It's the silly season of news, and the latest developments from across the Atlantic have me wondering if the British are way too flaky or actually just a little more sensibly relaxed about parenting than we are.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, it was revealed this week, accidentally left his 8-year-old daughter at a pub near Chequers, a country home prime ministers use when they want to escape London. That sounds awful on its face, but the girl was fine. Unlike a lot of places in the States, where places are either child-hostile or way too child-coddling, pubs in England accommodate a range of ages in patrons. Kids and pets might play together while adults have the sort of actual adult conversations that prevent them from being driven crazy by their kids, and kids get to escape the parents for a bit. It seems the Camerons got into separate cars, each thinking the other had the little girl with them (oops!) and realized in a panic she had been left there. She was fine, and had only been separated from her parents about 15 minutes.
Had that happened here, President and Mrs. Obama might have been carted off in handcuffs for child endangerment (well, the Secret Service might have trumped local law enforcement). They would have been attacked as evil incompetents who should have their kids put in Child Protective Services. The Republicans would have run ads asking, "Obama: If he can't even pay attention to his kids' safety, how can he protect yours?" Think of how Obama's foes hyperventilated after the social-climbing Salahis managed to sneak into a formal dinner at the White House (where they never threatened anyone or posed a risk to the president). Forget the economy or the wars or Gitmo—leaving Sasha at a restaurant for 15 minutes would have cost Obama his re-election.
It's not good, what happened in Britain. But it's not utterly incomprehensible, and it's not necessary to assume the worst will always happen. We're so inundated with milk carton faces and made-for-TV-movies about abducted kids (the vast majority of whom are abducted by estranged spouses or partners in custody battles, and not by strangers) that many of us tend to see tragedy as the only outcome of a child left alone even for a minute.
But while kids shouldn't be left alone for long, they do need to develop some autonomy. As Father's Day approaches, I can't help but think of my own dad, who was remarkably independent at a very young age. As a small child in inner-city Rochester, N.Y., my father went to his eye doctor appointments by himself. He couldn't read, he told me, but he know what bus to get home because it had two rows of letters and it had a "4" on it—and he was four, so he identified that number. Nor did my grandmother give him any money, since kids under five could ride for free. He did confess to me that he secretly worried that the bus driver would say, "Come on, kid—you're five! Pay up!" and that he would be unable to ride the bus.
Granted, this was the early 1940s, and most likely, someone would have helped my father if he got lost or needed to make a call. And surely, we live in a more dangerous world—though probably not as dramatically more dangerous as we have convinced ourselves. My parents did a lot of things by themselves when they were kids, and encouraged (or forced) us to do the same. There's something to be said for giving a kid a little room, a little time without the parents.
Just don't leave them in the bar.