ESSAYAugust 9, 2016
At first glance, my 9-year-old daughter doesn’t look “poor.” She meticulously chooses her outfits for school, often sleeping in them—even the shoes. She models in front of the hallway mirror and insists I wash clothing that has been worn for only a few hours. But I’ve bought most of her clothes at Walmart, along with a few nicer dresses I’ve gotten when I had some extra money. I wonder how first impressions of her will change as she gets older. For now, she’s just another kid, playing outside.
We live a block away from a high-end grocery store that we frequent for their $2 slices of pizza. Mia, my daughter, has repeatedly asked to be allowed to walk there by herself to get a slice and a hippie soda. Like many parents now, I hesitate to allow my daughter to wander that far from home unsupervised. Even though she has a cheap pay-as-you-go cell phone, even though I’m sure she’d be fine, I worry other people would think otherwise. Maybe if I let her go too often, people would start to wonder if her mother was around to watch her. Maybe they would call the police.
At first glance, I do appear “poor.” I have not updated my wardrobe in close to two decades. I have tattoos on my arms and shoulders. If the police were to accompany my daughter home, they’d find a building that is low-income housing and frequented by law enforcement.
I am white, but because I am poor, the thought of police entering my life for any reason makes me fearful. My story might turn into one like Nicole Gainey’s, a single mother who in 2014 was arrested and charged with felony neglect for allowing her son to play alone at a park across the street. The officer who brought her son home cited recent criminal activity and sexual offenders in the area as justification for the charge. Following her release, Gainey started a GoFundMe campaign because she could not obtain a job to support her family with a criminal record.
If I found myself in a similar situation, I don’t think I’d hold my head high and coolly inform law enforcement officers that I follow a different sort of parenting philosophy, one that teaches children independence from a young age. I don’t know if I would walk away after a brief investigation, as one Maryland couple did in late 2014 when police escorted their ten- and six-year-old children home after they found them playing in a park by themselves. That story introduced many Americans to the “free-range parenting” movement, which encourages children to be independent by letting them roam and play on their own. For two months, Child Protective Services (CPS) investigated the children’s parents, Alexander and Danielle Meitiv, for neglect; ultimately, they were not charged.
Other stories like this have made the rounds, such as novelist Kim Brooks’s account of a bystander calling the police after she left her son in the car. These situations might frighten many parents out of allowing their children to wander too far out of their sight. But the stories also raise questions about how much freedom is good for children. “For somebody like me, the ‘free-range’ cases that are hitting the paper today are a dream come true,” Martin Guggenheim, a New York University law professor and co-director of the school’s Family Defense Clinic, told The Nation, “because finally people who otherwise don’t care about this problem are now calling out and saying, ‘Aren’t we going too far here?’”
Yet we must acknowledge how much this collective hand-wringing over our children’s alleged lack of freedom is based on both race and class privilege. The poor, and especially poor people of color, don’t have the luxury of raising “free-range” children without risking severe consequences. Parents of color don’t receive a visit and a warning if their children are found playing alone; they are immediately blamed and far more likely to be arrested or lose custody of their children. While I am white, living in poverty doesn’t afford me the luxury of “radical” or “renegade” parenting, either.
Consider the recent case of a child who slipped away from his mother at the Cincinnati Zoo and fell into a gorilla enclosure (zoo officials made the choice to shoot and kill the animal to prevent the child from being harmed). The parents faced a police investigation, in addition to blame and backlash that led a tabloid article to cite the father’s criminal history—even though, as New York Daily News columnist Shaun King pointed out, in six similar cases the parents’ criminal histories were never mentioned. “This young family could’ve lost their son,” he wrote. “They experienced the same type of accident that white families have experienced for decades, but instead of being shown mercy or compassion, they are now enduring unthinkable attacks on their character.”
Other parents of color who’ve been singled out for neglect have received even harsher penalties. Laura Browder of Houston was arrested for child abandonment when she left her children, aged 6 and 2, at a food court table in plain sight so she could complete a job interview. Debra Harrell of South Carolina spent 17 days in jail after she left her 9-year-old daughter at a park (with a cell phone) to play while she worked nearby. A 2012 report showed the social, economic, and racial gaps when parents are investigated by CPS, driving home the point that poor parents—especially those of color—are judged far more harshly when it comes to cases of potential neglect. The stereotypes of people in poverty as lazy, drug-addicted, or law-breaking creates a society-wide knee-jerk reaction that disproportionately punishes poor parents if a child is found alone.
Studies have shown how police treat children of color differently. Black youth have the highest instance of police suspicion and involvement at 55% of the total cases. While parents teach their white children to stand up for their rights while gaining independence, parents of black children must teach them how to get home safely. In a recent roundtable discussion, the Des Moines Register gathered a group of African American parents to openly discuss how parents of color have to raise their children, especially their sons, when it comes to being out on their own in the world. “You know, it’s ridiculous in this day and age that I have to have this conversation with my African-American son,” Ardis Gardner, one of the parents interviewed, said.
How do we look at parents of color when their children are not supervised, or behave in an unruly manner like all children do? How do these nationally covered events, such as the two mothers arrested for neglect, affect parents of color today?
“They just see your skin color, so you are obviously up to no good. People will judge me more harshly and it does affect my parenting,” said Sa’iyda Shabazz, a 30-year-old single mother living in Staten Island, just a few miles away from where Eric Garner was killed. Shabazz’s three-year-old son is multiracial and she says he looks more like his white father, but she still worries about how people will perceive him because of her blackness. She plans to tell her son, “Regardless of how you look, once they know who your mother is, they will treat you differently.”
Sharon Van Epps of Seattle has a different worry. Her three children, all currently in middle school, are black, while Van Epps and her husband are white. “I love the concept of free-range [parenting], yet I didn’t give my kids those freedoms when they were in elementary school, not really out of fear that they were at greater risk for being non-white, but because I would have made the same decision for any young child,” she said. “At the same time, I know that as children of color they face additional risks. In middle school, I started easing up a bit on all the kids. My son, who is black, is allowed to ride the bus or train with friends, go to the beach with friends [or] to the mall, with reminders that he has to be more careful than his white buddies.”
In a lot of ways, free-range parenting makes sense to me. I grew up exploring my neighborhood and beyond, and would love to give my daughter that kind of freedom. Having the ability to walk to the grocery store, ride my bike miles away to a friend’s house, and spend most of the day unsupervised gave me confidence in myself. But I don’t give my daughter that same freedom, and I never have, because I fear the possible repercussions.
Last weekend I watched my daughter play outside with two friends; all three had toy guns pointed at invisible foes. In that moment I felt very conscious of my privilege as a white parent, knowing my child would be viewed as just that, a child with a toy—not like 12-year-old Tamir Rice, a child Cleveland police gunned down for playing with a similar toy gun. Yet I still worry that one day, another adult’s concern over my daughter playing outside, alone, might be enough to prompt judgment or even police involvement, as it did for Nicole Gainey. As a mother living in poverty, I don’t expect my parenting choices to be respected by default.
Lead image: pixabay/laterjay