerous bludgeon.”

    Decoded from surreptitious intracortical encephalograms administered telephonically by the NSA to 911 callers who reported seeing apparently unattended children playing:

    Only some heartless curmudgeon
    Would question our use of this bludgeon.
    Don’t like what you saw?
    Then it violates law.
    We must live every day in high dudgeon.

  4. skitch

    “The germ of destruction of our nation is in the power of the judiciary, an irresponsible body – working like gravity by night and by day, gaining a little today and a little tomorrow, and advancing its noiseless step like a thief over the field of jurisdiction, until all shall render powerless the checks of one branch over the other and will become as venal and oppressive as the government from which we separated.”
    Thomas Jefferson

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