Friday, July 10, 2009

Bad Mommies

Gosh, a lot has changed since I was twelve years old.
Bridget Kevane, a professor of Latin American and Latino literature at Montana State University, drove her three kids and two of their friends — two 12-year-old girls, and three younger kids, age 8, 7 and 3 — to a mall near their home in Bozeman. She put the 12-year-olds in charge, and told them not to leave the younger kids alone. She ordered that the 3-year-old remain in her stroller. She told them to call her on their cell phone if they needed her.

And then she drove home for some rest.

About an hour later, she was summoned back to the mall by the police, who charged her with endangering the welfare of her children.
When I was twelve, the lady down the street knocked on our front door and said, "I see you have a girl about baby-sitting age. Can she come over on Thursday?"

We didn't know this family; they'd moved in a couple of months earlier. Their kids were three, four and six. The three-year old was adopted, after having been removed from an abusive home. She was recovering from some sort of accident involving Drano, and its corrosive effects on two-year-old intestinal tracts.

All I remember about my first twelve-year-old babysitting experience was that at least one of the kids climbed a tree, that paying attention to three kids at once was a challenge, and that everything was fine. I became their favorite baby-sitter, because I played. The girl down the street just talked on the phone and ignored them. "She didn't last," the kids informed me.

I got paid $1.25 an hour. By senior year in high school, I topped out at a whopping $2/hr., except for the H---ls, who paid me twenty bucks an evening, even though their toddler went to bed before I got there and never woke up. Mr. H. drank Scotch while driving me home and made passes at me, which I did not notice as such, because married men with children must leave their wives before dating seventeen-year-olds, and I was no home-wrecker.

BTW, the mall-dropping-off incident happened in Bozeman, Montana.
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 brother got paid $10/hr for mowing lawns. When I started applying for Real Jobs at the age of sixteen, four years of babysitting wasn't considered actual work experience.

According to the majority of commenters on Judith Warner's column, leaving five kids at the mall in Bozeman is 'child abuse and abandonment.'


Judith Warner thinks that this incident illustrates pervasive societal hatred of educated women. I think it illustrates a backlash in parenting philosophy since the laissez-faire seventies, plus an unhealthy dose of mass-media-induced paranoia. Plus a bad case of the butt-inskis.


Unknown said...

I too was babysitting at age 12 -- myself and a friend would share responsibility for the neighbors' six children ranging in age from virtually newborn infant to 9 years old. Upon receiving our driving licenses at age 16, that same friend and I would drive four plus hours from Delaware to Virginia for a camping trip. Teens are more capable and aware than they're given credit. The new over-protection of children stems from nationalized, 24-hour news coverage of child abduction and neglect cases -- the percentage of which is no higher than 30 years ago. This same over-protection is infantilizing these teens (who wear pajamas and carry baby blankets to school) and not allowing them to be responsible. Off to work now....

Pretty Lady said...

Dawn, you are so right. I recall talking with a Bay Area friend who was teaching college kids who had never taken the train by themselves, and who seemed to have no initiative whatsoever.

Frankly, I think it is child abuse to treat your preadolescent as though they have no sense and no responsibility. How are they supposed to grow up into capable adults if they're not allowed to practice?

george said...

I don't think this mall episode stems from any definitive concern for children. The culprits' (the authorities) sole motive seems to be to condemn and put an end to any conduct in which there might exist an external negative result. This attitude puts one hell of a damper on living life but it's getting to be something of a fad. Hope that's all it is, hope it doesn't become all the rage, hope it ends soon.

Anonymous said...

Montana State University needs a department of Latin American AND Latino literature? Is there a department of both Euro-American AND Caucasian Studies?

Oriane said...

The NY Times pull-quote is: "This country’s resentment, even hatred, of well-educated, apparently affluent women is spiraling out of control."

That may be true, but I don't think this is a good example. A 12 yr-old babysitting younger children in the children's home is one thing. An adult leaving them in a public place, and not by accident or carelessness, is another. It's possible that some judgmental things were said to the mother, but if a working-class, less educated mother had done the same thing, the police and prosecutors might have made remarks to or about her based on her perceived class. I find that when someone behaves badly, other people will often use whatever stereotype or generalization that fits the occasion when condemning the bad behavior.
"She's a career woman, an uppity intellectual who doesn't know how to raise children" or "she's ignorant and comes from trailer trash; no wonder she doesn't know how to raise her kids."

I think it's true that people are more likely to pass judgment, loudly, on mothers, of whatever socio-economic status, than fathers. The real issue here is access to child care. Every working parent needs it to some degree; after we get universal health care working, we should get to work on child care.

sus said...

I'm with PL and Dawn on this one. Hopefully, things will be in better balance when your daughter hits twelve, PL.

Chris Rywalt said...

As a parent of two children, 12 and 10, I think I wouldn't do what Prof. Kevane did, but I can see how it could be okay. What people who don't have kids in that age range don't understand -- and what even some parents don't -- is that 12-year-olds are spread across a vast range of maturity. Some 12-year-olds are nearly adults and some are still little kids. Some could probably take the subway around New York themselves; my son, on the other hand, I barely trust to cross the street on his own. He's not bad, he's just oblivious.

When I was 14 I failed the entrance exam for Stuyvesant High School. Attending Stuyvesant involved taking the bus to the ferry to the subway to a ten-minute walk across Manhattan. This was 1984, when New York was still in "Taxi Driver" mode.

I recently mentioned the failure to my mother, saying it was the beginning of my long career in letting my parents down. Turns out my other was actually relieved because she didn't think I'd make it all that way back and forth every day. (If she'd known how awful and dangerous my local high school was, she'd probably have thought the commute was a breeze; but she didn't know.)

She was right, though: Next year I did pass the exam (spurred on by attending my local high school) and when, after the first week of making the trip with a friend of mine, I was on my own for the commute, I somehow managed not to find the damned school. After wandering around 14th Street for a few hours I ended up coming back home.

It's tough to find the balance of what your kids are capable of and what they're not, and others are always ready to stand in judgment, whether you're low- or high-income, mother or father. From the day my son was born I've seen others judging us. Everyone, it seems, is omnipotent when it comes to other people's children.

ɹǝƃƃolquǝʞoʇ said...

Maybe they really nailed her for using the mall for childcare, but didn't want to be too obvious.

If she could trust them in the mall why couldn't she have trusted them in the house while she was sleeping?

Carol Diehl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carol Diehl said...

In addition to babysitting at 12 like PL, I used to regularly leave my children in the care of a 12-year-old, who took better care of them than my mother-in-law (with the added benefit that she wouldn't take it upon herself to rearrange my kitchen cupboards while she was there).

Oriane said...

Speaking of adventures in babysitting, I babysat (for a most wonderful baby) the other day from 9am to 3:30 pm without any major meltdowns and I'm quite proud of myself (even though I am bit older than 12). I'm pretty sure that was the first time I ever changed a diaper.

(I know - what kind of mommy would leave her baby with someone who's never changed a diaper? Tee-hee.)

molly said...

final paragraph: true dat!