Fear, Parenting, and Today's Vigilante Culture

It takes just one phone call from a stranger to the authorities to have people questioning your fitness as a mother. Beware the new parenting vigilantism, where anyone watching and judging can turn your life into a living hell. 

mom peering out window with binoculars Priscilla Gragg
THE SHARP knock on the door rattled Kari Anne Roy. It was a hot midsummer morning, and she was puttering around the house, occasionally glancing out a window to watch then 6-year-old Isaac as he played outdoors, 150 yards away and visible from her front porch. When Roy opened the door, a woman she didn't recognize handed Isaac over. "She said, 'I brought your son home. He was outside. Alone. Without an adult.' "

Roy, who lives in a quiet residential area in Austin, was baffled. "I was thinking, how could she be bringing him home when he was home?" she explains. "So I thanked her and figured she was just some overzealous neighbor." 

Minutes later came another knock, this one from a policewoman. She asked why Roy had left her son unsupervised. She took Roy's ID and wrote down Isaac's name, as well as those of her two other children, 12-year-old Samuel and 8-year-old Georgia. Within the week, Child Protective Services (CPS) had come and interviewed all three children individually, while Roy had to remain in another room. They were asked questions such as whether there were drugs in their house or if they had ever been shown pornography; how often they bathed; and whether there was fighting in their home. It took one long, nail-biting month before officials told Roy, who was terrified of losing her children, they had closed the case and wouldn't file charges.

She was so angry and frightened by the experience that she wrote about it for The Dallas Morning News. A year later, she sees what happened to her as a growing problem: self- appointed parenting vigilantes. "The idea that I was endangering my son by letting him play outdoors, always within view of the house, is just nuts," says Roy. "People are so judgmental of how others parent that they're taking it to a whole new level."

Often, this "I'm watching you" scrutiny puts parents in a no-win situation. "One person might criticize you for letting your kids sit inside and play video games while another might judge you for letting them play outdoors without hovering," says Roy. In a different era, she says, they would have just made a caustic comment. "Now, they call the cops."

Experts say it's a twist on our fear-based "if you see something, say something" mentality, with this new kind of parenting police on alert for anything that strikes them as bad, sloppy, or just misguided. "We've become a nation of people who think we know best about every aspect of parenting," says Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure. "Even though, statistically, kids have never been safer, we read so much in social media about devastating things, like abduction, that they become real to us. People start to think they should impose their fears on everybody else. It's a kind of mob mentality about how to parent."

If you feel others are standing by to judge your parenting, you're not paranoid. People are waiting for you to screw up. A recent Parents poll of more than 2,200 parents finds that 94 percent think parents are too judgmental, and 37 percent of parents have worried that someone might misread their decisions and call the police. Still, many of us believe the world is full of such monstrous parents that we should be reporting more of them to the authorities. Almost a third of those we surveyed believe women like Roy's neighbor are doing the right thing: After all, the thinking goes, why take chances when a child's well-being might be at stake?

About 11 percent, though, including Patrycja Angela Levreault, think that such people are moralistic busybodies. One morning two years ago, the Hamden, Connecticut, mom was just getting out of her pj's and heading for the shower. Jack, 3, and Bella, 1, were playing in the living room. There was a knock on the door and she saw a FedEx truck out front. 

TATTLING BY THE NUMBERS

"I just didn't feel like answering," she says. "So I ignored it and figured the driver would leave a note so I could pick the package up later." She showered fast, and by the time she came out, both kids were screaming. "They were yelling that a man had looked into the living-room window, then come around to the back and peeked through the sliders." She saw the driver cross the street and knock on a neighbor's door, then drive away. Fifteen minutes later, the police showed up.

"They left as soon as it was clear the kids were fine and that I was, in fact, home," Levreault says. "But I wish people would just mind their own business." 

No one is arguing that child abuse and neglect aren't real, and we should all be willing to call authorities when a child is in danger. And we do: Calls to report possible cases of child abuse to states' Child Protective Services (CPS) offices climbed to an estimated 3.5 million in 2013, the most recent statistics available, an 11.6 percent increase since 2009. (CPS says those numbers have been increasing since 2007.) But while more calls sounds troubling, the number of kids who are actually victims is down, falling 3.8 percent from 2009 to 2013, to an estimated 679,000 children. 

The True Danger of Kids in Cars People aren't just peeking into parents' homes. Vigilantes are especially on the lookout for children left unattended in cars. Because kids can get heatstroke quickly (children overheat up to five times faster than adults do, and opening windows won't prevent heatstroke), many states and towns have passed laws about how long children can be left. Some say 15 minutes is okay, some say zero minutes is too long. Since the interior of a car, even with the windows slightly cracked, can rise on a mild 70°F day to over 90°F in ten minutes and to 110°F in 20, leaving kids in a hot car is dangerous, and tragedies occur every year when small children are accidentally forgotten in the car. Meanwhile, parents who presume they're doing nothing wrong by, say, quickly running inside a store on a cool day with children in sight in their vehicle, or who even step outside the car for a few minutes, can be prepared to be labeled as terrible parents.

mom wearing a to protect and judge vest Priscilla Gragg 
Just ask Courtney Tabor. Last year, she parked her minivan in a shopping-area lot in Fayetteville, Georgia, right up the road from the house she and her husband had recently put under contract. It had been a long morning, and all three girls—Zoe, then 3, and 2-year-old twins Summer and Jasmine—had fallen asleep in their car seats. With the engine and the AC on, Tabor stepped away from the car to smoke. Standing in the breezeway outside a crafts store, while her car remained about four spaces away, Tabor lit a cigarette and tried to make a phone call. She estimates that she was out of the car, which was in her line of sight, for five to ten minutes. 

Just as Tabor was getting back into her minivan, however, a police cruiser arrived. An officer asked her if she knew why the police were summoned and pointed out that Tabor had left her kids unattended in the vehicle. "I recall her saying, 'If one of your children started choking, you'd have no idea because you can't hear them or see them.' "

At first, Tabor tried to explain: "I said I was standing there the whole time, and it had just been a few minutes. That the AC was on. That the kids were fine." But when the officer insisted Tabor call her husband to get the girls, she started shaking. "I couldn't believe what was happening."

As soon as her husband arrived, the officer arrested Tabor, handcuffed her, and drove her to jail. She was charged with "minors left unattended," although after more than a year of uncertainty the state decided not to press charges. Of course, Tabor is relieved, and embarrassed. "If I had it to do over again, I would never have gotten out of my car," she says. The story got some local press, and when she Googled it, she could only read a few comments about her horrendous parenting before she had to stop. But here's the thing Tabor can't shake: "My kids were never in danger." 

It turns out that an employee at the crafts store saw the kids alone in the minivan and called the cops. And at least 24 percent of our poll takers agree the police should be called if a parent leaves a 7-year-old alone in a car, even for less than five minutes.

Still, perhaps the point isn't whether we agree with Tabor's decision: It's whether we think parents deserve to be arrested for making a judgment call about their children. And—as uncomfortable as it makes us feel—people have the right to make mistakes or even to raise kids in ways many people feel are just ... well, wrong. "It's a slippery slope," says David S. DeLugas, an Atlanta attorney who represented Tabor and founded the nonprofit National Association of Parents, which advocates based on the Constitutional rights of parents. "The question needs to be: Is the child harmed, in distress, or in imminent danger? Not, 'Something bad could have happened,' " says DeLugas. "Ticketing or arresting parents like Tabor, or those who leave kids while they run inside a store to pay for gas under circumstances the parent deems responsible, and the child is not harmed and not in danger of actual harm, is a violation of  the parent's right to decide. It's an overreach by people with power."

The trend has experts wondering why so many otherwise sensible people are convinced there's an inept (or criminal) parent at every turn. "Our commonsense guidelines about how to act around other people and their children have eroded," says Christine Carter, Ph.D., a sociologist and parenting expert at University of California Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center. "In the past, neighbors or bystanders might have felt more comfortable asking, 'Hey, kid, where's your mom?' and believed him when he said, 'She just ran into the store for milk.' " 

mom peering from grocery aisle Priscilla Gragg
Mom-Shaming and Social Media Certainly, many people who make these calls do have their heart in the right place. But there can be an underlying nastiness, too, a kind of "gotcha" aspect. Says Lahey: "People just get very excited at the chance to shame somebody."

While people may be reluctant to confront other parents in person, inhibitions drop away on social media. "There's plenty of research that confirms that we would never say in person the kind of mom- shaming we do online," Dr. Carter says. "Facebook gives us a whole new realm to amplify our superiority. It doesn't take courage to do that—it just means someone, at that moment, has poor impulse control."

Consider Cherish Peterson, a mom in Gilbert, Arizona, who forgot her 2-month-old in a shopping cart in a parking lot (she didn't notice until she got home with her three other kids, all under 5). Hundreds of vitriolic comments labeled her stupid and careless; many said she should have her children taken away. She was so pilloried, people started a Facebook group defending her.

Of course, all parents screw up now and then. And interestingly, psychologists say the fear of mistakes may be at the root of social-media wolf packs. "Today's parents are bombarded with so many opinions, with self-righteous schools of thought about everything from the right brand of stroller to when to introduce gluten," says Pamela Rutledge, Ph.D., director of the Media Psychology Research Center, in Newport Beach, California. "When people feel uncertain, they lean on other people more to confirm what they think. That makes them feel safer. Social media gives them a megaphone to bully others. It's a way of trying to get people to toe your line."

Mobile technology has further fed the fire. "Now everyone can snap a photo or take a video, then post it," says Cliff Lampe, Ph.D., a social- media researcher at the University of Michigan. "Broadcasting it then makes it much easier for you to get people to be on your side of whatever parenting argument."

Dr. Lampe's advice, if you find yourself the victim of a social-media attack? "Be brave," he says. "If you think what you're doing is right for your child, it probably is." And as tempting as it might be to engage in a comment war, resist. "People who are attacking you or other parents online aren't communicating. They're performing."

Still, mom-shaming stings. The Texas mother who let her son play out front, Kari Anne Roy, says that while most online comments about her brush with authorities were supportive, "the other 2 percent hurt, like someone poking a bruise."

And if, like 40 percent of our poll takers, you're more judgmental than you want to be? Be nicer, says Dr. Rutledge. It's what your own mother might say: "Simply speak to others as you'd like to be spoken to."