The other day, a friend of mine (I’ll call her Kate) and her eight-year-old son (I’ll call him Matt) stopped by the library to drop off a book. Windows down, Matt decided he wanted to wait for mom in the car.

When Kate returned from the library, she found a woman, parked, blocking her exit from the parking space. Her car window was rolled up and she was on the phone. Kate waved to the driver; however, the woman would not make eye contact and continued talking on the phone. Finally she drove away.

Shortly after Kate returned home, two police officers arrived. One officer explained that the police had been called by a woman who said that a child was left in a car in the library parking lot. Kate and the officer had a discussion and the officer explained that they regularly receive calls from people who want to “police” their neighbors, but will not talk to them directly.

This story is a great starting point for a discussion about what we can do as community members to be “good neighbors.” The woman in the car could have opted to “hang out” for a few minutes, ask the child if he was okay, and let the parent know, when she returned, that she was there to be on the “lookout” for her child. This shows empathy and compassion and also gives the parent the opportunity to become aware of the surrounding neighborhood through the eyes of another.

While it is critical that we call authorities if we see a child in imminent danger, it is also important to respond to events in a way that is helpful, safe, and compassionate toward families. This was a missed opportunity to make a positive connection.

This story also brings up questions that continue to perplex most communities. How do we help our children learn to be self-reliant, while also keeping them safe? All 10-year-olds are not identical; they mature at different rates and are ready for independent experiences at different times. Forty years ago, 90% of school children walked to school; that number is now 10%. In addition to exacerbating our epidemic of childhood obesity, we have also lost one of the hallmarks of developing autonomy as a child. We also struggle with the question of how old should a child be before she is left at home alone? Should I let Jane walk to the park alone or with a friend? Can Joey ride his bike to the neighborhood grocery store?

These are important discussions for us to have. As adults, it is our job to protect our children while giving them the space to become self-sufficient.

Back to Kate’s story, I checked in with her later and she happily reported that the police officers handled the situation with professionalism and understanding. They were, however, very unhappy with the woman who blocked her car in the parking lot, and said they would be discussing the inappropriateness of this with the driver.

— Joelle Gallagher, Cope Executive Director

 

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