This is an excerpt from a Maclean’s article. Read the full story here.
Naomi started letting her daughter walk to school alone when Elizabeth was in the second grade. It was a two-block amble from their East Vancouver home, and eight-year-old Elizabeth knew the way—they’d been going to the school playground ever since she could stand. They went over things like street safety, what to do if a stranger said “hi” and what Elizabeth should do if she ever felt unsafe. Still, for the first few trips, Naomi surreptitiously followed a half-block behind to make sure everything went smoothly until her daughter was walking alone to school and back through their quiet residential neighbourhood.
Months later, Naomi got a call from the school, which goes up to Grade 3. They weren’t comfortable, she was told, with students walking to or from school without adult supervision. “I heard them. I listened. I understood their point of view,” Naomi says. “And then I overrode them.” Elizabeth would be arriving every day, on time, by herself.
She did so for more than a year without incident, save one occasion when Naomi got a call from a teacher relaying concerns from a parent who’d seen Elizabeth take one foot off the curb and between two parked cars while she peeked at a cat. Otherwise, everything was fine. Or so Naomi thought. Last year, with Elizabeth in her final weeks of Grade 3, Naomi got a late-evening phone call from B.C.’s Ministry of Child and Family Development, who set up a face-to-face meeting to itemize a list of concerns that Naomi describes as “ridiculous.” An anonymous tipster reported seeing Elizabeth about to cross the street, but stepping back up on the sidewalk in a way that suggested she felt unsafe. It was something Naomi says she taught her daughter to do, adding bitterly: “That was sent in as a concern because it looked like she didn’t know how to cross the street.”
There was more. Elizabeth had twice come to school without a lunch—in the course of four years. “I packed her lunch every day,” Naomi says. “Twice she forgot it and once I couldn’t deliver it to the school because I was in a meeting across town.” Then there was the time Elizabeth arrived at class all wet on a rainy day. As kids are wont to do, she had outright refused to wear her raincoat. “I told her, ‘You’ll get wet,’ and she said, ‘I don’t care,’” Naomi recalls. “So I said, ‘Go ahead then and get wet.’” Perhaps most upsettingly for Naomi, someone reported seeing Elizabeth wearing a crop top. “She doesn’t own any crop tops. She’s big and sometimes she forgets to pull her shirt down over her tummy,” Naomi says. “By the way: way to slut-shame my eight-year-old.”
Naomi never truly feared that a social worker would recommend taking away her little girl, yet her experience has left her wary. (It’s why she asked that their last name not be used.) And she is only one parent among many trying to raise an independent child in a society that is safer and more careful—yet somehow more afraid—than ever. “We, as a society, pretend to give parents a wide range of discretion as to the choices they make for the nurturance and well-being of their children,” says John-Paul Boyd, executive director of the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family. “Somehow, social attitudes about children evolved from it being widely acceptable to tell their kids to get out of the house and don’t come back until dinner, to the point today where, in many cases, that would be enough to have child protection people descend on you.”
Fifty years ago, raising an independent child meant giving them the freedom to roam the neighbourhood, play outdoors as much as possible and learn from their mistakes. That’s harder to accomplish today: parents get visits from family service workers over complaints they let their kids play in the backyard; neighbours call police when they see children walking home from the park without a parent; and children are detained in mall stores for shopping without adult supervision.
It would all be less concerning if these were one-off cases of busybodies who are quickly invited to mind their own business. Instead, social norms and the law increasingly reflect the attitudes of the self-appointed guardians, with real-life consequences for parents who thought they were doing the right thing by affording their kids some latitude. The stigma of child-protection officials opening a file, or a police cruiser rolling up for all the neighbours to see, can last for years. In extreme cases, parents who set out to teach their youngsters independence have faced legal sanction and, if they don’t change course, even the threat of having their kids seized by authorities. In our rush to protect children, have we made good parenting a crime?