The following story is true. The family asked me not to use their real names.
NOBLESVILLE, INDIANA A week before this past Christmas, 9-year-old Jacob Smith was excited for Santa’s visit. In his family’s picturesque Victorian-era home with its deep, wrap-around porch, hardwood floors and tall ceilings, he wrote a letter to Santa.
He’d been thinking of Santa’s cottage, set up on the courthouse lawn just down the street from his home. Santa had a mailbox there for just such a letter.
Warning: This story will end with Jacob’s parents being questioned by the police and child protective services. If you’re looking for a light-hearted Christmas story, this isn't it.
Jacob’s father is an award-winning schoolteacher, his mother a free-lance marketing specialist. The next morning before school they agreed to let him walk alone the 4 blocks to the courthouse square to put his letter in Santa’s mailbox.
It’s a ridiculously, unbelievably Normal Rockwell-ish journey, down a brick street lined with historic architecture where Jacob often walked the family dog – a loveable, old blind mutt, past the doors of his family’s friends, even other family members, the route for Christmas, 4th of July, and Homecoming parades, and then past the coffee shop, restaurants, and businesses his family visits regularly. He dropped the letter in Santa’s mailbox and turned for home, deciding to take the alley that runs from the square east-west behind his house, knowing that would lead him a few steps closer to the family’s kitchen door.
Halfway home he was stopped by an elderly woman in a car. She asked what he was doing in the alley in the dark. He told her his name, his parent’s names, his address, and that he was just a couple blocks from home. She parked her car and insisted that he stop and walk with her to his home. Once home, Jacob told his mother about the elderly woman he met in the alley.
And then a police officer arrived at their door, asking why Jacob had been allowed to walk to the square before school (the elderly woman had apparently called the police). Jacob’s mother recalls an awkward exchange with the female officer who warned Jacob that there were bad people in the neighborhood. And though no law defines such matters, the officer got into a discussion with Jacob’s mother about the specifics of what was safe and not safe in the neighborhood where Jacob’s family had lived for years, but where the officer didn’t live. Again, no law defines these matters, it was just the officer telling Jacob’s mom what she thought should be allowed.
“You know since a child is involved, I’ll have a file a report with the Department of Child Services,” the officer said before leaving.
Once the officer left, Jacob’s mother explained to him that his neighborhood was safe and that he would be free to explore it, with permission, that he shouldn’t stop for adults no matter who they are, especially when he’s confident in what he is doing, that she and Jacob’s father weren’t going to by hypervigilant helicopter parents who obsessed over his every move, that part of growing up is having freedom, making mistakes, and learning to be independent. She told him not to be afraid, but instead to make smart choices.
Then the Child Services lady showed up saying she was there to talk about the “alleged neglect.” This involved a meeting with the entire family around the dining room table, one that left Jacob, his little brother, and his parents uncomfortable. They were being judged for behavior that is not specifically defined anywhere in law, accusations that were leveled by an anonymous, unnamed elderly stranger whose credentials amounted to, at most, having a differing opinion from Jacob’s parents about what was safe in the neighborhood.
Think a moment about this true story. Today, Jacob’s parents are called “free-range parents.” This kind of parenting was simply called “parenting” a generation ago. But today, a stranger could stop your child, redirect your child’s activities, and escort your child somewhere at their sole direction. And because that stranger simply called the police, you could find yourself questioned and lectured by not only the police, but by Child Services on private parenting decisions that have no specific definition in law. It's just one person in a position of power with a differing opinion about child rearing.
And consider that now there is a document in a file and a pdf. in a database that Jacob’s parents were asked to sign showing Child Services had been called to Jacob’s house. Can you imagine the next time a hypervigilant adult with ideas about parenting that differ from Jacob’s parent's ideas decides to call the police because a 9-year-old boy is walking the family dog on the courthouse square (which Jacob does with his parent’s permission). The newspaper or TV story would likely have a line that reads, “This isn’t the first time Child Services has been called to the Smith home.”
If you’re middle aged or older, you know that the freedom Jacob's parents have given him was no big deal in your childhood, as your parents likely gave you far more freedom. Had these standards been in place during my childhood, my parents would have been in jail.
Is the world really more dangerous today for children? I'll look at that question next week in the Hoosier Contrarian.