This week, a woman was arrested for letting her nine-year-old daughter (armed with a cell phone) go to a playground unsupervised. Lenore Skenazy of Free-Range Kids explained this wacky story over at Reason:

Here are the facts: Debra Harrell works at McDonald’s in North Augusta, South Carolina. For most of the summer, her daughter had stayed there with her, playing on a laptop that Harrell had scrounged up the money to purchase. (McDonald’s has free WiFi.) Sadly, the Harrell home was robbed and the laptop stolen, so the girl asked her mother if she could be dropped off at the park to play instead.

Harrell said yes. She gave her daughter a cell phone. The girl went to the park — a place so popular that at any given time there are about 40 kids frolicking — two days in a row. There were swings, a “splash pad,” and shade. On her third day at the park, an adult asked the girl where her mother was. At work, the daughter replied.

The shocked adult called the cops. Authorities declared the girl “abandoned” and proceeded to arrest the mother.

There are so many disturbing aspects to this story; it’s hard to know where to begin. But let’s begin with the nitwit who called the police in the first place. I’m sure this snitch was puffed with pride when they called the police on this little girl’s working mother. A real citizen soldier, that one.

I spend a lot of time talking about the danger of big government and the nanny state and bureaucrats nosing around in people’s business, but this story brings into sharp relief an even more frightening phenomenon: 911-happy, hypersensitive, busybody do-gooders who take it upon themselves to decide what’s right and wrong for your child. And now, apparently, those “citizen informants” can cause real and lasting harm (not to mention a police record) to their neighbors.

Some might sympathize with the informant in this case — perhaps she was just concerned for this little girl’s safety. But let’s think about what was better for that little girl. Should Debra Harrell have made her daughter sit inside an air-conditioned fast-food restaurant with nothing to do all day but (to the horror of the first lady) eat fries and hamburgers? Or is her daughter better off spending the day outside in the fresh air getting exercise, meeting and playing with other kids, and learning a lesson or two about independence and decision making?

Fresh air, exercise, learning how to make decisions — isn’t this what we parents are supposed to be providing our kids?

Others have defended the action of the informant by saying things like “But times are different today” and “Kids can’t do today what we did as kids.” Oh yeah? Why? Because of skyrocketing crime?

It is understandable that people might think crime is up in America, given the proliferation of crime-entertainment television and the 24-hour news cycle. But crime is actually down since the 1990s — and that includes crimes against kids. (Lenore Skenazy provides a very useful information page on the declining crime rate here, which should be required reading for all new, nervous parents.)

We have got to stop infantilizing children and doubting parents. We must encourage parents to do exactly what Debra Harrell did: Know your child and make decisions based on his or her abilities. Harrell knew her daughter could play alone in the park, and she provided her the means to communicate.

For that, she sits in jail.

— Julie Gunlock is with the Independent Women’s Forum and is the author of From Cupcakes to Chemicals: How the Culture of Alarmism Makes Us Afraid of Everything.

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