Parenting and safety and judgment, oh my!

I try to advocate for children. I want their personhood respected, their biological expectations fulfilled, their birthrights honored.

I also speak out as a woman, for women (all women, to the best of my ability). I want us to be respected as people, to be honored as capable of making our own choices, to be free to fulfill our potentials, unconstrained by social inequities.

And I don’t think these are competing goals. I don’t believe — as adherents to the medical model of birth seem to, as second wave anti-breastfeeding feminists seem to, as parenting experts everywhere seem to — that women and children are inherently in conflict, that the good of the one must come at the cost of the other. In birth and breastfeeding and parenting, what is good for women (most emphatically including women’s right to not have children unless they want to) IS good for children, and vice versa.

This is why I advocate for a path where we value and advocate for options, for the social promotion and removal of barriers toward homebirth and breastfeeding and biologically appropriate parenting, and not judge individual choices or devalue individual women and the paths of their lives. This is why I work toward a style of activism that takes responsibility for its consequences without inappropriately owning other people’s reactions. I believe the path of best good, of good for all, is there, waiting for us to open our eyes and find it.

But, especially living in kyriarchy and constrained at every side by a multitude of double binds, sometimes it is not clear what the best action is. Sometimes there is not a clear answer. Sometimes values do conflict. Sometimes all options are complicated. Sometimes all paths are bad because of apparently-competing goods.

Case in point: children’s safety. Perhaps, in Western cultures, we can almost all agree we don’t want to place children in excessive danger. We don’t wish to allow significant harm to any children. We don’t want to see our children die. Perhaps we can also almost all agree that there are risks to life, that to try to eliminate all risks is itself harmful: we want our children to be challenged, to grow, to have fun and live life.

How much we value each of these is almost entirely socially constructed. Aside from an innate biological desire to have our genes survive past us1, everything else — how much risk we accept, how much we even recognize either side of that balance as valid — arises from and varies by culture. There simply is no absolute calculation that the entire human population can agree on that will answer what is an appropriate level of risk to expose our children to.

And yet, neither can I say we should just write off any attempts to come to a communal agreement about safety, because to do that would mean abandoning any form of community contract, any hope of creating the proverbial village, which is so necessary to women’s and children’s health and sanity. If we agree to let each of us have our own lines of safety, we lose the ability to depend on our neighbours to help us keep our children safe.

So where does that leave us when we see a parent “toss their young child into the backseat of their car, [not] put her in a car seat or buckle her up with a seat belt, and start driving away“? If you are, and grew up in, a society without seatbelt laws, it likely makes you smile and not think twice about safety — after all, the odds of an accident are really quite small. If you started parenting in a culture with strong seat belt laws and even stronger car seat mores, like white middle-class suburban North America, you’d likely be horrified — what if there were a crash? That child might die.

What do you do? If you’re an advocate for children, an activist for women, if you speak out against judgment, and in favor of community, and you know car seats save lives in the event of a car crash, and you live in a place where their use is the law, what do you do?

This is not a theoretical question, but I don’t have an answer, not even in theory. I tend to come down on the side of let-it-go — partly because of my own happy memories of long car trips taking naps bedded down, unsecured, in the back of my mom’s minivan, partly as a philosophical allegiance to free-range-parenting, and largely because I’m highly confrontation-avoidant — but that’s only my preference, and probably has the same root as the reason I don’t know more than two of my neighbour’s names, for all that I’m in favor of village living… in theory. And in theory, I don’t mind someone trying to help me, even if I disagree with them. But in practice, I tend to loathe unsolicited busybodies who think they know what’s best for me — whether or not they’re “right”.

I think I can expound on the need for compassion, for openness (to their truth and their stories and their lives, which we can’t have if we’re clutching tightly to our One Truth), for humor and honesty and humility, on the occasions that we do approach another person. I can encourage us all to offer the benefit of assuming the best from others, both in offering and receiving advice. But when to approach? How to draw those lines, between safety and liberty, between community and autonomy? I don’t know. We can each make arguments in favor of “our side”, whatever that is2, forever, but I can’t help but think that’s missing the point completely.

In my ideal world, the barriers to safety equipment and the knowledge to use it properly wouldn’t exist. We’d all drive cars a lot less. We’d know the names of a lot more of the people we meet. And we’d all have a lot more practice at talking with, and a much lower propensity for talking to. There would be laws and social standards to discourage the worst, most risky and damaging behaviors, and a cultural agreement to let a lot more go. Our idea of help would be bringing dinners and doing a load of dishes and keeping a friendly eye on the kids playing down the street, not calling the cops or leaving passive aggressive notes or telling those kids it’s too dangerous to play outside. Fewer children would die in accidents, we would all accept that the number can never be zero no matter how much we would wish it so, and no one would ever blame grieving parents for being negligent.

I don’t know how to get there from here. I don’t know how to negotiate a social contract that we all can live with — that doesn’t kill our children or our respect for each other’s humanity. But optimist I believes it can be done, and terrified parenting I believes it must be done, and quickly. There must be a way to protect my child and respect my parenting decisions, to honor individuals and build community. And I want to find it.


This is not the place to argue about the fundamentals of car seat safety. Yes, car seats save lives in the event of a car crash. No, people who don’t use them are not awful neglectful parents. Comments which insult other parents or disregard the laws of physics may be deleted without notice or recourse. That’s not a conversation I’m willing to host here.

  1. Which is a far more complicated statement than simple biological determinism, with its cudgel of “homosexuality and childlessness and abortion are unnatural and everyone fucks as much as possible to make lots and lots of babies”, would have us believe. See Sarah Blaffer Hrdy for an excellent look at Mother Nature in all its complexity.
  2. Safety always comes first! (Then stop driving your car.) Don’t ever interfere! (So we’ll just let abusers go on hitting, shall we?)
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29 Responses to Parenting and safety and judgment, oh my!

  1. Your ideal world looks a lot like more ideal world. Can we be neighbours?

    In all seriousness, I think about this question a lot. I have an inner Judgey McJudgerson (no idea why, but that’s an exploration for another day) and I frequently have to tell her to shut up. She doesn’t speak out loud though, so that’s something. I don’t LIKE judging others, I don’t like the feeling that comes with it. I have no desire to be holier-than. But at the same time, I sometimes despair at the things I see, perhaps because I was a child who lacked protection myself and I know what that means in someone’s life. I want to protect, I want to see parents parenting well. But there is a huge whack of privilege invested in even being able to talk about things like ‘skilful parenting’ and that’s something I wish more people took note of. It’s so easy to judge. Not so easy to actually help. Or to just be humble. I think that’s why I like the notion of help community you describe here, because it involves being humble in both giving and receiving. It involves accepting that because we’re not perfect, it’s okay that others aren’t.

  2. I always debate back and forth about whether to say something when I see questionable parenting practices in public. I debate for two reasons:

    1) I don’t know if what I am seeing is as bad as it gets for that family (like when herbadmother wrote about the one time she spanked her daughter and a lot of people said they would have called the cops right then and there) or if that is in fact as good as it gets and what happens behind closed doors is much much worse.

    2) It is almost never possible to determine whether the other parent would appreciate some advice or not. Sometimes you can tell that they obviously wouldn’t, but sometimes when I observe something or hear someone saying something that I know is not right, I wonder if it would be seen as helpful or intrusive/judgmental to say something. Obviously tone and manner of approach makes a big difference, but if someone is dead set on doing something a certain way, then it doesn’t matter what you say, they will not hear it and will not want to hear it.

  3. Well, as it is my post that is linked up there I, obviously, tend to lean to the side that gets involved and tries to help. In some ways it is my mission in life to make sure I never have contact with a child who is being abused and NOT help them in some way. But, even I, sometimes feel unsure. It can be hard to know. But I tend to call if I suspect. That is my reality. That is what I can do.

    Anyway, I just wanted to say thanks for linking my story. I truly hope someone reads it and makes the necessary call. I hope someone reads it and remembers it one day when they are faced with that situation.

    • I really appreciated the honesty of your story, and the call to step in when there are any warning signs, but I disagree that calling CPS is the only option besides ignoring the situation. That can be one option, and sometimes may be a necessary or even the best available option, but I think there’s so much else that we don’t try because our culture is so disconnected.

      I’d rather see concerned people step in and ask what they can do to help the parents (because abuse almost inevitably is caused or exacerbated by difficult situations — concerns about money, untreated illness, previously or currently experiencing abuse themselves, etc — which is in no way meant to excuse the abuse, because it’s inexcusable, but to say that we can perhaps address the underlying causes, rather than just treating the unacceptable behaviors) than to call in a flawed, underfunded impersonal organization and then wipe their hands, having “done enough”.

      Of course, ideally CPS (&c) would do a lot more to build community and address underlying issues than they do, and I don’t think we can or should abandon the idea of government-funded child protective services either. I just disagree that the options are “ignore” or “call CPS”, nor that CPS should be the first option we turn to.

      • I agree with that. To some extent. I am sure the parents of my friends thought they were helping in letting me in and letting me call my dad – on their phone bill no less. But, yes I suppose they could have asked my mom how they could help. But even if they did my mom would have told them to mind their own business. So, I guess for me in my situation all I can recommend is calling CPS. As I said I know just how flawed they can be. But they may be all you can do. And sitting back and saying well they do not want our help is no good.

        And I would say it depends on the type of abuse. The extent of it. The type of danger the child is in. Because really, sometimes, it is just not going to stop.

      • Arwyn,

        I think the idea of trying to help out in whatever way you can is a wonderful one, but there’s one big flaw. There are some abusers who are abusing not because they’ve lost their temper in a moment (or year) of stress, but because they have serious personality issues that are going to go on even when their lives are in good order. It is, very sadly, not beyond the bounds of probability that an abuser approached by a would-be-helpful outsider would cry a few crocodile tears about how hard it all was at the moment, (s)he could really use some help, thanks so much for offering – and go right on abusing, behind your back. Would you have the skills and knowledge to monitor the situation? That’s why, in a case where I knew abuse to be going on, I *would* think that calling the protection services would be the best (or at least the least worst) move, despite all the potential risks of that approach. They are trained professionals, who *do* know something about monitoring such a situation.

        • Dr Sarah (and Upstatemomof3): Simply, I don’t think that describes most parents, even most parents who abuse — and I think that we can trust our instincts and intuitions (and the children’s!) about what would be most helpful to that family, whether that’s community support or education or more structured intervention.

          I also think there’s a wide range of “abuse” — yelling or grabbing or spanking or slapping or punching or beating are all abusive, but I think can call for different levels of response. All could potentially be improved with community support, but some call for more immediate intervention than an individual alone can offer. What I want is to have CPS or whatever as an option, but not the first/only tool we have available to us to help when a family is struggling or children are hurting. I don’t think having CPS as the default and only option helps children on the whole, at all (for one thing, when CPS is overwhelmed with more minor cases, they don’t have the ability to respond as well to the more urgent/severe cases as well). Yes, it’s necessary and beneficial in some cases, but it also harms so many others, and denies all families community and encourages secrecy. That’s not the kind of society I want to live in.

  4. I consider myself an overprotective parent, but my own parents don’t think I’m protective enough. When Rachel started pulling herself up on the furniture, they didn’t want her to walk around the coffee table because she might fall and bump her head. Meanwhile, I’ve had other parents see me with Rachel and make comments that I’m way too protective. The judgement on each side is very irritating. I keep my “disapproval” to myself when it comes to most things, like my brother-in-law and his wife expecting their 2 year old to be quiet throughout grace at a big family dinner, or people at the park who let their toddlers climb things that I don’t intend to let Rachel climb until she’s around 5, but sometimes I see things that do cross the line in my mind. The car seat story is one example of that for me.

    Another is a time that I was in Walmart and a woman was looking at cards while her two kids ran around the cart. When one of the kids bumped in to a lady, the mom grabbed her by the arm and smacked her while yelling at her to cut it out. I didn’t say anything, but I wanted to tell her to either A)not let her kids run around where they might bump in to people or knock things over or B) keep a look out for people coming along so she could remind the kids to get out of the way instead of running in to someone. The idea that she would ignore them and then yell and hit when they accidentally bumped in to someone was preposterous to me.

    Then again, I’ve been on message boards before where some mothers have stated very blatantly that a woman shouldn’t be allowed to have a baby if she doesn’t intend to breastfeed or that formula should be sold by prescription only instead of being seen as a choice. There are vehement arguments about circumcision, when to start solid foods, how many classes to sign up a toddler for, whether or not to co-sleep, when to get rid of the soother, etc. Supposedly there is an ideal, perfect time for every choice and if you’re off by a week, you’ve blown it.

    Beyond knowing when or if you should step in is knowing HOW you should step in if you decide to do something. Calling the police is the safer choice if you can remain anonymous, but does everything require a call to the police? Is it harder or easier if you know the person you want to confront? As usual, I don’t have answers…just more questions. I do know that I’m going to feel really, really guilty if anything happens to the little boy on my street who rides his tricycle on the sidewalks with no supervision at all and I haven’t said anything to his parents. I’m not even sure who his parents are, though.

    • Sheri — about the boy on his tricycle: what would you want to say? I want to live in a neighbourhood where I could let my child out on his bike (aside from being too hilly, my concerns are about concerned strangers calling CPS, not the incredibly unlikely stranger danger or slightly less likely hit and run), so if I were that parent, I’d LOVE to hear that you had an eye on my kid, and were looking out for him for me. I’d even love if you came to me to chat, to get to know me so you knew where to find me if there were any problems, even if you said “that’s beyond my comfort level; how did you know he was ready for it?” if I thought you actually wanted to have a conversation about it. That’s the kind of concerned neighbour I’d really want to have.

      For your other questions, no, I don’t think everything does, or should, require a call to the police/CPS/government, and I’d hope we could stop thinking about the situations in terms of “confrontation”. How about “approach”? “Conversation”? I still don’t know how to do that, in practical terms, in the society I live in, but I’m convinced that shift in thinking has to be a part of the answer.

      • I’m mostly concerned with him being hurt, either by being hit by a car or something else that could happen. I should add that he’s only around 3 years old, riding along the whole block and around the corner. To me, at least, that’s scary. I’d talk to his parents, but I’ve never seen him with an adult, nor have I seen anyone watching him, and I don’t know which house is his. As for what I’d say…I don’t know. I agree that I would want to be open and potentially have a positive relationship with his parents, but I wouldn’t know where to start. I like the idea of asking them how they knew he was ready for it.

        I do want Rachel to be able to go to the park by herself and ride her bike around the neighbourhood and I’m sure that others would probably disapprove of my ideas for when it’s appropriate (I’m thinking 7 or 8 is a good age to start letting her do that kind of thing.) It doesn’t help, but I always have to think back on how different things used to be when I was a kid, living in a small city. There was less traffic and everyone knew everyone else; there was a sense of community and caring. I live in a “bedroom community” right now where everyone drives in to their houses at the end of the day after driving home from work in some other city. I don’t know any of my neighbours yet and I’ve lived here for a year and a half.

  5. I am pretty confrontation-avoidant, too. I honestly can’t see myself actually calling out a stranger. And the times that I have been called out, I felt pretty indignant. Like when a lady who had a very large dog off-leash at a local playground yelled at me for letting my toddler play in a ‘very dirty’ sandpile. I was aware of the risks and making a judgment call, which I felt was mine to make. So I try to be respectful of other parents’ judgment calls, as I want them to be respectful of my own.

    On the other hand, I don’t like the idea of washing our hands of each others’ children. And I don’t think we should really all just ‘mind our own business’. So I, like you, find myself in a quandary a lot of the time.

  6. This has raised a few dilemahs for me. Firstly I just want to join the bandwagon and get our commune happening.
    But back to the point. In my professional capacity and due to the nature of my work it’s my duty to speak up about unsafe parenting practices. I’m actually mandated by law. It’s hard because I’m not supposed to examine what I see or investigate, I’m supposed to report. So there’s always a chance that what I see isn’t really what’s happening. But hopefully if I’m the only one making a judgement on unlikely to be abusive/neglectful parent than it won’t be seen as serious issue. Am I making sence?

    Then I have my personal life where I KNOW, SEE, get TOLD about undesireable circumstances and I leave it because I’m not mandated to report that and because I can use back ground information.

    I wish I had a solution. But me being me and someone that’s not afraid of confrontation, I will speak up if I see a child not being buckled in properly etc and I have and i’ve copped abuse. But if it means that child is safer next time than it doesn’t matter how me or that parent feels???

    • Treacy: “But if it means that child is safer next time than it doesn’t matter how me or that parent feels???”

      See, I think it does, yes. I don’t think parental feelings matter MORE than a child’s safety; I don’t think children’s safety should be sacrificed to the altar of parental feelings; but this gets back to the idea that safety VERSUS feelings is a false dichotomy: rather, what is good for parental feelings (confidence, community, comfort) is ultimately beneficial for children (both safety and health). Which isn’t to say we shouldn’t speak up, but that there’s GOT to be a way to do it that doesn’t falsely promote “safety” at the cost of compassion for all parties, that asks questions rather than berates. Perhaps asking “You ok?” or “What’s going on?” or “How can I help?” rather than telling a parent what they’re doing wrong — and maybe that’ll still get bad reactions, but if we all do it, if the whole CULTURE starts to value camaraderie over antagonism, community over coercion, then perhaps we won’t all be so defensive all the time, and more parents would be open to those questions, willing to accept a stranger’s assistance rather than push it away as interference.

      And when we value parents’ feelings — not at the cost of “safety” but alongside it — we also model for their children how to have compassion, how to recognize that there are many potential reasons behind “misbehavior”; and that can only be good for them. Children identify with their parents; no young child wants to see their parent attacked, hurting, angry; I don’t think we should dismiss the damage done to them when we cause that, when we increase their parents’ stress and decrease parental ability to cope with their inevitable challenging behavior. I believe there MUST be ways to decrease risk (driving unsecured) without increasing damage (stress and strain on the parent/child relationship). I think we can find it, but only if there are more of us committed to it.

      • I totally agree with you Arwyn, that was a very simplistic late at night response from me. When I do say something to a parent, I don’t just yell it out or point out their faults. I guide, protect and offer support. I’m a mum with major depression, I know how hard parenting is.

        I was thinking more about huge child protection issues. I’m the first to say that children shouldn’t just be removed from parents and that parents need more support and prevention. I have seen people close to me suffer because they were removed or given up as children. But at the end of the day the child’s safety is what is important. I’m not talking about stuff like a child wasn’t wearing a helmet or their parents let them eat junk food, I’m talking about long term neglect, physical/sexual/emotional abuse etc. I beleive parents need to be supported, if I hadn’t received the help I did when I when I was extremely depressed or close to harming my son or myself, he would have been removed, but I was willing and responsive.

        At the end of the day some parents aren’t for whatever reason and we can’t risk a parent being upset if it means their child’s life is endagered.

        Society has a lot to answer for and we shouldn’t be parenting on our own or in these little nuclear settings. It takes a village to raise a child.

  7. I’ve got a strong live-and-let-live approach. For the most part, I try my best not to judge because you never know what the situation is. Even relatively insignificant things, like the comment above about seeing parents who let their 2 year olds climb play structures they wouldn’t let their 5 year olds climb… I laugh, because that’s probably me. BUT it’s because I have watched my 2 yr old and seen what he is capable of, and also know that HE knows what he’s capable of and isn’t going to do something stupid or dangerous. So *I* know what he is capable of and what is normal for him, but others don’t and b/c of that they might worry that I’m letting him do something “way too dangerous” when really it’s fine. So I try to keep that in mind when I look at others, that I don’t know what their situation is, what their abilities are, what their reasonings are, and if they’re doing something differently from me, well, unless it’s a huge danger to the child then it’s not my business.

    Sadly, I also realize that in all but the most extreme cases even if I did witness something I thought was dangerous, I would feel too shy and insecure to step in and say anything. I have that conflict-avoidance thing going, too.

    The car-seat thing kinda boggles my mind. I do realize that the chances of a bad car accident are relatively low (though much higher than many of the other dangers we all freak out about constantly, I will say). However to me the bigger danger of having a toddler free to move at will in the back seat is distraction to me as a driver. What if they decide to come try to climb on your lap? And maybe that parent and kid already know that the kid will sit still and not do anything that would distract the driver and increase their risk of an accident. Who knows. I do view that as one of those more extreme cases, that’s very difficult for me not to judge.

  8. This is a very insightful discussion, Arwyn, and I think your position on it is one of the most truly humane I have ever read. In particular, your response to Treacy when you wrote: “Children identify with their parents; no young child wants to see their parent attacked, hurting, angry; I don’t think we should dismiss the damage done to them when we cause that, when we increase their parents’ stress and decrease parental ability to cope with their inevitable challenging behavior” resonated with me.

    Just this week I have been called out twice by strangers for things connected with parenting – one a safety issue (an elderly man felt I was being negligent in allowing my 5 and 7 year olds to run ahead of me at the park, despite being nowhere near the road) and one, frankly, a style issue (a woman who wasn’t happy that I did not force my daughter to talk to her when my girl was hiding behind my legs not wanting to make eye contact). In each case I felt absolutely confident in my parenting choice and doubt most people would have disagreed even, and yet I still felt mildly irritated by the approach. I can only imagine how much more strongly defensive my response would have been if it had been one of the times when I was doing or saying something about which I myself or society at large is ambivalent or hostile.

    Children are protected best when their parents and communities work together to give them loving and supportive environments to grow in. Being too quick to judge another parent’s actions undermines that goal rather than helps it, I think.

    Oh, and on the issue at hand – I’m not sure, but I think I’d say something, but not phrased in terms of the law / guilt & blame. Maybe.

  9. This is a great post Arwyn, thank you for dissecting it so rationally. While I’m all for community and stepping in to help and keep an eye on each other’s children, I did have an unpleasant visceral reaction to the story on PhD In Parenting’s post. It was mostly about the way the ‘concern’ was expressed. I just don’t believe that saying, “It’s the LAW” is the best way to approach the situation. Yes, it’s the law. We all know that. I’m sure the woman with the unrestrained child knew that. But there were obviously circumstances beyond what an outside observer could see or know that led to the decision or situation where the child was put in the car unrestrained. And I think it’s important not only to err on the side of belief instead of accusation, but to approach the situation in a more conversational, ‘can I help’ way than banging on the car and shouting about responsibility and THE LAW. That would put *anyone* on the defensive.

    I think I’ve finally put my finger on why it makes me so uncomfortable — when someone assesses a situation that has to do with child safety and they don’t know the child or the parents or their life and what led them to make their decisions, they are assigning their OWN values and choices to them and reacting in the way that THEY believe to be ‘right’. Even in a situation that seems very black and white with regards to safety, I think caution and respect still need to be exercised, for the simple fact that while children need protecting from certain things, definitely, their parents are not merely spectators in their upbringing and what they think or feel or decide about a situation matters too, not JUST the child’s safety (unless it is an immediate and life-threatening danger, which is an exception).

    You know why it makes me uncomfortable? Because trumping the child’s perceived safety over the mother’s/parents’ choices, be they ones you would personally make or not, just reminds me too much of the reasons given for stripping away our bodily autonomy when it comes to our reproductive choices. Other people have absolute convictions that by having an abortion you would be killing your baby and that your ‘situation’ doesn’t matter; it’s plain and simple murder. Still others believe that by valuing your own birth experience and wanting to have control over it instead of following the party line that “a healthy baby is ALL that matters,” you are endangering your child’s life and being selfish. Of course a child is an innocent being and needs to be afforded the utmost protections if its parents are failing it, but the entire family and the entire situation needs to be assessed holistically, not just with the Safety Blinders on.

    To give you another example: Do I hate to see pregnant women smoking or drinking to excess on a regular basis? Absolutely. Is there a good chance that by continuing to do these things her baby’s health or safety may be imperilled? Yes. Is it an absolute certainty and an immediate danger warranting an intervention and a call to the police/CPS? No, I don’t believe it is. Going up to such a woman with scorn and judgment in my eyes and telling her that what she’s doing is wrong is not going to help her. It only makes ME feel better about asserting my values and enforcing them on someone else. A much better approach would be to try to get to know her a little by perhaps asking about her due date, etc.. trying to find out a little more about her and what’s going on in her life before gently suggesting some resources to help her quit smoking or cut back on her drinking if that is something she wants help with. She already KNOWS it’s bad for her baby but obviously things in her life are trumping that and it’s more important to get at the underlying reasons than attacking the behaviour. She is a person, not a pod, and her decisions and life and choices matter too.

    • Noble Savage:

      I think that in the same way that you might wish to cut other parents a bit of slack if they are putting their child into a potentially dangerous situation, it is also perhaps worth cutting someone who does intervene a bit of slack in terms of their choice of words. Not everyone can come up with the exact right thing to say on a moment’s notice and when someone is driving away in anger with their screaming child standing on the back seat (next to the car seat), there isn’t a lot of time to think about what the right words might be. I’m sure my friend has run the situation through her mind over and over and over again trying to think about what she might do/say differently next time (although I know that *not* intervening was not an option for her).

    • Noble Savage — I really, really adore this comment. Especially the last paragraph. Thank you.

      I think the biggest thing is that we don’t all agree on what constitutes “immediate and life-threatening danger”: to some, driving without a carseat counts (whereas I think that depends on a lot of factors, including how fast and how far they’re planning on going, and what the other options are — sometimes, getting the child in the carseat without harm is not one of the options!). Which is why we I think we need to have some consensus about community standards, in a way that both allows us to offer room for parents’ judgment and individual situations, and gives us guides for when to offer help (or call in outside help).

  10. Oh, with regard to your initial question – I think that lack of a car seat is one of the few situations where I really do feel that, yes, someone has to step in and put a stop to that behaviour. They do make a substantial difference to child safety. In that case, I would probably take the number and call the police.

  11. I’ve been reading and thinking about this off and on all day. I’m not sure what I would have done. I have to admit that I am surprised, sometimes shocked, sometimes angry, to see kids not buckled in. When we lived in Phoenix, one of our neighbors drove her kids over to her sister’s house without having them strapped in. Her sister lived two streets up and she did not have to go on any major roads (it was the same subdivision, if that makes more sense?). For a long time I thought she was awful for doing that. But once I figured out she was just going to her sister’s, it just didn’t bother me. It was maybe not the best decision, maybe not the one I would have made, but also not all that dangerous. So did I say anything? Nope. And I would not have called CPS or the police, either.

    I think the seatbelt thing makes it tricky because it is a law, because it IS safer, because it seems so easy and simple on the surface. I personally do not drive without my kids being buckled in. And yet, there have been times that I was so frazzled and thought someone else strapped the kids in that I ended up driving with a kid not strapped in! Now they are older and do their own straps, so we have a phrase we use to indicate that everyone is strapped in. My husband is a bit more anal about seatbelts than I am. We live in the country now. Our road is not busy (that’s an understatement! We see as many horse and buggies as we do cars, and let me tell you the Amish let pretty young kids drive those buggies and with NO seatbelts! haha). So sometimes we get to the mailbox and I let the kids get unstrapped before I turn into our driveway, if there is no one else coming. I still want them to sit down, however. My husband doesn’t want their straps off until we are in our driveway (it’s about 3/10 of a mile long). We let them “drive” on the driveway. Is that all unsafe? I don’t know. I can see how it would look that way to others. Honestly, I think that is what my husband is worried about at that point. It’s not a safety issue when you are on a country road and there is no one else in sight and you have 10 more feet to drive before you turn into your driveway!

    Anyway, the seatbelt thing is trickier than most other things, I think. I’ve been on the receiving end of comments for having barefoot kids and I can tell you I do NOT like it. Most of the time, though, it’s a benign comment, like “Where are your shoes?” Usually the shoes are right in my hand as the kids HAD the shoes on, but their feet got hot. I simply say that I have their shoes and sometimes I mention that their feet get hot. Perhaps these people judge or roll their eyes something, but usually all they do is ask about the shoes.

    However, one day we were all at Wal-Mart doing the self-checkout. The kids started running around and being generally wild, so I decided to get out of the store fast and let my husband finish checking out. While we were in the store, my then 3 year old had taken off her shoes. She had also taken off her sweater. I didn’t have time to get her shoes on (her dad had them) because I was too upset about the wildness that didn’t stop when I asked them to stop. I didn’t think about the sweater until we were already in the parking lot. I was, of course, holding their hands, so was unable to put her sweater on her (not that she was cold or asking for it!)

    So here I am walking in the Wal-Mart parking lot with a barefoot princess. She was cute, but barefoot and no sweater and it was about 40 degrees or so. This lady asks where her shoes are. At first I thought it was the benign question. But then she starts getting angrier and telling me that it’s “only 40 degrees out” and she should have shoes on. I start to explain about the hot feet and that she doesn’t want her shoes, and she says I am the mom and I need to make her wear her shoes. Nevermind that her feet were NOT cold. Nevermind the wildness in the store, nevermind that my husband was coming and had her shoes. She also asked if I had a coat for her and offered to go buy one. Eventually I told her it was none of her business and that by yelling at me she was making me take even longer to get to the car. The kids were confused and upset because some stranger was yelling at their mom.

    So while I can see that it is important to look out for kids and help them out of abusive situations and just look out for kids, in general, there is a fine, fine balance there. And helping, with love and concern, is always, always better than yelling, judging, head shaking, eye rolling, etc. We so often do not have a clue what is going on that it is hard to figure out what to do. Sometimes doing nothing is better, and sometime it isn’t. It’s a tough call. I don’t fault your friend for trying, for worrying, for being concerned. But I also don’t fault the woman for responding with an emotional and unhelpful comment. It is possible that at that moment, the mom was so angry that having her child unstrapped in the car was perhaps safer than forcing her child her seat. I, too, have forced my kids in mid-tantrum. It is NOT fun. It is NOT easy. It is not easy to do it and remain calm and gentle. I have at times been too rough with them. Perhaps this mother was making the best decision she could at the time? And since the dad was there, it was also his decision, right?

    OK, now that I finished my novel, I’m not sure if I should post my comment here or on Annie’s blog?? I read both posts and comments, so my comment is really about both. Ah well, if I made a blog etiquette mistake, I hope you all will forgive me. :)

    • Feel free to leave the comment on my blog too! :D

    • It’s funny you should mention the barefoot thing because I’ve been on both sides of that one. It’s not something I’d ever get confrontational about, but I have asked the parent if he/she knew the child didn’t have shoes, especially at the park where kids seem to take off their shoes all the time and I keep hearing parents yelling at them to put their shoes on, or getting angry because they can’t FIND the child’s shoes. I would be a bit concerned about a child walking barefoot through a parking lot because I see broken glass on the pavement a lot, though. On the other hand, though, I remember taking Rachel to a medical clinic once when she was very small and I didn’t think to grab shoes or socks for her since it was really warm. The wait got longer than I had hoped and she got restless, so I let her walk around the waiting room in barefeet and I got lots of looks and a few comments, but the way I saw it, it was just dirt. I could see that there wasn’t anything for her to step on and her feet could be washed, and it sure beat trying to keep her quiet and hold her on my lap…I’d have gotten just as many looks and comments from the other people if I had done that, but she’d have been miserable. It wasn’t my first choice and I wished I had thought to put something on her feet before I left, but it wasn’t a huge deal that I hadn’t.

      Another situation this reminds me of is when I took Rachel for a haircut when she was around 18 months old. She was very fidgety and I got one of those bubble blowing things…the soapy liquid with the wand in it. I blew bubbles for her, and then she wanted to try but ended up chewing on the wand instead. The ladies at Melonhead (a kid’s hair salon) were shocked that I didn’t stop her from putting it in her mouth; you’d have thought I was beating her or something. I told them that the label said it was non-toxic…it was just soapy water and she was actually sitting quietly for the haircut, so it was fine with me. It’s definitely a situation in which they didn’t know the whole story, though. Rachel put EVERYTHING in her mouth and there was just no stopping her. The worst time was when she was literally licking a fire hydrant. By this point, if it wasn’t sharp, small enough to choke on or poisonous, she could put whatever she wanted in to her mouth as far as I was concerned.

      • My kids are barefoot A LOT. Their feet get hot and sometimes uncomfortable. It doesn’t matter how comfortable the shoes are, they will take them off. I can usually get them to wear flops in the spring and summer, but then only when we go inside anywhere. Their shoes mostly live in the car. As soon as we get anywhere, they kick off their shoes. At restaurants I tell them they need to put them back on to walk anywhere and I tell them it’s the restaurant’s rule, not mine. That makes it easier somehow because they aren’t likely to do something just because I want them to, unless I can think of a good reason, which I honestly can’t about shoes other than safety and I’m not. We have chickens. They range during the day, which means the poop is everywhere. So dirt or grime on the floor of a restaurant does not phase me. Feet clean up, usually pretty nicely. :)

        Despite going barefoot so much of the time, they rarely step on anything. Aidan did get a thorn in his foot last week when we were playing down by the creek. It was in pretty far, but that was mostly because he was stomping his feet, throwing a fit about something his sister did. He has gotten a couple of scrapes and nicks on his foot, but not many. Mo is the same way. I don’t know how they do it, honestly. And despite the chicken poop everywhere, they don’t seem to step in it very often.

        So when I do have them put shoes on in restaurants or stores, it is mostly because I am worried about what others will think or say, or it’s because someone has said something already. Even then I don’t always do it. The reasons and rules for wearing shoes in public places are mostly CYA type reasons. I did have a Wal-Mart (I barely shop there, but it seems like people there are more likely to say something for some reason??) greeter say I needed to put shoes on them or get a cart. I had forgotten their shoes, actually, and told her so. I also told her I would NOT sue if something happened. I know some people would, but I’m not that sort. :)

        So that’s what I usually do indoors. At a park? Forget it. They are totally not going to wear their shoes and why should they? I can’t think of a good reason, other than worrying over appearances (there seems to be a social stigma to being barefoot, as if you are barefoot because you can’t afford shoes), safety, or that nebulous “public health” concern. I can think of a lot of good reasons to go barefoot, though, and I wish I could do it but years of shoe wearing have made my feet tender. My kids walk on our gravel driveway barefoot, and it’s not pea gravel! They used to walk in the street and on the sidewalks in Phoenix when I thought it was too hot. Never once did they get a blister. If it was too hot, they’d run back to the grass and put their shoes on. Same thing with cold weather now that we are in Illinois. They know their bodies and their feet really well. If they say their feet are fine, I have to trust that. It doesn’t mean I don’t watch out for thorn bushes or glass on the sidewalk or big rocks or whatever… I do that and they do it, too.

        I guess the point is that it’s a well-thought out decision on my part, as most of my decisions are. However, it LOOKS lazy or negligent or poor or whatever. So people comment. And usually we go on our merry way, me walking with two pair of shoes in hand. :)

        • When I was a kid we walked around barefoot all the time at and around the local park, pool, beach, down the sidewalks in town, etc. We would only put on shoes in the summer if it was too hot to walk on the pavement or sand without them!

          Unfortunately, at some of the parks I go to with my kids, broken beer bottles is a problem. Used needles is a concern in some of them. And in our yard, there is the problem of the @#%! nails and screws that my partner has left lying around over the years. So far I insist on shoes and thankfully my kids haven’t made a big stink about it yet. If they do, I guess we’ll deal with it when that happens! :)

  12. oh wow.
    and here I am staring at a blinky cursor, wondering if I should (or even if it’s possible for me to) continue.

    Here’s the deal. I have a kid (he’s two). I don’t have a car.

    I have a car seat, and it will fit in any car if we ever need a ride someplace, but no car of our own. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I had one. I don’t drive. I should drive, but I don’t. I don’t even know how. I’m way past old enough, but there you have it. I don’t drive.

    Mostly I take the bus or walk everywhere. which, yay for me, yay for my carbon footprint, yay. but there are times where I get stranded, by the weather or by unforeseen circumstances, and need a ride home, for me and my kid, in a car without a car seat.

    for all you know, you’ve driven right past me, with my car-seat-less two-year-old buckled into the back seat or entwined in my arms…

    it terrifies me. the legal consequences for the poor soul who volunteers to see me home safe would be nightmarish enough, let alone if anything should (godforbidgodforbidgodforbid) happen. but my options are limited. accept a short ride from a friend, or walk an hour in the snow/pouring rain/wee hours of the morning?

    what would you do? (assuming you didn’t have a random half-a-grand in your pocket for a barely-street-legal automobile plus another $500 for driving lessons?)

    the crazy thing is, once when I was walking home from work with my son sleeping on my back in the babyhawk, I was pulled over by a police cruiser in response to a call some random stranger made as she was driving by, claiming that my baby was in danger because his head had flopped backward in the carrier.

    you better believe I was furious, especially since I had made the necessary adjustments by the time the cop caught up with me, and also because they treated me like a common criminal with absolutely no good reason.

    so, on the subject of children and safety and helpful strangers being helpful, I don’t really know what to say. if anyone feels like my situation would be made BETTER by a call to the cops, well, be my guest, I guess…

    • I have some friends who have told me that if they are going on a long car ride and the baby wants to nurse, they will nurse in the car. I wouldn’t have ever done that (though with my first he HATED the car, so I sat in the back with him and contorted myself so he could be in his seat AND nurse while we drove), but I can understand why they want to do that.

      I think there is a big difference between neglect and parents making careful decisions. Sometimes those careful decisions may not be what we would make and may not be the safest option, but it’s hard to tell and useless to judge. A quick car ride without a car seat seems safer than a long walk in snow or rain in many ways. Even that is much different from the parents who don’t bother, don’t care (and again I guess I am making a value judgement), but it does seem that if kids are not in a car seat and are not even sitting, but are instead jumping around and moving around in the car, that is really unsafe. I haven’t seen that in a while, but did see it in Phoenix at times. Anyway, I guess my point is that it’s not a binary thing: car seat or no car seat. You can do no car seat as safely as possible. It’s not AS safe as a car seat, of course, but is safer than nothing at all. Just like formula feeding CAN be nurturing and enhance bonding if done in a certain way.

  13. Pingback: We knocked on the neighbour’s door « Raising My Boychick

  14. I read this post about a week ago & something in it kicked me. In a good way. ;) Part of it was you talking about car seats, and I’d just come off of reading Superfreakonomics & testing on how for a 2yo+ demonstrated that a seatbelt was just as good, if not better, than a car seat. But mostly it was the overall bits about cultural conflict and value judgements.

    First, I started thinking about how different my current world is than my childhood world, which (to my adult eyes) seemed to be rather homogeneous. My husband and I have pretty similar value systems, although they do tend to evolve over time. But I wonder how things go when two opposing value systems need to be worked out within a home. Which one wins? What shapes the winning path? And then, most important, what aftereffects does this have on the “losing” value/custom/practice? Does it reinforce judgement and assume that others must come to similar conclusions? Of course, there will be variations, but I wonder if this sort of struggle results in more overt judgements.

    Second, I wonder about the “village” aspect. I think that there are many beautiful aspects to a village…and some seedy ones, too, that don’t get mentioned as much. But I can’t help but wonder: what if you’re just not a village person, dammit? I am a first-generation North American — both of my parents immigrated from Holland, my mom as a 9yo, my dad as a teenager. And they both ended up in farming communities, which when it was horse & buggy instead of cars was completely removed from a village. I was also raised on a farm, although with vehicles.

    Apart from the unfamiliarity of village life to start with (although there was definitely still community), I feel deeply that different personalities do not suit village-ing, such as a pioneering spirit that wants to be off, exploring by oneself or one’s family. And while pioneering doesn’t really jive with modern NA, I think that the personality is still strong in some people.

    So what does one do, if you’re not a village person? Do you force yourself to fit into the village around you, simply to adapt to the community? I do feel there is a bit of civic duty that we can all live up to. But is that fit really going to be cohesive? Or do you seek out your own engineered community of other pioneers? And what loss of immediate, tactile community occurs then?

    Anyways, thank you for this post. A lot of those thoughts had been percolating & this helped to surface & give form to some ideas.

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