Where To Draw The Line

July 31, 2010 § 5 Comments


One of the ways in which people frequently judge women is regarding parenting. Women are judged by whether or not they have children, how many children they have, how they raise and take care of said children, and there seems to be quite a few rules and regulations that must be followed in order to be a Good Mother. And, as posts like Mai’a’s views on “child-free spaces” show, feminists can be just as judgemental about how parents (especially mothers) raise their children.

I think a lot of people have a difficult time when they are in the same space as a child is misbehaving, and don’t know when it is appropriate to say something to a parent whose child is acting out/misbehaving/otherwise acting like a child in a room full of adults.

I think this “I don’t want to be impolite, so I can’t say anything” impulse can be harmful during times when a child isn’t just being fussy, but genuinely in harm’s way.

About a month ago, I was hanging out at a friend’s house, which she rents with several other roommates. We were on the porch, when we noticed something disturbing going on at the next door neighbors house: A little boy ways trying to climb out of a first-floor window, and we didn’t see anyone come over to pull him back in. My friend (who is majoring in social work) went over to say “Go inside” in an attempt to coax him back in. She then knocked on the front door, and after a while, someone answered. She explained that the window was open, and that the boy was trying to climb out of it. After walking back to the porch, we saw the little boy attempt to climb out of the window, again. When she said that she was going to call Child Protective Services the next day, she asked us “Is that okay? Am I doing the right thing?” We all responded that yes, calling CPS was the right thing because it didn’t seem like anyone was supervising the boy, and if we had not noticed what was going on, he could’ve gotten hurt, or ran off without anyone knowing, and that whoever was at the house didn’t seem to notice/care that something was wrong. And she, as a social work student, had the best understanding about when living situations can be harmful to children.

I get annoyed when people freak out about how Angelina Jolie is raising her children. (Do I have some mixed feelings about how she can “magically” change a child’s life by adopting them? Yes. Do I think this makes her a bad mother? No.) I’m also annoyed when people assume that when a child is crying in a public space, the mother of that child is bad/stupid/selfish/should’ve gotten a sitter. There are times when I’ve gotten annoyed with the children around me (airplanes are one of those times, though a dingbat honeymoon couple who wouldn’t stop whining about a flight delay takes the cake for me, and for every crying child in a theatre, there has also been the adult who blithely uses flash photography, even when the house manager tells them not to). However, most of those times, the children were not causing any harm to themselves or others, and the parents were trying their best to calm down their children.

We have to ask ourselves: Is this child going to harm themselves or others? Do the parents intervene to prevent that from happening? Are the children being abused (physically/sexually/emotionally)? Are the children abusing others? And in those situations where outside interference comes from a response to a dangerous situation, we should not have to apologize for our actions.


§ 5 Responses to Where To Draw The Line

  • katiee93 says:

    I think the big issue that comes out of this is how much the (U.S.) CPS sucks. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have called them or anything, but their priorities can be seriously screwed up. A child living in the same home as a drug-user or addict is not abuse. A physically or mentally disabled parent is not abuse. Home and/or unassisted birth is not abuse. Homeschooling and unschooling are not abuse. Living so deeply in poverty that you can’t afford necessities or keep the house spotless is not abuse. Yet, CPS will respond to calls about all of those things without questioning it, often with tragic results.

    In the case you talked about, I would hope the CPS would respond sensitively, actually listen to the child’s caretakers, and respond appropriately. For all we know, the child’s care-giver could have, say, fallen ill and fainted. Bad situation, but nobody’s fault, right? CPS will probably still pull some kind of reactionary crap.

    (I swear, I’m not trying to say your friend did the wrong thing, even though it might seem that way. The CPS sucks, but who else can you call?)

  • Kelly says:

    I hope anyone reading this article reads and re-read katiee93’s response, especially that first paragraph. (oh and katiee93, the world needs more people like you!)

    I think to many calling CPS sounds like a good plan and it SEEMS like things will work out; after all if the parent isn’t “guilty” of abuse or neglect nothing bad will happen to the family. But it’s not that simple and families with no abuse/neglect issues can be subjected to lots of suck and/or end up parenting in fear and paranoia. Having the government investigate into your family life and open your fridge and poke around asking questions? If you haven’t been through what that can be like, read around. If you’re interested in how this “why not call CPS” attitude can actually end up working out for parents who are good parents (but don’t have physical control of their children for every second of the day) you can either read our own story or some of the stories at Free Range Kids re: parents who’ve been arrested, forced to live under parole-like conditions, take parenting-classes, etc.

    I think many people who think of calling CPS think they’re doing the right thing but that doesn’t mean it is. This person caring for the kiddo could have told the boy not to do it, ran to get something burning on the stove, and the boy does it again. I’ve been there and I’m no neglectful parent (read my blog for a few months if you’d like to know what kind of parent I am). Kids are not satellites entirely under remote control.

    And she, as a social work student, had the best understanding about when living situations can be harmful to children.
    I also disagree with this. In fact it sounds rather arrogant and ignorant. An involved caring parent/carer has the BEST understanding about the child/window bit and maybe that “very small” child was perfectly safe crawling in and out of windows. I have seen many small children very agile and very able to know what their limits are. (Now I wasn’t there and I don’t know if your “small” child was 18 months or 3 or 4 or what). The involved carer can actually tell ME if it’s safe or not.

    Let’s say you go next door and ask and you see something disturbing. Or you get the vibe something creepy is going on. That’s another story. But even if there isn’t an involved caring parent/carer involved (as far as you can tell), a social work STUDENT is not the next “expert” either and I’d caution people on thinking they know too much about parenting, especially those that haven’t done it (no, teaching a class is not the same).

    I’m getting all ranty and assy so I’ll end with this: I can’t count the times a person has thought a child of mine couldn’t handle doing X, Y, or Z – but I know they can. And they do.

    When I see an unsafe kid I talk to the parents about it, especially with an open mind that they likely know their children better than I. In that interaction I learn a lot about the scenario: the eye contact and tone of voice and the way the child behaves and what I see in the house, whatever – it all informs me to evaluate better. If I saw the behavior again I would speak to the parents again (this hasn’t yet happened). I wouldn’t call CPS first thing or even second thing unless what I was seeing was very severe. And honestly first-floor window stuff – my kids climb 20 foot tall trees.

  • Kelly says:

    Sorry, it’s me again. I was thinking after I hit “post” that certain words I used sounded hostile AND sounded as if I was taking Elena or her friend in bad faith. I wish I could edit a few words I used because I rattled off pretty quick.

    These are hot-button topics for me. I write a lot about parenting culture and kid-culture. I can’t overestimate how fear promoted by the MSM and cell phones have changed the landscape of parenting, how many CPS calls are unfounded but still cause a lot of drama for famlies, also how much mama-shaming goes on and how freely many people weigh in to tell parents (especially mothers) how many ways they are unsafe and getting it wrong (interestingly our CPS letter of absolution – but creepy and vague warnings – is written in MY name only not my husband’s!). I just want anyone who thinks of calling CPS to read some accounts of how this often plays out to, as katiee93 says, “tragic results”.

    If you are interested in the societal pressures on mothers and the intersectionality with feminist and womanist goals (and apologies if these have been posted; I’m new-ish here!) there are four stellar parenting/mothering feminist sites I’d recommend for reading and/or for the blogroll: Anji does great work at Mothers For Women’s Lib and I Blame The Mother. Arwyn at Raising My Boychick is also an excellent read. fertilefeminism is another stellar UK mothering site.

    Thanks for these last few blog posts and I do like what I’m reading here – you’re in my feed reader. Apologies again for incaution. I’m not trying to take the piss out of well-meaning citizens. I do hope my counterpoints and recommended reading are taken up by any who read here.

    • Elena says:

      I used “expert” because she knew a heck a lot more about the complexities of children living in unsafe environments than anyone else around her. And there wasn’t, for whatever reason, a caring parent present or willing to address the situation themselves. She wasn’t calling because she didn’t like the neighbors/didn’t believe they were parenting in the “right” way, And she did get the vibe that something was wrong because whoever responded didn’t do anything, or even say “Oh, he tries that all the tme, and I just watch to make sure he doesn’t run off”. And, like I say below, I havent’ asked her about how much she knows about CPS’s grey areas/flaws, but I’m sure she knows that those problems exist. She was calling because she saw a situation where a child was genuinely in danger of hurting themself or running off, and the parents or guardians hadn’t addressed the issue after beign told about it.

  • Elena says:

    I would have to ask Awesme Social Work major about when CPS abuses its powers, because I know very little about how that system works. And I wouldn’t doubt that ther eare inefficiencies in the system (hence so many of the tragic abuse and neglect news reports that are always on the local news). Also, homeschooling (I haven’t heard of unschooling before) is wildly popular in West Michigan (for amont onther reasons, parents who desire to teach their children a highly religious curriculum), so there is a network of homeschooling communities, there are a lot of standards and guidelines regarding homeschooling. Most homeschooling families are white and middle/upper middle class, and I’m sure that sort of privelege keeps them form getting too much outside scrutiny.

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