Maybe you’re a parent. If you’re not and you’re a reasonable adult, imagine you are a parent.
It’s a lovely day. Your six-year-old would like to play outside. You do not live in the median of an expressway. You do not have a child molester living next door. There is no pack of dogs roaming your neighborhood. You give your son a kiss, a pat on the back, and send him out.
And then Child Protective Services comes to visit. No, really. This happened.
I was going through the piles of mail. There was a knock at the door, which was weird because no one ever knocks on our door unless it’s the UPS guy, and he doesn’t come until dinner time. Corralling the crazy barky dog, I looked out the front door window and saw a woman I did not know — and my six-year-old.
I whipped the door open, trying to figure out what was happening. The woman smiled. My son frowned. And as soon as the door opened he flew into the house, running as far away from the woman as he could.
“Is that your son?” she asked with a smile.
I nodded, still trying to figure out what was happening.
“He said this was his house. I brought him home.” She was wearing dark glasses. I couldn’t see her eyes, couldn’t gauge her expression.
“Yes. He was all the way down there, with no adult.” She motioned to a park bench about 150 yards from my house. A bench that is visible from my front porch. A bench where he had been playing with my 8-year-old daughter, and where he decided to stay and play when she brought our dog home from the walk they’d gone on.
“You brought him home… from playing outside?” I continued to be baffled.
And then the woman smiled condescendingly, explained that he was OUTSIDE. And he was ALONE. And she was RETURNING HIM SAFELY. To stay INSIDE. With an ADULT. I thanked her for her concern, quickly shut the door and tried to figure out what just happened.
Next up: the police, minutes later. To ask if she had allowed said child to play outside. And then the cop took names. Then Child Protective Services came. To interview the kids (outside of the parents’ presence.) To interview Mom and Dad (separately.) To inquire about sex, drugs, alcohol, food, bathing habits. When all was said and done and the kids were deemed officially safe, Mom asked what she could do to prevent this from happening again.
“Don’t let them play outside,” was the answer.
My head: it swimmeth. Let me see if I’ve got this straight: the government wants my kids to be healthy and strong, so I have to get them to play, but not outside if unsupervised by an adult. If they are to be outside playing, appropriately supervised, the play area must have adequate padding underneath lest any of the kiddos fall. If I must go inside to to do anything, all the kids must come with me. Or, I take the advice of the child protective services’ employee above, and not allow my kids outside at all. I can’t safely feed them much (lest they become obese), so anemia and Vitamin D deficiency may be a problem. Perhaps Child Protective Services has the answer…
Here is where Catholic social teaching comes in. Subsidiarity says that the closest and most efficient way of managing an issue is almost always the best. For instance, the village votes on who will be the new dog-catcher; he or she is not appointed by Congress. In the case above, the neighbor likely had the kid’s best interest at heart. Where things went askew is when she called in the National Guard (okay, the cops and Child Protective Services.) It is good to watch out for each others’ children. It is good to keep an eye on things in the neighborhood. It is not good to make a federal case out of a 6 year-old playing outside on a nice day.
Letting a kid play outside on a beautiful day, in a family neighborhood, within sight of the house, is a reasonable thing to do. Let’s be reasonable.