Scary Mommy

We Are Living In The Age Of Parenting Vigilantism

Angry man threatening wife
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There are stories upon stories about kids calling the cops on their parents for ridiculous—but very real to them—reasons. There’s the nine-year-old in Ontario who called 911because her parents told her to pick up her room.” Even better is the tween who called twice (an emergency is an emergency and should be treated as such) because his parents served him salad for dinner, according to the New York Post. My absolute favorite is the anecdote a college professor once told our class. The gist of it was: his daughter wanted a Smurf piñata for her birthday party, she did not get one…and the story tells itself from there. 

Maybe it’s because my sons never narced me out, but I like the image of a huffy brat threatening to call the police if they don’t get their way. The parent(s) rolling their eyes and mumbling “go right ahead” (they’ve probably heard these ultimatums before)—and those same eyes bugging out when the front door is opened and there stands a fully uniformed police officer. 

Even though parents involved in these situations may not see the humor right away (evidently, the salad kid’s parents were “not impressed”), you gotta admit that stuff like this is great fodder for college graduation parties and wedding toasts

But change a single factor in the equation and the narrative shifts drastically. This is what happens when the “huffy kid” is replaced by a huffy adult—and that adult feels justified policing others’ parenting choices. 

Sarah Mahoney, author of “Fear, Parenting, and Today’s Vigilante Culture,” calls it “parenting vigilantism.” And you don’t have to look too far to find examples. 

Kari Ann Roy, in her blog (and later in an op-ed for the Dallas Morning News), tells of her experience with one watchdog. Her six-year-old was outside playing outside (Roy could see him from the window), and a neighbor walked him home, advising Roy that it was “dangerous” for her son to be alone outside. Later, she is visited by a police officer, and her “case” is referred to Child Protective Services

Another set of parents allowed their six- and ten-year-old to walk about a mile home from a neighborhood park and found themselves in a similar situation. Someone reported to the police that the children were unsupervised—and the parents, like Roy, were soon under investigation for neglect by Child Protective Services. 

The list goes on and on. An eight-year-old is seen walking her dog alone; police are called and Child Protective Services investigate. Another eight-year-old misses his school bus and walks to school; police are called and the mother is charged with risk of injury to a child. A nine-year-old plays in a nearby park while her mother finishes her McDonald’s shift; police are called and the mother is charged with unlawful neglect of a child.

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What is the difference between now and when I grew up, when I often walked to and from kindergarten by myself, crossing a well-trafficked street? There was a crossing guard there, by the way, because every kid within five miles walked to school. Unsupervised. 

I do have a memory of being escorted home in a police car during a snowstorm when I was in second grade, though. When I got dropped off and went inside, half my class jumped up from behind furniture, yelling “Happy Birthday!” My mom had planned the master of masters surprise party, and she’s still kvetching that Officer Friendly (his street handle) had effectively ruined the surprise by not making me struggle home long enough so the entire class could get there. What would happen if the same thing happened today?  Would my mom be dragged off in handcuffs? Would we be questioned by DCFS?

In the free-range ’80s, we were shoved out the kitchen door (which was more often than not locked behind us) and forced to “go outside and play” and, on weekends, we’d inhale a bowl of Quisp and take off on our banana seat bikes, lots of times before our parents were even up. We’d be across town by nine – knocking on Mrs. Goldberg’s door, asking her to let us swim in her pool in exchange for weeding her parkway. Why didn’t she rat our parents out? And when I stocked my Hello Kitty coin purse and went uptown to Walgreens alone to eat french fries at the counter and buy bouncy balls, why didn’t the manager call the police then? Why didn’t I end up in foster care?

Did our parents—and every adult around us—care less about us than the adults of today? Were we disposable back then? Is that why my parents had six more kids?  Did they resign themselves to “Well, if Susie gets pulled into a white no-windowed van or crushed by a drunk driver in a station wagon, we’ve still got Joe, Tom, Mick, Katy, Holly, and Mary Anne? That’s still a lot of kids….”

It is absurd to think that our current villages care more about the well-being of their children than they did 50 or 25 years ago. You will hear the “better safe than sorry” argument—but is the impulse to notify the authorities about an unsupervised child purely about safety?

“It’s not about safety,” says Dr. Barbara W. Sarnecka, a cognitive scientist at University of California-Irvine. “It’s about enforcing a social norm.” I think many of us could agree that, in “enforcing the social norm,” buttinski-ism plays a part. A large part. 

The fact is that we live in a time when people looOOoooOove to have an opinion and feel unabashedly entitled to theirs—no matter how spurious or overstepping it might be. So, if they decide what another parent is doing is wrong, by their own standards, they need to voice their judgment. Shaming another parent is often not enough—these parenting vigilantes are deputizing themselves. They helicopter their own kids, so we should all helicopter our kids. And if we don’t, we are bad or neglectful or even dangerous. And so it’s time to call the fuzz. 

I have the urge to argue that these kids are all “old enough” to be navigating their worlds without an adult bird-dogging them. But what if the dog walker were seven instead of eight? Would that be a justifiable time to involve the law? Would four? At what age would taking a parent-less neighborhood stroll with a dog become unsafe or “wrong”? The first and sixth grader walking home from the park, less than a mile from home? That’s not unreasonable to some of us, right? But what if the parents let them walk 1.25 miles, or 1.5 or 5?  What is the “right” number—the distance that we can all agree is too far, the distance that does, indisputably, signal neglect?

Of course, we outsiders will never agree, which is fine because it’s not our job to decide how to parent somebody else’s kid. But here we are, 2021, and folks are making it their business. And if they can’t make a citizen’s arrest (they probably don’t have the handcuffs), they figure it’s time to call in the cavalry.