Guest Post: “Let’s Make This a Friendly City for Children”

A guest post by Sylvia Rhodes, challenging all of us to be better neighbors.

This summer I received a visit from Child Protective Services (CPS) due to an anonymous complaint that my children were riding bicycles in the street unsupervised. We live on a residential street in the city. Receiving a visit from CPS is upsetting and demoralizing. The two social workers who came to visit were very professional and listened attentively as I answered their questions. I stay at home with my children full-time, and I am nearly always aware of when my children are outside, but as every parent will tell you – if they’re honest – is that it’s impossible to always know exactly where your children are and what they are doing 100% of the time, especially if you have multiple children.

I am a social worker. I have my Master of Social Work degree, and I worked for nearly 2 years in the field of Child Welfare in the City of Roanoke. I understand the importance of supervising children and making sure they are safe. And I try my best. But it’s impossible to be a super-human parent, which is often the burden that society places on us. You turn your back for 3 minutes, and a child runs into the street, or wanders off and you can’t find her or him for several minutes. Things happen, the laws of nature happen and children get hurt, the natural curiosity for exploration that is innate within every child happens, and this is the natural order of life.

One of the things that was most upsetting to me about this situation is that whoever placed this call to Child Protective Services did not make sure that my children were safe. They merely called CPS. How is this ensuring the safety of my children? If my children were in imminent danger, then the responsible action required by a concerned citizen is that he or she promptly get out of their house or car and tell my children to get off the street and to go home, and to watch to make certain that my children did just that. Even better, come knock on my door and talk to me – the responsible parent! Frankly, whoever made this call did nothing different than what they were accusing me of; he or she continued to knowingly let my child(ren) continue to be in danger!

Another issue this experience with CPS brings up for me is the growing inability of people to communicate directly with one another when we have concerns or problems with each other. What I ask as a parent is that if someone is concerned about the safety and well-being of my child, that he or she speak directly with me, the responsible adult. Are we humans so afraid of each other and so cowardly that we no longer have the courage to talk to each other when something’s wrong? Far too often the first recourse is to go to a third party for intervention instead of dealing directly with each other. A quick call to the police or CPS to fulfill a mandated reporter obligation or a duty performed by a concerned citizen can cause multiple repercussions for a family. Parenting in today’s society with its long list of legal Do’s and Don’ts is stressful enough, and there is little support in neighborhoods anymore for parents and families.

The other issue this experience brings up for me is our perception of how a residential street is to be used. When driving on a residential street in the city, drivers should EXPECT people to be out and about, and therefore drive slowly and with caution. Many neighborhood streets used to be open for street play for children – hockey, bicycles, jump-rope, hopscotch, basketball, etc, but somehow society has convinced us that residential streets in the city are made only for cars. Drivers are given the prerogative to use whichever street, residential or other-wise, to arrive at their destination the easiest and quickest way possible. Little regard is given to how this affects residents and the play of children.

We’ve come to a point in our society where play outside for children needs to be a scheduled organized activity that is controlled by adults and often is done at a recreational center or a park. If a child wants to play outside, the caretaker needs to haul them off to a park. This has contributed in part to the decline of social connection amongst neighbors – adults and children alike. Adults are rarely outside enjoying their yards, porches, and streets. Children are rarely outside playing freely with each other; instead, they are inside watching TV, playing Wii, surfing the internet, using the iPod, iPad, etc. We put up privacy fences. Everyone is isolated and caged inside. We don’t know each other anymore. This is when suspicions arise, distrust happens, and the authorities like the police and CPS are called.

The evening after CPS came to my home, I knocked on my neighbors doors to ask if they were concerned about my children riding bikes on the street unsupervised and had called CPS. Some people were home, some people weren’t, but everyone I spoke with (with the exception of one neighbor) was receptive to my request to speak with me directly if they have concerns about my children. Some agreed that they like to see families playing outside. Each neighbor I spoke with said they hadn’t made the report. I still don’t know who it was. That doesn’t matter so much anymore. What matters is that my neighbors know me, and know that I am a responsible and loving parent. It matters that I want – and will work for – my neighborhood to be a place where neighbors know each other, where we are outside intermingling, and where if my children or someone else’s children are in danger, that we are physically present and communicate in like kind.

My husband and I will continue to let our children ride bikes on the street, and we’ll do our best to make sure they are safe. Our two oldest have been taught how to ride bikes safely on the street, and we’re currently training our youngest. We bike around town as a family on occasion. I believe parents in this city must be given the freedom to allow their children to actively play outside in the neighborhood without the fear of a neighbor calling the authorities on them. I challenge those of us who live in the city to be neighborhood communities again, to look out for each other again and to do something as radical as offer help when help is needed. Let’s make this a friendly city for children.

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  1. Hugh Stoll says:

    Thank you Sylvia. Kathy and I are preparing to move into a neighborhood where children often play in the street. Your article is a nice reminder of some aspects of healthy community.

  2. Burger says:

    Love it’

  3. Alisha says:

    Thank you, Sylvia! I completely agree on all these points.

  4. Jennifer Jo says:

    You are spot on. I’m glad you spoke up.

  5. Mary Thiessen Nation says:

    Bless you Sylvia! I love your wise suggestions, the invitation for direct communication, your community-building visits around the neighborhood and your honesty regarding how painful unwarranted visits from CPS can be. I’m glad you haven’t decided to simply buckle down and become more careful, afraid and controlling. I wish there were hundreds of mothers in this city who could learn from and with you–you’re a great mom. Go girl!

  6. Jeff Armstrong says:

    A very well written post Sylvia, thank you.

  7. Anne Lorimer says:

    Great post: you’ve transformed this unpleasant incident into a fascinating examination of local community and local potential for change.

    In evaluating child welfare, it would be logical to compare health risk statistics for children playing outside unsupervised vs. children whose home life is isolated and sedentary.

    You don’t need my approval for how you’re raising your kids — but you certainly have it.

  8. Becky says:

    Amen Sylvia! Thank you for your courage to do the right thing at a time when cars rule. (Though they shouldn’t!) Keep up the great work!

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