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In My Opinion

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A different way to grow up fast

Peter St. Onge
Peter St. Onge is The Observer's associate editor.

A friend suggested recently that his and my 10-year-old boys go to a Charlotte Knights game. We would drop them off at the gate, give them some cash for concessions and leave them a cell phone, just in case. I wasn’t so sure.

If you’re of a certain age – say, you remember 8-track tape players in cars – this is where you get to shake your head at the state of modern parenting. It’s where you remember how your 10-year-old self got to ride a bike across town, or how you sat in the back of your parents’ station wagon without a seatbelt, or how some cars didn’t have any seatbelts – and you still survived.

Debra Harrell probably agrees with you. Or maybe she has little choice but to agree.

Harrell is a 46-year-old single mother in North Augusta, S.C. This month, she let her 9-year old daughter play at a park while she worked her shift at a nearby McDonald’s. Harrell gave her daughter a cell phone, just in case, and for two days the girl played among the dozens of kids there at any given time.

On the third day, when the girl told an inquiring adult that her mother was at work, the adult called police, who arrested Harrell for “unlawful conduct toward a child.” Social Services officials took custody of the girl.

You can guess what came next. The arrest, critics howled, is helicopter parenting gone mad. It’s an indictment of a society so fearful – especially with our children – that we’re paralyzed by the worst-case-scenarios we imagine.

The law, by the way, is pretty vague on this. In South Carolina, as in most states, statutes don’t specify at what age a child doesn’t need supervision. Nine years old may be on the bubble, but had it been against the law in 1974 to leave a child that age alone in a public space, half of America’s moms would have been fingerprinted like Harrell.

But there’s another, bigger dichotomy going on here – not between past and present, but between the different worlds we live in now.

If my friend and I had sent our 10-year-olds to a Knights game, and if a concerned parent had reported the unsupervised boys, the police probably wouldn’t have come to the Charlotte Observer or his bank office and arrested us. Even if they disagreed with our parenting decision, they likely would’ve considered our right to calculate safety and responsibility and growing up. The worst we would’ve received, probably, was a warning.

Debra Harrell didn’t get that consideration, and we shouldn’t be surprised. Because most everything is harder when you’re poor. It’s hard to find a path to a living wage. It’s hard to find child care you can afford. It’s hard to get others to believe you’re trying.

Yes, you can argue that some willingly put themselves in that world – although Harrell herself seemed to be trying to work her way out. But once you’re there, it’s difficult to get anyplace else, and the hardest part of all may be this: Because people believe it’s your fault, and because it’s become so acceptable to bash the poor, all of your decisions are seen through that lens.

So instead of considering that Harrell may have thoughtfully weighed what responsibility her child could handle, instead of entertaining that Harrell decided the park was safer than a car or a home farther away, police concluded that thoughtfulness must have given way to desperation.

And instead of the statistical fantasy of being abducted in a place full of parents and kids, Harrell’s 9-year-old girl now has experienced the very real trauma of being taken from her mother and threatened with foster care. Because children, after all, should be protected.

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