Little Kids, Big Rules: Thoughts on the Criminalization of Childhood, Part I

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When I was growing up, I was well aware of our family rules and those of our neighborhood, which were intended to ensure safety and foster kindness, integrity and good manners: Look both ways before you cross the street. Share. Don’t go swimming without telling an adult. Say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ Pick up after your dog. Put trash in its place. Be home before dark. We respected those rules for the most part because we understood that, at the other end of this short list of restrictions, was a long tether of outdoor freedom. There was a great sense of comfort found in community. Parents knew each other’s kids by name. Everyone looked out for everyone else. Bikes got left on neighbors’ lawns and returned the next day. The bigger kids climbed the oak tree when the cat got stuck. Kids got in fights. And every once in a while, someone broke a rule. But we knew we were trusted even when we made mistakes.

We also knew that the consequences of breaking those rules would be proportionate to the ‘offense.’ If you pushed someone down, you said you were sorry and helped them up. If you destroyed a flower bed, you offered to replant it. If the baseball you threw ended up in someone’s living room, you took on a paper route or raked the leaves around the neighborhood until you could pay to replace the window. At least that was the idea. Things got worked out. No one called the police. Ever.

Unfortunately things are very different today. We’re seeing more and more serious rules with more and more disproportionately severe consequences imposed on increasingly young children. This phenomenon has been termed “the criminalization of childhood” and it is occurring in nature, in schools and in our communities. As neighborhoods, particularly private communities, continue to create and enforce ever more restrictions targeted at children, the limitations of natural play are numerous. As Richard Louv, Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, writes in his proposal to create a Forum on Children, Nature and the Law:

“(While) some community associations and public governments work hard to accommodate or encourage natural play . . . the psychological and legal landscape has changed. Girl Scouts can no longer climb trees at Girl Scout camp. Kids all over the country are hearing a double message from the adult world: Get off the couch, go outside, but oh, by the way, we don’t really want you doing anything out there. Other than organized sports.”

The obvious consequences of these restrictions on outdoor play are numerous, including childhood obesity due to lack of exercise, disconnection from nature (referred to as “nature-deficit disorder”), depression and reduced social interaction. Not surprisingly, many parents, deterred by a strong fear of liability and law infractions, feel helpless to create change for their children. As a result, they find themselves unwitting accomplices in the propagation of these rules. Louv goes on to state:

“In some communities, young people who try to recreate their parents’ childhoods may face misdemeanor charges or see their parents sued. Such legal barriers are not only created by public government but also by private government . . .One woman told me her community association banned chalk drawing on the sidewalks. Just try to put up a basketball hoop in some of these neighborhoods, let alone let the kids build a fort or tree house in the field beyond the cul de sac. In some planned communities, adult officials will tear down that fort or tree house within days. Too often, city governments do the same thing.”

What message are we sending to young children when we add on the threat of severe consequences for breaking rules that don’t make sense in the first place? For some, it is laying the groundwork for early societal control and obedience through fear. For others, it is surely planting the seed of distrust and future rebellion against authority. Although the term “the criminalization of childhood ” may seem exaggerated to some, it is representative of a larger problem stemming from infringements on basic human rights, namely over-policing. Civil rights attorney Chase Madar, in his article entitled “The Criminalization of Everyday Life,” says this “battlefield mentality” is what “leads now to the repeated handcuffing of six- and seven-year-olds in our schools as mini-criminals for offenses that once would have been dealt with by a teacher or principal, not a cop, and at school, not in jail or court.” This same mind-set is spilling over into communities and encouraging an individualistic and exaggerated notion of “law enforcement.” How can we, as parents, hope to foster independence in our children in the face of over-policing and fear of legal ramifications? And what happens when we add the layer of fear that law enforcement has recently inflicted on the black community to an already restrictive landscape? A friend or mine recently posted on Facebook:

“I tried to not let this worry me but it does. . . The next door neighbor has complained about the boys running in her yard to get the soccer or football they are playing with and said it hit her door. (Our community) doesn’t like kids playing in the front (yard). I talked to the boys and their friends and told them the rules. I watch the boys from the living room and quickly tell them to get out of her yard and driveway when I see them chasing the ball. Monday was a nice day to play outside after school. The ball went over there a few times and I had them bring (it) in and play something else. Yesterday I get a message from my sweet landlady saying the neighbor had called her, complained that the kids were playing in her yard and driveway and running in her backyard and the ball was hitting her door again. She mentioned that the next time it happens she is going to call the police. . .It churns my stomach in these times to think of police rolling up on my kids and their friends playing in our yard having fun.”

She received many comments in response, mostly describing the neighbor’s reaction as disproportionate, possibly race related and certainly frightening. Some suggested taking a ‘kill her with kindness’ approach, suggesting perhaps this woman was just old and lonely. Others strongly suggested my friend find out exactly what the neighborhood rules were as well as her children’s rights. After days of distress and reflection, she ended up drawing from the pool of advice and compromised. She proactively talked to her neighbor and let her know that yes, her sons would comply with her wishes. She also let her know that she found her threat to call the police unacceptable and why. And she explained that she had gone to the police community relations division to apprise them of the situation in the event of further complaints. Knowing my friend, she did this with both grace and authority. And it ultimately worked. The neighbor backed off because she no longer had a victim. By arming herself with knowledge of her children’s rights and the courage to confront her neighbor in a firm but non-threatening way, she was able to defuse the situation.

The world is not risk-free. And we should always keep our children’s safety in mind. But we need to find a middle ground between zero tolerance and plain common sense. Buying into the culture of fear and propagating it by following rules which harm our children isn’t the answer. We need to rely on the knowledge of our rights as parents and those of our children in order to be part of the solution. The good news is that people are coming together on this issue on a community, national and global level by resurrecting the supportive role of small communities, by actively influencing local legislation, by enlisting local and national political support, by raising awareness of children’s rights and by offering solutions on how children can safely enjoy the many benefits of outdoor play and the exploration of nature. For more information, to find nature clubs or regional campaigns in your area, see the Children and Nature Network. In Part II, I’ll be addressing the criminalization of children in schools and how it affects homeschooling in the U.S.