The Internet breeds cheap activism. Point and click, donate a buck, sign a pledge, leave a comment. You can walk away feeling good about yourself and never think about it again. This disconnected approach can lead to angry mobs executing Punishment by Internet. Death threats over speaking out against sexism, ruined careers over speaking sexist words. But how many of us stick around to look the consequences of our fervor in the face? Isn’t it enough that we said something? Isn’t it enough that we felt righteous for that moment? We can’t see the human on the receiving end, but surely they deserve the fruits of our fury.
Meanwhile, IRL, this “point-and-click justice” is leaking into our face-to-face lives with traumatic results. We lack connection with the consequences of our actions in the lives of other humans, and it is affecting families in a very specific, very negative way.
Would you fancy your family walk through the snow getting interrupted by a police officer looking to investigate you for it? I know one mom, out with her twin two year old boys last February, who didn’t appreciate it one bit. Turns out a passing stranger had judged that the boys’ coats weren’t heavy enough, and called 911 to report.
For potentially cold children.
Please raise your hand if you think this was helping. I promise not to retaliate by ostracizing you from the world with a torrent of bloody Internet Rage. Or call the police. But I will ask you to read on carefully, and seriously consider your position.
In this case, the knee-jerk “heroism” of a stranger didn’t ultimately harm the family. Our officer made it clear he thought the whole thing was stupid, and let this mom go after checking up as required. But, as recent headlines have shown us (over and over and over), not every family in this situation has been so lucky.
Here’s the emerging pattern:
Say the kids slip out of the house and take a walk down the road. Say you let them go to the park by themselves, or walk the neighborhood on their own. Say a stranger thinks that was the wrong choice to make. They make a phone call and move on, leaving CPS and the children–grateful for their “help,” I’m sure–to deal with the fallout. The fallout makes news, and debate over when it’s okay to leave your kids alone rages over the Internet. Is it right to leave a nine year old by themselves at the park? In their own yard? Won’t somebody please think of the children! And meanwhile, the families under question are being split apart, parents jailed, fired from their jobs, and possibly arrested in front of their kids, who reportedly can suffer long afterwards from fear that someone will come take Mommy and Daddy away.
Consider Tammy Cooper, arrested in 2012 for letting her children ride their scooters in their cul-du-sac while she watched from a chair on the porch. “My daughter had him [the police officer] around the leg saying, “Please, please don’t take my mom to jail. Please, she didn’t do anything wrong.”’ I wonder whether the neighbor who reported Ms. Cooper really considered the trauma their call could create.
It’s like leaving a comment on a stranger’s annoying blog post: feel the outrage, pick up your phone, make a quick call, move on with your life feeling you have done your part. Maybe you don’t even really read the article before skipping to the bottom to leave a bit of snark based on the title. Is this child you see alone possibly quite well taken care of? What is their family like? Are the parents at work, forced to choose between paying for child care and paying for rent? How is your call going to change their family? Have you really read the whole story? Online and in person, are we truly seeing the humans on the receiving end of our crusades? Surely, we think, our actions have done something positive, but exactly what we can never quite know, and maybe we don’t entirely care.
“We still do not have our children, we are fighting for our own freedom and due to the nature of my employment I am no longer employed..My son was in his own yard playing basketball, not in the street or at the park. The authorities claim he had no access to water or shelter. We have an open shed in the back yard and 2 working sinks and 2 hoses. They said he had no food. He ate his snacks already. He had no bathroom, but the responding officer found our yard good enough to relieve himself in while our son sat in a police car alone. In his own yard, in a state, Florida, that has no minimum age for children to be alone.” 1
This statement was taken a month after this couple was strip-searched and arrested because their 11 year old son had to wait in the front yard for 90 minutes after arriving home because they got stuck in traffic.
Did the neighbor who reported these parents do the children a favor?
Can we think a little further before clicking, before dialing, to ensure that our misplaced words do not cause hell for those who don’t deserve it?
So you see a kid by themselves in the park, or in front of their home. You wouldn’t allow such a thing! Maybe the child is young. Maybe the neighborhood is dangerous. You’re concerned. You’re angry with the parents. You reach for your phone. But are the police or child protective services, created to deal with crimes, neglect, and endangerment, really going to improve this child’s situation? Should you really be the judge of whether the parents deserve to be arrested, jailed, taken from their children, possibly fired? Because once you make that call, all these things could easily happen to the family within the next few minutes; before there is even an investigation. What else could you do, that might be more helpful and demonstrate better understanding of the family’s circumstances, which you do not know?
You could go talk to the kid. You could ask him how he is doing, tell him you are concerned to see him out for so long. Sit down and keep an eye on him, for the love of God. Is he locked out of his house? Offer him a snack and some water. Ask yourself this: WWMRD? What Would Mister Rogers Do? He sure as hell wouldn’t split up a family because the parents got stuck in traffic.
This post isn’t about when it’s okay to leave your kids alone. That’s going to vary depending on the kid, location, circumstance, and a dozen other factors that I can’t possibly judge because I’m not you. My point is to state unequivocally that IT IS NOT OKAY TO REPORT PARENTS FOR THIS SORT OF THING. You cannot treat a human being like an annoying meme to be reported with hopes that whoever is in charge will delete it. We cannot make our neighbors and strange children on the street into a forum where we showcase our polarized opinions, quick and dirty, consequences be damned. If you think there should be action, it must come with connection. It must come with understanding of the situation, of the long-term consequences, of the beings, human like you, whose happiness may hang on your decision to make that call. A thorough reading of the blog post before commenting, if you will, and please consider that the human on the other end is just as complicated and worthy of nuanced consideration as you are.