Using the Park for Child Care: It's Not Okay

My mother's parenting advice to me was succinct and a hair disappointing. "Children are like weeds. If you leave them alone, they grow up." There it is. Straight from the Less is More School of Parenting.

Having heard this more than once while I was growing up and pretty much using this as my fundamental approach to raising four children, you would think I'd have my legs dangling off the side of the bandwagon supporting Debra Harrell's decision to use the local park as her child care strategy while she worked at McDonald's. But I don't.

As much as I support working people, empathize with single mothers, distrust most authority, love the outdoors, and believe that children need to be free to play, I can't defend this mother's decision. It's not okay.

I say this as a person who, at age 9, got off the bus after school, found the key hidden under the mat, let myself in, and called my mother at our store, Crestwood 8-3666, and asked her what I should do about dinner, the answer to which 95% of the time was to peel and boil some potatoes. I watched TV for two hours and then she was home. Later, when I was a little older, I used this time to learn how to smoke. I also appreciated the privacy so I could watch American Bandstand and learn the Bristol Stomp without an audience. It could get rockin' in our little two-bit ranch house there in Southfield. Little did she know. But why would she want to know? I was just doing my weed thing.

And I say this as a woman who was a single mother for nine years, from the time my daughter was two until she was eleven. We lived in an upper flat, I had an entry level job in a human service agency where the pay gradually got better. But it was always difficult, something always happening to put me in crisis mode, some of my own making, some the function of not having many resources. My daughter spent plenty of time outside roaming the neighborhood, sometimes even sitting perched in a tree outside our living room window. She was a tough kid, very hearty. She came home with her arms grimy with dirt, rivulets where the squirt gun dripped. She ran with a little crowd, they were in and out all day, our place, the neighbor's place. I could stand on the front porch and yell for her and find her in a minute. "She's over there."

So I get it about independence creating strength in children. I really do. If adults solve every problem, a child learns to solve nothing. Especially the problem of boredom. Chapter Two in the Less is More Parenting Handbook is "If you're bored, you have only yourself to blame."

So given all this, why am I not up in arms about the authorities taking the drastic action of arresting Debra Harrell and taking custody of her daughter. First of all, I don't think we know all the facts.

I am usually first in line when it comes to assuming that authorities like law enforcement and child welfare are in the wrong, are racist, and overreacting. And often, I have to catch myself to remember that law enforcement officers and child welfare workers are mostly very good people doing hard jobs with often very ambiguous guidelines. But bottom line for both is the concept of safety.  What was going on in this situation that convinced authorities that the child was not safe?  What was it that precluded less drastic action? Are we right to just decide from the jump that they were all racist head cases? There could be a whole lot more to this case than the silly notion that a mom was arrested for letting her child play outside, the central thesis of the Slate blog post, "Parents are Now Getting Arrested for Letting Their Kids Go to the Park Alone." I'm sorry. I just don't buy it. Maybe it'll turn out to be that simple and ridiculous but I don't think so.

Second of all, there are always options. There, I said it. Being poor, working at McDonald's, having an extremely difficult time financially, socially, emotionally, or physically, doesn't make using the park as child care okay. It's not okay for many reasons. The child is on her own. All day long. She is a sitting duck for teasing, bullying or worse. She is unlikely to tell her mother if something's wrong because she doesn't want her mom to lose her job.  She will figure she needs to fend for herself. What will she do all day? Swing on the swings? Walk around? Make daisy chains? What does a 9-year old child do in a park all day alone?

This child, every child, deserves better. She deserves to be somewhere she can be free and looked out for, where she can learn to be independent but be protected at the same time. It's not a joyful, free range childhood thing to be sitting alone in a park all day long. It's lonely. And it doesn't have to be that way. There are always options: neighbors to trade child care with, summer day camps with scholarship programs, relatives to prevail upon, extra money to be made somehow to pay for child care. It's what millions of low-income women do all the time. They figure out ways to protect their kids and make a living at the same time.

I'm not judging. I'm just saying. There's more here than meets the eye, in more ways than one.



Jan Wilberg