Taking care of our young

~~ Originally printed in Carrboro (NC) Free Press, March 2009 ~~

Do you subscribe to the helicopter mode of parenting, or are you into raising free-range kids?

Here’s a quiz:
Your children are at sleepover camp for two weeks. On the Saturday they stay over you
A) are at the camp gates before dawn, tearfully clutching a teddy bear and homemade cookies, waving a banner that says “I LOVE YOU (insert child’s name here)!!!”
B) sleep late and make plans to do something decidedly fun that does NOT involve cooking, cleaning or chauffeuring
C) do neither but later feel both regret and guilt for not doing the one or the other.

Newsweek reported last spring on the story of a NYC columnist who caused an uproar when she wrote about letting her nine-year-old son ride the subway all by himself. Without a cell phone. Parents immediately took sides, with accusations of irresponsibility and even child abuse. These cries were met with return allegations of overprotectiveness and hypersupervision.

We have cell phones marketed on the basis that they will allow parents to track their child’s every move via GPS and the internet. Our local school system partners with Ident-a-Kid to fingerprint and photograph children and provide ID cards that are supposed to assuage all a parent’s fears and guilt. The Navy now even has a special recruiting tactic for “coddled” kids.

All this, in a disposable culture that looks the other way from throwaway kids.

How many of us, as parents, believe that our children are just a little more special or deserving than other children? How many of us narrow our focus so much that all we can see is the perceived needs of our own offspring? How far have we gotten from the notion of “it takes a village” that all we can do is sniff with some measure of disdain at other people’s kids, seeing them only as potential competitors or corruptors?

But what about the young people who do not belong to anyone?

In this age of AIG bailouts and Darfur genocide, we are so ready to be outraged at any and all crimes that occur “out there,” horrors that we can claim are of someone else’s making. There is a profound disconnect in our society and in our psyches. Anger too often only finds a voice when someone else is complicit. And do we really want to address the true heart of global warming? Or do we want to just stick on a catchy bumper sticker and feel superior? We are willing to ignore the wars and thousands dead because we feel some guilt attached. But we can rail about earmarks and executive excesses because those are someone else’s responsibility. Life is easier this way.

But when atrocity is brought into the light – on our own doorstep – we are forced to choose. Do we ignore the truth and turn inward just a little more tightly? Assume a firmer stance of denial and bring real shame upon ourselves? Or do we risk moving out into the world and asking, “What can I do to help?”

Here in Carrboro, some local people have stepped forward to make a difference in the lives of young people in the community. From the young teacher who assumed custody of a homeless high school senior so she could graduate this June, to parents who want to raise awareness and build a home for parentless teenagers, to a displaced young man whose concerns center on the enormous subject of racial inequality, these people are not backing away.

It is unfathomable that, in this community, we have nothing to offer high school students who are homeless or who have aged out of the foster care system. We have shelters available for men, there is a residence for women and children, but teenagers currently have nowhere to go.

Helicopter parenting. Free-range parenting. The debate will never end. What matters is that children have parents who provide some level of real security and protection, a home in its most basic sense. It’s an inalienable right, though we might disagree all day long on what that right entails. But we should all be in agreement that even 17 and 18 year old high school students deserve as much. And if there is no parent, then the community has a responsibility to do something. Shame on us if we expect someone else to care more than we do. And no, there is no room for blame in this scenario.

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