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.