Regular commenter Mark Faulkner pointed me to Judith Warner’s latest piece at the New York Times, Dangerous Resentments. Warner argues that
our country’s resentment, and even hatred, of well-educated, apparently affluent women, is spiraling out of control.
But her evidence for this is mighty thin: one case of a professor-mother, Bridget Kevane, who was charged with child endangerment and had the book thrown at her:
The prosecutor pursued her child endangerment case ultra-zealously because she “said she believed professors are incapable of seeing the real world around them because their ‘heads are always in a book,’” Kevane writes. “I just think that even individuals with major educations can commit this offense, and they should not be treated differently because they have more money or education,” the prosecutor wrote to Kevane’s lawyer.
Now, I find the prosecutor’s remarks offensive, myself. My head is frequently in a book (or turned toward my computer) but if I’m with my kids, my ears are still tuned to them (right now they’re making happy playing noises) and my antennae are quivering. While I’ve known a couple of professors who really did inhabit a different universe, none of them spawned offspring. On the whole, intellectuals are not dry, detached, heartless creatures.
Americans do harbor an anti-intellectual streak. Perhaps women bear the brunt of this more than men. I’m not quite convinced of that, though. George W. Bush’s victories over Al Gore and John Kerry demonstrate our collective ambivalence toward intelligent men. Obama might represent a swing of the pendulum back toward valuing intellectuals – or he might be a fluke. After all, suspicion of “eggheads” goes back at least to Adlai Stevenson.
Besides, while female intellectuals face occasional overt prejudice, it’s much less pervasive and damaging than the biases against poor women and women of color. I for one would rather be seen as an absent-minded professor than as a welfare queen. Life in general and motherhood in particular are easier for women with my educational advantages than for most poor women of color. While I’ve had long spells of underemployment, I have a job and health insurance, my kids live in a safe neighborhood, and a very good public school is just a couple hundred feet from our front door. That doesn’t mean it’s illegitimate to point out sexism against privileged women, only that it needs to be contextualized and relativized, which Warner really doesn’t do.
At any rate, Warner can’t make her case with a single example: one prosecutor in Bozeman, Montana, who had a bad case of town-gown resentment. Kevane highlights the town-gown issue in her original essay at Brain, Child, and some of the commenters there also confirm that the university has tense relations with the town.
What’s really at stake here is a set of issues that all parents face: how much freedom and responsibility to give kids, how much we should restrict their lives in the name of “keeping them safe,” and how parents will be judged for their decisions. I say “parents,” but in reality it’s often mothers whose feet are held to the fire, as Kevane’s case shows.
Bozeman is a small town known for its quality of life, striking physical beauty, easy access to the outdoors, and great public schools. It is also known as a safe community. The mall is considered a family place where kids trick-or-treat in October to escape the cold, and groups of children meet friends, shop, eat and see movies. It is a popular activity both during the long Montana winters as well as the summer months.
The mall is a safe place. There are no signs posted at the mall saying that children cannot be left unattended. No child has ever been kidnapped or molested at the mall. And yet, I was charged as a criminal for dropping children there without my direct supervision.
My oldest daughter, Natalie, and her friend, were both twelve at the time, going into seventh grade. The girls, who had known each other since they were three years old, had attended a babysitting class sponsored by the local hospital for girls eleven and older. The class teaches CPR, infant care, responsible behavior and more. They both also had enough experience babysitting other people’s children that I trusted having them supervise the other kids at the mall—Ellie, eight, Matthew, seven, and my younger daughter, Olivia, who was three.
An outsider, or someone used to a bigger, more crowded way of living, might be shocked to know that I left children that young in the care of two twelve-year-olds. But these kids were a pack. They grew up together in a neighborhood full of children. They walk to and from their local schools together, play together, and frequently spend time at each other’s homes.
My husband and I are particularly good friends with two families that live near our home. We parents depend on each other for support and mutual child care as much as our children depend on each other for friendship. As our kids have grown older, an implicit agreement has formed among us: Our children will wander to each other’s homes, and it is our job to informally supervise them and keep each other aware of their whereabouts. As we all live within less than half a mile from each other, much time is spent going from one house to the other, to the park, or walking around the nearby university, where I am a professor of Latin American and Latino Studies.
So when the older girls asked if they could go to the mall that Saturday, I said yes, if they took the younger kids with them. On that particular day, I was exhausted. The children wanted an activity, and I wanted a couple of hours of quiet and rest. …
The plan was for the kids to have lunch and walk around a bit. I told the older girls the rules. They could not leave the younger kids unsupervised. They could not make a ruckus. They had to behave. Olivia, the three-year-old, had to stay in her stroller. When I called my husband and the other mother to let them know the plan, there was no hesitation on their part. My husband was at his office down the street from the mall, less than five minutes away. I would be at home with my cell phone, and my daughter had her cell phone in case they wanted to be picked up early.
I dropped the group off at roughly one forty-five p.m. and said that I would pick them up at four for the barbeque we were going to that night. It was to be an afternoon activity, as simple as that.
About an hour later, my husband, who was home by then, received a call from the police telling me that we had to come down to the mall immediately. My first thought was that the kids had made a scene, that they had knocked something over, that they had run about recklessly. We jumped into the car.
When I walked into the mall, the children were all in an enclosed security office behind a glass wall, smiling, eating candy, and talking to a security guard and some Macy’s employees. I smiled and waved to them, relieved that everything appeared fine.
That feeling was quickly about to change.
As soon as we entered the office, I was confronted by two Bozeman city police officers. One told me that what I had done was completely unacceptable in his opinion and that he was going to arrest me for endangering the welfare of my children. I asked him if there was a mall age limit that I was not aware of. He told me to be quiet. I tried to explain to him that I had faith in my daughter’s skills and in the safety of the mall, and that I was not an endangering parent. As I tried to keep talking, desperate to clear up what was obviously nothing more than a huge misunderstanding, he warned me that if I “went crazy” on him, he would handcuff me right in front of the children and take me away to jail for the night. He said he had called child services already. They would either arrive at the mall shortly or get his report and be visiting my home this week to check in.
My husband tried to reason with the officer, emphasizing that this was a first-time mistake and asking if we could be set free with a warning, some lesser charge. But the officer simply kept repeating that what I had done was a crime.
I’ve quoted at length because Warner’s column left me feeling pretty judgmental, but after I read Kevane’s essay, I felt much more sympathetic toward her. My own reaction mirrors the disparate tone of the comments at Brain, Child and at the New York Times. Most Brain, Child readers were basically sympathetic. Ditto at the Free Range Kids blog, which reprinted Kevane’s essay. At the New York Times, readers have roundly criticized Kevane’s mothering (and mostly dismissed the point Warner was purportedly trying to make about prejudice toward educated women), as did Jesse at Pandagon.
Kevane’s original essay makes clear that she’s still working through the deep shaming she experienced. However unwittingly, Warner just compounded it by presenting a much-condensed version of Kevane’s story and exposing her to a new round of shaming in the national spotlight (259 comments at the NTY and counting).
I do think Kevane made a couple of errors in judgment. One is that two twelve-year-olds don’t add up to double the babysitters; they add up to double the distraction. The other was to not realize that the mall would quadruple the distraction. At the mall, twelve-year-olds who are otherwise devoted big sisters quickly turn into flighty adolescents. Myself, I wouldn’t entrust a three-year-old with such a young sitter in public, because when the Tiger was three, he had this alarming tendency to run away. He wouldn’t have stayed in that stroller. Maybe Kevane’s little one is more docile, but there’s still a world of difference between a kid who’s still in a stroller and one who goes to grade school.
But here’s my confession: I’ve left my kids in the care of an eleven-year-old! I had a late Friday afternoon work commitment, and my husband got roped into an event that overlapped with mine. After trying a couple of older sitters, who were busy, I asked the sixth-grader two doors down to pick up my boys at school, bring them home, give them a snack, and play with them for an hour until my husband could come home. I was a little apprehensive but it worked fine. Our families are good friends, she’d done some prior “mother’s helper” work for me, she’s taken the Red Cross babysitting course, and my kids adore her. Our kids often form a little posse, much as Kevane describes. My town is a “safe” town, much like Kevane’s. Neither I nor my neighbors lock our back doors during the day, and some folks might think that’s pretty chancey, too.
Would I have sent our young neighbor to the mall with my kids? Heck no. Our mall is like a ghost town; more than half the stores are empty because the owners insist on charging crazy-high rents. Would I have asked her to mind my kids while she had a friend over? No, the conflict of interest would’ve been obvious. But I have sent them all to the playground together. Also, unlike Kevane, I wasn’t reachable by phone when I left our neighbor girl in charge. In an emergency, she could have reached her own mom by phone, but all four of us parents were at the university, a minimum of ten minutes away.
So I can’t totally condemn Kevane. I think everyone involved made some errors: the older girls, the other parents, the police, and the prosecutor. That doesn’t add up to a criminal offense.
Also, I’m just old enough to be a former eleven-year-old babysitter, myself. When my family spent time at our farm (we normally lived in town), I watched my sister, who’s eight years younger, while my parents and brother worked in fields. And by “watch,” I mean I tried to read a book while she played. (See, this nose-in-a-book thing runs deep.) There were no cell phones in 1975. I also babysat for pay at age eleven. It was just blocks from my house and I knew I could call my mom in a pinch, but I was in charge of two preschoolers, sometimes until well after midnight.
I think it’s perfectly okay to let a parent know when she (or he!) has overestimated her kids’ responsibility level. Kevane basically let the Macy’s staff fill the gaps, and that’s uncool and presumptuous. She could have sent the kids outside, or to the playground, which wouldn’t have been such a treat for the kids, but surely would have been the much smarter choice.
But criminal prosecution? Again, you really need to read her essay to get the full flavor of her experience. Also, where’s the outrage about her husband and the other mom agreeing to the situation? Why was only Kevane arrested, and not her husband, who after all picked up the phone when the cops called?
I tend to be overprotective of my kids. But what happens if parents’ decisions that depart from the most restrictive standards in the community become criminalized? We could keep our kids in a bubble, we could encase our kids in amber, and they’d be perfectly preserved. But keeping kids safe isn’t just a moment-to-moment concern. We also have to prepare them, slowly and systematically for life outside that shell. Navigating that tension is tricky. What happens if we haul every parent who makes a misstep into court?