Lenore Skenazy, of the Free Range Kids blog and book, has a must-read piece on the criminalization of parenting in the Wall Street Journal. Specifically, how states are making it illegal for parents to step away from their children while they are in the car. She tells horrifying stories of mothers being hand-cuffed, hauled to police stations, and being threatened with the loss of their children.
Of course, we’ve all heard horror stories of babies and toddlers dying after being left accidentally in cars for hours. This is horrific, but it is not the same thing as mom running to grab her purse or buy a gallon of milk while her baby sleeps or 6-year-old waits in the car, happily leafing through a book.
As Skenazy writes, the laws make little distinction and impose absurd penalties on parents:
The laws differ in their particulars, but basically they state that a child under age 6, 7 or, in Utah, 9, cannot be left alone in the car for more than five or 10 minutes. In Nebraska, having your 6-year-old wait in the car is an offense in the same category as allowing the child to be "deprived of necessary food" or "sexually exploited." In Louisiana, a second kid-in-car infraction carries a sentence of not less than one year in prison, "with or without hard labor." That'll certainly make the kids safer—having mom or dad off breaking rocks in prison.
There are so many things wrong with this, but here’s one worth lingering on: Many people—particularly very responsible people—are discouraged from having kids, and certainly having big families, because of the sense that parenting is so difficult and requires so much intense focus that they can’t handle it. People worry about not being good enough parents, and laws like this feed that concern and raise the specter that for the slightest infraction one might be branded an unfit parent and have one’s children tossed into the state system.
This is a terrible message to send people. Yes, parenting is hard and time-consuming, but it doesn’t require a complete suspension of common sense and constant intense focus just to keep junior alive. Kids need laws to protect them, but those laws should focus on preventing actual harm to children, not making mom’s life needlessly miserable.
Birth rates are falling in the United States (as well as much of the developed world), and I believe part of the reason for this is that we make parenting a real chore, even when it doesn't have to be. Telling parents they can never exercise judgment and briefly leave their children in the car, or let them drink from a garden hose, or play cops and robbers, makes many want to pass on the whole enterprise, or at least limit their exposure to the pressures of parenting.
We need to lighten up a little–reform these obviously overly-burdensome laws and encourage society to trust parents to use common sense.