I left my 12-year-old son in my neighborhood grocery store’s parking lot for ten minutes. Yes, it was in Florida, but we’re talking late afternoon in the winter, no more than 70 degrees. The doors were locked and he was playing on his phone. And he was 12. Some woman called the police. A kind witness followed me home and let me know and nothing ever came of it. But I was incensed.
It was a world away, literally, from how my son grew up. From ages two to seven we lived in the Middle East – not the war-weary part: safe, western-loving Kuwait. His formative years were spent in the dichotomy of oil wealth largesse and an insulated expatriate community. Different worlds in just about every way except for one: the attitude toward parenting. It was free range all the way.
About kids in cars: it is routine to leave kids in running, air-conditioned cars in the 130-degree heat and do full grocery shops in many Middle Eastern cities. No one bats an eye and kidnapping of a random child from a car is unheard of. Perhaps it’s a sense of honor or fear of stiff penalties or the lack of places to hide in a place with tight border security. The reasons are less important than the fact that my son, and I, lived without an undue fear of strangers.
I lost my son in a number of malls and grocery stores in the years we lived there. A security guard would always bring him back. I even sent him outside to play by himself in a construction dump at the property next door. He climbed wrought iron gates, and sat in my husband’s lap and steered the car in the desert.
In that insulated expat community of people from across the English-speaking world, we established a small-town closeness. Your kid slept over the same day you met the family.
Judgment of parenting choices was extremely rare. And even if it was glaring, you said nothing. One time, a child at my son’s British school fell off a slide. His mom didn’t flip out. She didn’t threaten to sue. “Son!” she bellowed in her Irish brogue. “Are you thick or something?”
Another time, a New Zealand friend took us camping in the desert, a winter ritual practiced widely by Gulf Arabs. Her 12-year-old was riding a four-wheeler, fast and recklessly. Despite one quiet warning from his mother, he flipped it over. “Right” she said. “What did I tell you?” The boy got on it again and, as I recall, was much more careful.
My son, as a result, is very independent. He is confident in making decisions. If he makes the wrong one, he knows there are consequences and they are not mine. He can navigate his own way through the Atlanta Airport, which I am very proud of.
Nonetheless, it was a culture shock to move back to the States in the Helicopter Age. The incidents have been few, fortunately. My son, used to European ways, changed clothes at karate practice behind a closed door. Another child opened it and screamed, “Oh, my God, he’s in his underwear!” His mother tsk-tsked. I had to give my boy a gentle talk about modesty in America.
I am lucky to have like-minded friends here who believe it takes a village. In our neighborhood, kids ride bikes and go to the park across the street alone; but I catch my breath whenever I see a headline about parents detained for letting their kids walk alone, or waiting in a car by themselves. I belonged to a snarky Facebook group that called out so-called sanctimommies, gleefully screen-capturing hysterical posts by moms who contemplated calling CPS over front-facing car seats they saw in a parking lot. And photographed. And put on Facebook.
What do they hope to get out of it? A trophy? And what did the woman who called the police on me hope to gain? She obviously didn’t hang around my car to wait for me. She didn’t even bother to get my license tag number.
I don’t get it. There are too many real children in distress and in abusive situations who never get rescued. The headlines lately are bursting with horror stories of infanticide, torture and neglect that people never report. “I hadn’t seen the child in months” is a common refrain by shocked neighbors.
And the world is full of children who grow up in deplorable conditions, trafficked and put into forced labor. Are these busybodies rushing to help them? If they saw you and your child in a broken-down car, would they call the cops to help you?
What I would have said to this woman, and what I wish to say to all busybodies, is this: if my child is in no obvious danger, who is it hurting for him to sit in the car on a cool afternoon in the suburbs, or to see him walk down the street? Did you come to help or did you just come to judge?