Debra Harrell is currently in jail because she let her 9-year-old daughter play, unsupervised, in a public park. Almost everything about this story (which I noticed courtesy of Lenore Skenazy) is horrifying. Harrell works at McDonald’s. Her daughter used to tag along and stare at a screen at her mother’s workplace during the day. She asked to go to the park instead, was discovered to be without an adult, and her mother was arrested. Compounding the horribleness is the news coverage, in which reporters and onlookers alike are united in disgust at Harrell:
The story is a convergence of helicopter parenting with America’s primitive family policy. Our welfare policy is designed to make everybody, even single mothers, work full-time jobs. The social safety net makes it difficult for low-wage single mothers to obtain adequate child care. And society is seized by bizarre fears that children are routinely snatched up by strangers in public places. The phenomenon is, in fact, nearly as rare as in-person voting fraud. But when you watch the report above, you can see everybody involved believes such a thing plainly happens all the time.
Obviously, leaving a child unattended in a park is not an ideal child-care arrangement. It is, however, a perfectly sensible balancing of risks. I work from home, and my wife in an office, so I often end up looking after the kids when school is closed and child-care arrangements fall through. I’m fortunate enough that this is rare: My parents live nearby and my father is retired, and I can afford to pay a babysitter. Also, since I work at home, I can get stuff done, more or less, while the kids entertain themselves.
Not long ago, I was trying to meet a deadline on a sunny afternoon while the kids (ages 10 and nearly 8) longed to get outside. I realized that letting them go to the park alone carried some non-zero risk of stranger abduction. On the other hand, letting them sit around the house staring at screens carries health risks, too. I let them go together. Having rarely seen unaccompanied kids their age at the park, I suspected at the time it was an unusual choice. I never suspected it would conceivably subject me to arrest.
I raise my experience not because it’s equivalent to Harrell’s, because it isn’t; I’m fortunate enough not to face the kinds of wrenching choices she confronts. America has decided to punish Harrell if she fails to acquire full-time employment; her employment does not provide her with adequate child care; and the community punishes her for failing to live up to unobtainable middle-class child-care standards. There are many perpetrators in this story. Debra Harrell was not one of them.
Watch Jonathan Chait discuss the case on Huffington Post Live.