Coroner Tim Scott’s comments regarding the death of Carla Neems have the potential to plunge New Zealand into a moral panic. But having freedom and responsibility is an essential part of child development, writes Jai Breitnauer.
When I was six, my mum walked me and my friend Marie to school every day. In the evening, my dad would pick us up in the car on his way home from work. Their decision to do that was reasonable – the school was just over a kilometre away, and the walk took us alongside a train track and across a major intersection with no crossing. There were no older siblings to walk with us. However, the wider area I was allowed to play in after school and at the weekends was about 300m in radius. It took me right up to the main road at the top of my very long street, and behind our house to the train line. Out to the right, through the pathways built for easy pedestrian access through our modern development I could go about two blocks, and to the left were fields, endless fields, where we would hide in the long grass and paddle in a small creek. I’d be gone for hours at a time, just checking in at home when I was hungry.
This isn’t a story about Carla Neems, although you may have gathered from my intro that I think Coroner Tim Scott’s comments were unfair – Neems walked just 450m to school with older siblings and friends, along relatively sedate roads. That to me seems like a huge privilege rather than a risk. This is a story, however, about the power of comments made by people like Scott, and the knock on effect this has on society at large.
About ten years ago, I interviewed US Free Range Kids campaigner Lenore Skenazy. She is now president of Let Grow, a non-profit promoting childhood independence and resilience. A trained journalist, her life trajectory was changed irrevocably when she published a column in the New York Sun in 2008 entitled ‘Why I let my 9-year-old ride the subway alone’.
“The fallout was epic,” she told me on the phone in 2010. “I was dubbed America’s worst mom.”
Skenazy couldn’t believe just how limited the lives of many children were in the United States, and how, not only did most parents think this was acceptable, they branded her version of parenting “child abuse”.
“He wanted some independence and I gave it to him,” Skenazy told me, referring to her son. “I believe we have to let our children go to grow and develop. Someone asked me, ‘how would you feel if he hadn’t made it home?’ I’d have been devastated, of course, but we can’t use random acts of violence to justify keeping kids locked up and monitored.”
Skenazy was writing at a tipping point in the US, a country that had gone quite far in the direction of monitoring and controlling the freedoms of children. In 2012, it was reported that the crime rate in the US was at its lowest since 1963. Skenazy argued that people who grew up in the 1980s, when crime rates were at an all-time, terrifying high, were denying their children the same freedoms they’d had, out of a fear that just wasn’t based in reality. In addition, the moral panic surrounding unaccompanied children was creating a strange paradigm where everyone saw themselves as society’s policemen.
In April 2015, Maryland couple Alexander and Danielle Meitiv’s children, aged 10 and 6, were taken into protective custody while walking home from a local park. The couple allowed their children to visit the park, just three blocks (about 400m) from their home, unsupervised. This wasn’t to the taste of someone local, who took it upon themselves to report the family for neglect. The Meitivs were later cleared. In 2011 Kim Brooks was filmed by a stranger leaving her toddler son playing iPad in a locked but well ventilated car for a few minutes while she ran into a store to get him a gift. The film was handed over to police in Virginia and she was charged with ‘contributing to the delinquency of a minor’. Eventually charges were dropped in exchange for Brooks performing 100 hours of community service. In another similar story, an unidentified US woman had her daughter put into emergency foster care for eight days after she was seen crossing the road alone to visit her grandmother who lived opposite. The girl was later diagnosed with anxiety and PTSD from the experience of being removed from her family. The emotional impact on the parents and children in these cases has been long-lasting. Reporting them has caused more real harm than the perceived harm the children were exposed to in the first place.
This tipping point is where I believe we are right now in New Zealand, and the words of respectable people in the community like Tim Scott, or child development expert Nathan Wallis who supported Scott’s statement, could push us over the edge. We have a collective choice to make. We can either see Neems’ death for what it was, a tragic accident that might have been prevented by sensors on the rubbish truck and/or procedural changes, or we can join in with Scott’s moral panic, and start judging those families who, to paraphrase Skenazy, let go of their kids and allow them to grow. If we go down that road, we have to ask ourselves what type of society we are inviting.
When I was pregnant with my first son in the UK, an old lady called me a “stupid bitch” because I was still cycling at seven months. When my second son was three, a woman chastised me in the street because he wasn’t wearing a hat and gloves on a relatively mild day. My child’s teacher once phoned me to complain he didn’t have any sandwiches, and she didn’t feel sushi was an appropriate substitute. In all these cases I was incredulous that any of them believed they had the right to comment at all. I am not the relaxed parent I always thought I would be, but I am one who prefers to give my children responsibility, and the chance to learn from failure. We call this ‘logical consequences’ – if you don’t take a coat out in the rain you will get wet. It’s rare they forget the coat twice.
We allow our children a set of freedoms that I fear are increasingly unique to Aotearoa. My ten-year-old and eight-year-old often walk to the local supermarket where we are living now, a distance of about 1km, crossing two minor roads, to run me an errand. When we lived in central Auckland, they would go to the local park two blocks away with friends after school. My older son recently took the train, alone, from Henderson to Mt Eden to meet his dad at work. At home, they are allowed chop wood – supervised – with an axe. I don’t believe that any of these privileges are risky. We understand our children and we know what they are capable of. We give them opportunities to extend themselves and as a result, we have two intelligent, motivated, independent boys who challenge authority (and yes, that is a good thing), think on their feet and can MacGyver themselves out of most situations. In short, they will grow into capable, free thinking and self-motivated adults.
No one is saying children shouldn’t have boundaries, or that parents can flag their inherent responsibility of care. But we need to allow parents the freedom to set those boundaries without being policed by government agencies and local busy bodies. After all, children are all different, and age is not a delineator for capability. Parents know their children best. To follow the natural progression of Scott’s comments is to welcome the same state interference heavy, litigation rich society that America has been suffering from. The same type of society that, to speak frankly, supports the uplifting of babies by Oranga Tamariki based on fear rather than holistic whānau welfare. Now is the time for New Zealand’s own Free Range Kids movement to blossom. Now is the time to talk about how to support children to develop independently, calculate risk and understand consequence.
In May 2018, Utah passed a ‘Free Range Parenting’ law that enshrined a child’s right to play in a park, or walk home from school unsupervised with their parent’s consent. A law that outlines specifically that neglect does not apply to children engaging in independent activities whose basic needs are met. A law to replace common sense and community good will. Let’s hope we don’t need to go that far to let kids be kids.