wonder why most of the parents in children’s literature are far away or dead? Melinda Moore did. She’s a mother of three and “speculative fiction” author, who tweets @MelindaJMoore and is on Facebook here. She posted this story on her blog, Enchanted Spark.
Children’s Lit: Call Social Services
by Melinda J. Moore
When I first started writing, my goal was to be a children’s and YA [Young Adult] author. I’m not sure what happened except that my ideas for protagonists became older and older. But this month, I’ve been working on a story for my two daughters for Christmas. The story takes place in a world I’ve been building for over a decade. Years ago, I created the parents to be perfect. I realize now that parents in stories can be mostly good but definitely not perfect. Making the changes got me thinking about great parents in children’s literature, and I made the sad realization that they would most likely be arrested for neglect in today’s society.
I’m not talking about the Dursleys from Harry Potter who everyone loves to hate. Clearly, they are horrible guardians and readers recognize it. I’m talking about parents like the Quimby’s from the Ramona books, who, on first glance, seem like reasonable, middle class parents. But, judging by recent news articles, somebody on Klickatat Street needs to call the cops on them.
In the book Beezus and Ramona, the two girls walk to the community recreation center on Friday afternoons. Beezus is nine and Ramona is four. It’s not just a walk down the street either. It’s described as going to the shopping district, by the drugstore, by the radio and phonograph store and on to the park. But I haven’t gotten to the worst part yet: Ramona is left alone to play in the park while Beezus goes to her painting class in the recreation center.
Crap! A four year-old girl is left alone in the sandbox at the park. What about stranger danger? What if she got hurt? What if she got in a fight with one of the other kids? Wait a minute. She does get in a fight with one of the other kids, and does the sensible thing and seeks her sister out in her art class. The art teacher doesn’t even think to call the cops at this obvious neglect and instead sits Ramona down at an easel.
I never thought this was such a crazy story either as a kid or an adult. But in the summer of 2014, a mom was arrested for letting her nine-year-old daughter play at a local park while she worked at McDonald’s. The girl not only had a cellphone to call her mom, but also social workers were frequently at the park handing out free breakfasts and lunches. Sounds to me like the mom thought things through. She’s even quoted as saying she thought the park was a better place for her daughter to spend the day than sitting at a booth in McDonald’s. But this mom had her daughter taken away. They were eventually reunited, but what a horrible event.
I’m going to pick on the Quimby’s one more time. Again in Beezus and Ramona, Ramona wanders far from home in search of the end of the rainbow. This time, she is picked up by the police. But the police just bring her home. They don’t arrest Mr. and Mrs. Quimby or anything. That’s not what happened to an Ohio dad whose kid wandered away from the house in the summer of 2014. The child was outside with his two siblings on a Sunday morning. When the church bus arrived to collect them, the kid did something very Tom Sawyerish: he didn’t get on. When the bus left, the eight-year-old took off to the Family Dollar store a mile away. The police brought him home and arrested the dad. The dad also worked at McDonald’s and lost his job over the incident.
And what about Arthur, by Marc Brown? Okay, so he’s an aardvark, but clearly he’s supposed to represent your average third grade boy. Arthur has many independent adventures. In one book, he’s asked to babysit two four-year-olds while their grandmother goes to a PTA meeting. They aren’t just any ordinary four-year-olds, though. They’re the terrible Tibble twins who are known for eating babysitters alive.
Did I mention Arthur is only in the third grade? It’s a rough couple of hours, but in the end, Arthur discovers telling the twins a story is the secret to keeping them calm. The grandma comes home and all is well. But that didn’t happen for two parents in NY who left their twelve-year-old to babysit his two younger siblings. When the dad came home at two in the morning, he realized he didn’t have a key and had to break into his own house. That’s when a neighbor called the cops. When the mom got home, both parents were arrested for leaving their kids home alone. The mom later lost her job as a middle school teacher. What?
And then we have Encyclopedia Brown, a kid detective solving cases on his own at age ten, and How to Eat Fried Worms, where the kids have so much time away from parents that they spend all summer betting on eating worms, and Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, where kids are again left alone in the park. More recently there’s Ivy and Bean, where the two girls wander all over Pancake Court with no supervision. And in The Magic Tree House kids are allowed to run free in a nearby forest. And on and on.
So are children’s authors horrible people who should never be parents? No. They know the secret to an interesting childhood is a nurturing home environment where the parents give their kids time to be independent. I think society as a whole needs to read more children’s books.
Lenore here: Me too. Including cops, prosecutors, judges and politicians.
It’s funny to see how classic children’s books have been updated to be more helicoptery over the years too. For example when I compare my childhood copy of Danny and the Dinosaur (I’m 48) with the new version my six-year-old received as a gift, there’s a page where Danny is riding way up on the top of the Dino’s neck. In my old copy, they walk into the power lines and become entangled. In the newer version, it’s a clothesline or something. Because, you know, you wouldn’t want to encourage kids to walk into the power lines… WHEN THEY’RE RIDING ON A DINOSAUR. It’s absurd, to me, that someone in an editorial meeting pointed this out as a problem.
Still wishing that section of L. Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy where the parents go away for a week and leave the four kids, oldest 12, at home alone were required reading for everyone. As I recall, the worst thing to happen was that they ate a year’s supply of sugar in a week.
The Boxcar Children were all on their own!
I’ve noticed this, too, with a lot of books I read my 3 year old. The Berenstain bear cubs, who are only about 5 and 8, are constantly at the park by themselves and having adventures without their parents. Brother Bear goes alone to the movies with friends. Francis the badger goes by herself to buy a tea set with money she earned. The kids in The Cat In The Hat are left home alone by their mother and the story wouldn’t even be possible if their mother is home. It goes on and on and I’ve wondered if my son has noticed that all these kids get left alone in all his books. It shows, sadly, just how much childhood has changed 🙁
Can you imagine how boring children’s books are going to be based on what children are allowed to do by themelves now?
Assuming these classics are still popular, there must be lots of children (millions?) asking parents and teachers about the levels of freedom and supervision depicted in the books. Some adults might wave off such questions with remarks like “The world is more dangerous now” (ha ha), but as for the rest, it seems like this should be a tappable resource somehow — the fact that millions (?) of households are already acknowledging that things used to be different and talking about why. E.g. how often do these conversations spark a community discussion?
I was shocked when I re-watched E.T. With my 4YO and the mom left the little one at home to fetch Elliot from school. She would’ve been what, 5 max. An arrestable offense today.
Well, I guess we need to put a disclaimer on these classic books the same way we have disclaimers on dvds of classic Sesame Street episodes. That these books represent a time when long passed and are not suitable for today’s children. So sad.
Even classic children’s movies! In E.T., little Drew Barrymore’s mom leaves her ALONE in the house while she goes to pick her drunk son from elementary school. . .
In Peter Pan the Darling children were cared for by a sheep dog who was referred to as their nurse and was called ‘Nana’.
I agree and I notice it too. Berenstein bears are our favorites (we have pretty much every single one of them-some from when I was a kid and some new ones). The kids are supposed to be in 1st grade and like 3rd grade and they are running around the town alone all the time. The Bear Scouts go on hikes and camp outs alone and they are capable and its always Papa Bear doing something wrong and stupid.
That is funny about the Danny and the Dinosaur changing the illustration. Never noticed that. I have the old version from when I was a kid. So mine is probably the power line. I will have to check.
The 12 year old babysitting one is absurd. I babysat at like 11. Hell at 12 many girls already have periods which means they are capable of having their own kids at 12. So seems to me once a human is capable of producing their own offspring, you can’t say they are not allowed to babysit other kids. Because they could be taking care of their own offspring at that point!
Obviously a 12 year old is not really ready to be a parent, but you get the point that it is kinda nuts to think they can’t handle watching their younger siblings for a few hours at that point. I let a 12 year old watch my kids and my friends kids while we went out one night. It was fine. Her mom was down the road if she needed help. Apparently we could have been arrested? What a crock.
A more modern series with a lot of freerange-ness is The Penderwicks. The first novel was written in 2005. It follows the adventures of sisters ages 12 to 4. Their mom is dead and their father is always working. They spend most of their days exploring. A great series.
Hmmm, I don’t know if I actually agree with this. On the one hand, kids did use to have more freedom, and that was a good thing (and would still be a good thing), and these books are closer to that than the way we are living today. On the other hand, they’re fiction, and don’t necessarily reflect reality. They don’t necessarily even reflect the reality of the time they were written.
For example, I remember watching Saved By The Bell when I was a kid, and thinking how much fun life would be when I was a teenager. And when I was a teen, I did have plenty of freedom — but neither I, nor my friends, had the time, money, or easy transportation for that kind of a fun lifestyle. In high school, I spent most weekday afternoons sitting on my best friend’s couch, watching TV. She didn’t get a car until senior year, and we never had enough money to hang out at “The Hub” every day.
I’m just saying, fiction is fiction. Maybe let’s stick with reality.
PS, the linked article about the parents arrested for letting their 12yo babysit was INFURIATING. Is the NY Daily News a tabloid?? It was disgusting the way that article tried so hard to smear the parents as trash!! OMG, she has tattoos and DRINKS ALCOHOL!1!
Yes! For this reason I’ve been obsessing over “The Little Rascals” lately. Talk about free range! Those kids even developed their own government and sporting event rules. And PERSONALITIES.
@Michelle–Small nitpick. The favourite hangout on Saved By The Bell was The Max. The Hub was where the kids on That 70’s Show went.
Ah, thanks Emily. Of course you’re right.
“Those kids even developed their PERSONALITIES.”
Believe it or not, that was legal then. Luckily we’re more enlightened now and have laws to deal with such crimes.
Our all time favorite book (and we love Beverly Cleary books) is Roald Dahl’s Matilda.
If we updated this story by current society standards, the Wormwoods would be charged with child neglect (rightfully so). Mrs. Phelps, the kind librarian who encouraged Matilda’s love of reading when she showed up alone at the library at age 4, would be charged with failing to call CPS for an abandoned child. Miss Honey would probably be on the sex offender registry for taking Matilda home with her, and Miss Truchbull, who physically abused children and put them in the Chocky, would set off an abuse scandal that would bankrupt the school and close it forever.
Just when we think all is lost, there’s this: http://www.foxnews.com/us/2014/12/30/pennsylvania-boy-goes-hunting-in-south-carolina-after-asking-wrong-sheriff-to/
@Lollipop Lover–Much as I loved Roald Dahl as a kid, I don’t think Matilda is a fair comparison. The Wormwoods and Miss Trunchbull were deliberately portrayed as child abusers in that story, as were the aunts in James and the Giant Peach. The grandmother in George’s Marvellous Medicine was senile beyond all reason, as were at least two of the grandparents in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Meanwhile, Charlie’s parents tried hard, but they were just too poor to afford to give Charlie everything he needed–that is, until Charlie’s father got hired back at the toothpaste factory to repair the toothpaste-cap-screwing-on machine that had replaced him. I guess what I’m saying is, these books were obviously fantasy. I think a better comparison would be the parents in the Beverly Cleary books, who let their kids independently play outside, and navigate the neighbourhood, and their relationships with one another, or the Judy Blume books, where kids did the same.
“Can you imagine how boring childrenâ€™s books are going to be based on what children are allowed to do by themelves now?”
Boring?? Throw in some automutilation or eating disorders or other possible dark consequences of overprotection (you know, things the kid CAN control) and it would make for a wonderful psychological thriller…
Other books I’ve read and encouraged my kids to read were the All Of A Kind Family series, about five girls growing up in turn-of-the-century New York; The Boxcar Children, who lived alone in a boxcar; The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew; The Bobbsey Twins series, and some of the ones already mentioned. All of these kids are left on their own, or walk around town on their own, and the Bobbsey kids even wander away in strange cities to solve mysteries. (Odd thing about the Bobbseys – in the earlier books, the sets of twins were 8 and 4; in later books, they were 12 and 6.)
I’d just like to throw Jean Craighead George’s _My Side of the Mountain_ out there too. Written in 1959. Although I’m sure it’s still popular I haven’t seen it around much lately.
It may be time for a re-read since I can’t remember any of the details, but I distinctly remember the protagonist learning to live in the mountains by himself, making mistakes, adapting to the weather, and avoiding poisonous plants. The mere thought of a child eating something that wasn’t pre-fabricated and packaged by Hormel is probably enough to make most helicopter parents insane.
I love “My Side of the Mountain”. In the sequel, his sister joins him out there in the woods.
>>â€œCan you imagine how boring childrenâ€™s books are going to be based on what children are allowed to do by themelves now?â€
Boring?? Throw in some automutilation or eating disorders or other possible dark consequences of overprotection (you know, things the kid CAN control) and it would make for a wonderful psychological thrillerâ€¦<<
There are already stories like that. Who else here has seen the movie "Cyberbully?" It's a terrible movie, but it showed one teenage girl bullying another (and getting others on the bullying bandwagon along with her), without ever leaving the "safety" of her own home.
I picked up a copy of pippi longstocking at a used book store. I hadn’t read it but I remember my mom had loved pippi when she was young. My daughter enjoyed the book too. There were lots of adventures in it, and pippie lived alone without parents. there were some questionable parts — ex. pippi mixed up a lot of cleaning supplies and may have drank it (I explained why that was a bad idea). My daughter was very worried however when she left the book in her desk at school. In the book, pippi was packin’ a pistol and my daughter was afraid she would get in trouble if the 2nd grade teacher found the book!
Isn’t the fun in children’s fiction for them to explore ideas and situations that they would never dream of on they’re own?
I enjoyed the comments immensely – our Amazon wish list now reflects all of the wonderful recommendations! I agree that we should be allowed to parent our children and determine when they are old enough to be home alone, just as we should recognize that these children’s stories are fiction and meant to capture the imagination. My parents worked and attended college full-time for my grade school years and often I was left in the care of my older siblings. My own mother now balks at my niece being left alone for brief period of time at the age of 8. Funny how quickly negative media can impact those who raised free-range kids themselves…alas. I hope my kids experience freedom in my neighbors, not just “watchdog” mentalitites. The neighborhood ladies took pride in seeing my siblings and I safely to swim lessons, now I might worry about calls to the police or CPS.
So sad that current laws have essentially made our children prisoners. For Pete’s sake children have led entire nations.
Depending upon the child it should be the parent’s decision alone. whether or not he/she is responsible enough to be left alone, for how long and at what age.
Like all good government agencies, CPS/DCF started out as a much needed help for severely abused children. Slowly but surely, like every good government agency, it has turned into a cancerous monster that creates false scenarios to keep itself legitimate in the eyes of courts and for government funding. From what I understand they receive around thirty thousand dollars in subsidies per child they remove from the home. So in essence, they get paid to take your children.
Now if that isn’t a horrific recipe for abuse, nothing is.
@Vicky “So sad that current laws have essentially made our children prisoners.”
and in the bargain, made the parents prisoners.
another book about a kid surviving in the wilderness “Hatchet”. My son loved that book.
So so true. And what’s funny is that parents and grandparents say, “well it’s different now”. How is “it” different? WHAT is different? No, nothing is different. And as Lenore has pointed out, most areas are safer. You know what’s different? Parents. That’s it. Sad!
My son loved the Hatchet series by Gary Paulsen. Brian’s Song was his favorite. My personal favorite free range book was From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg. All my kids loved The Phantom Tollbooth and my daughter is currently into the Percy Jackson series.
@Randy & Emily Morris: In addition to “My Side of the Mountain” and “On the Far Side of the Mountain” one can throw in “Hatchet” and the Brian books. In “Hatchet” Brian is alone in the Canadian wilderness as the result of a small plane crash in which the pilot dies, in later books he goes back of his own accord.
Thanks so much Lenore for posting my article! Thanks to everyone here for all the great comments. I’ve really enjoyed reading them. I think most kids have a healthy sense of “Oh, that’s only done in stories,” but the news articles really wore me down this year about parents getting arrested for things like their older children going to the park on their own. I think the Ivy and Bean series by Annie Barrows gives a realistic depiction today of kids being allowed independence by their parents. But I do enjoy looking back on Ramona being four and at the park alone!
Can I just toss in another title? Can’t believe I forgot A Wrinkle in Time.
You don’t have to look exclusively for old books to find depictions of free-range childhoods. If our public library is any indication, contemporary picture book authors have totally ignored the phenomenon of helicopter parenting. Just off the top of my head, check out “The secret shortcut” by Mark Teague, “If you lived here you’d be home by now” by Ed Briant, “Violet the Pilot” by Steve Breen, “A Fishing Surprise” by Rae McDonald, or any book by Daniel San Souci. I’m hard pressed to think of any picture book I’ve picked up where kids over age six are supervised in an overbearing way (or supervised at all). Really, if they did, the plots would be pretty boring, wouldn’t they? For that matter, many television shows are free range, like “Busytown Mysteries”; the kids drive cars and go into the homes of eccentric old men, for crying out loud.
Harry Potter is modern child fiction and its pretty free range. Harry pretty much raises himself in the Dursleys household. Also the kids are without parents at boarding school/Hogwarts for most of the year. Some don’t even go home on school breaks for Christmas. They also face danger alone with no adults.
Actually at least for teen books there are plenty of free range modern stuff out there like Hunger Games and Divergent. All those books are about the teen facing huge things alone and asserting their independence and taking on adults and armies at young ages.
A good book series for younger like tween age is the Gregor the Overlander series. Written by Suzanne Collins of Hunger Games its a book series about a 11 year old boy abouts who again takes on armies and a whole strange new world alone with his baby sister. So he is babysitting and fighting for his life at the same time! Its fantasy based. I personally prefer the fantasy based stuff like that over “My side of the mountain” and “Hatchet” and “The cay” etc. I never enjoyed those books when I had to read them in school.
Also “Series of Unfortunate Events” are very free range. No parents. They are forced to take care of themselves including a baby sister. They are very capable and always get themselves out of trouble with no adult help.
There is even a hint in the series that they were put in that position on purpose to teach them to be resilient and smart and test how they would rise to the occasion.
I loved the All of a Kind Family books as a girl. Every trip to the library included at least one of those books, no matter how many times I’d read it. I couldn’t wait to introduce them to my own daughter!
Has anyone else read Swallows and Amazons? I just recently discovered it and wish I had read it as a kid. It’s hard to get more free range than being allowed to live on an island with a sailboat at your disposal for a couple of weeks. The mom had them pick up a day’s ration of milk from the local farmer every day so that they could check in, and she visited once or twice, but that was it. My favorite new book is The Mysterious Benedict Society. I haven’t had a chance to read the sequels yet, but loved the first one.
I loved Enid Blyton’s “Adventure” series, but I’m thinking that, in order to be realistic, it’d be best to compare kids’ lives today, with REALISTIC children’s fiction. So, not books about witches, wizards, blatantly insane adults (with or without magical powers), fantastical adventures on a deserted island/in a castle/whatever, or anything like that–just stories about young people, who could be real, doing what used to be normal kid things, like going to the park, swimming pool, library, mall, movies, running lemonade stands in the summer, etc.
I loved “Island of the Blue Dolphins,” when I was a pre-teen. It inspired me to build my own hut in the back yard and make a spear. My mother drew the line at a pet wolf, though. 🙁
Not a book, but a cartoon (late 80’s), for New Year’s Eve we are watching “My Friend Totoro”. It is set in Japan the in 50’s. It features two young sisters who’s mom is in the hospital and dad is a professor. They are basically unsupervised and enjoy shaking rotten boards off the porch, wandering in the woods (meeting forest spirits) and taking baths with their dad (cultural difference!) The movie is centered around a couple of times the four year old is missing (at one point they are afraid she has drowned), though on both occasions she been on her own for hours. The older sister makes the whole family lunch and looks after her sister when not in school. I understand that Japan is much more open to encouraging kids to travel and do things by themselves. A very good movie that fits this genre.
Imagine having to write a kids’ adventure story where kids are never just kids on their own. Through the entire plot, an adult supervisor is always there. Cast of thousands.
And none of that harmless mischief that makes a story so interesting, ever happens. It is just calmly cautioned out of the way by organizers, coordinators, caregivers, meddlers, charlatans and fools.
Balsac no doubt, would make a human comedy out of this. So would William Sorayan. In fact, he did. (My name is Aram.)
Perhaps what we need is a new sort of author. One who realizes that millions of kids out there would probably love to read a series of books that pinpoint their collective over-supervised predicament and poke holes in that fabric.
I dunno……it worked fine for Mark Twain. (But then – he was “deep enough.”)
I’ll put in a vote for the Freda Friedman books set in NYC in the late 1940s and early 1950s. There’s Dot for Short (probably the best), Carol from the Country, A Sundae With Judy and others. The kids have a lot of freedom, but also a lot of relationships with various adults: teachers, storekeepers, busybodies and so on. All through it they are still kids. (The jacket copy of one of mine says that Friedman was one of America’s mostly widely read poets as she was in charge of writing for a major greeting card company before she started writing children’s books.)
“For example, I remember watching Saved By The Bell when I was a kid, and thinking how much fun life would be when I was a teenager. And when I was a teen, I did have plenty of freedom â€” but neither I, nor my friends, had the time, money, or easy transportation for that kind of a fun lifestyle. In high school, I spent most weekday afternoons sitting on my best friendâ€™s couch, watching TV. She didnâ€™t get a car until senior year, and we never had enough money to hang out at â€œThe Hubâ€ every day.”
My sister is 11 years older than me and when she was a teen she would go hang out at “The Village” which was a mall. Sometimes she would babysit and get some money to get some drinks and snacks for a bit but not having money didn’t stop her from going to the mall! She would go pretty much nightly. Even in Saved By The Bell not everyone was eating/drinking, some were just “hanging out”.
However, when I was a teen the security guards would regularly go through and kick anyone out who wasn’t shopping or buying food from the food court. “Hanging out” became loitering and therefore illegal. So I could only go to the mall when I had some money.
And since kids/teens aren’t allowed to make money anymore, what are they suppose to do?
In children’s stories and other fictional media for young persons, characters sometimes do things that might not be a good idea in real life, such as investigating the theft of a friend’s bicycle and maybe even attempting to recover the stolen property. At the same time, stories can involve activities such as playing outside (from what one remembers, in “Freckle Juice” by Judy Blume, the character Andrew was criticized by Mom because he mixed up a quantity of “freckle juice” from various juices and sauces instead of playing outside like he had been expected to), using actual tools, or walking to school which could be a good thing in real life.
In the Archie comic “Archie’s Double Digest” (No. 67), there is a strip, “Land of the Free,” in which some kids are unhappy because the vacant lot where they play ball is being fenced off to become the site of a new building. One kid explains how the public playground, at more than ten blocks away, is beyond the distance that they’re allowed to walk in the neighborhood. (Though not mentioned, it is also easy to imagine parents who are at work or otherwise busy and who do not want to drive a kid to the playground.) The kids soon adapt…by playing baseball in the street and causing a driver to swerve in order to avoid hitting a kid. In the meantime, many fenced-off lots have become eyesores with garbage having been dumped in them. Veronica’s father, Mr. Lodge, who owns the corporate owner of the lots, is concerned (perhaps understandably) about being held responsible if a child gets hurt in a vacant lot, but an arrangement is made where kids will get to use the lots while keeping them clean of litter. As often happens in fictional stories, everyone benefits in the end. The comic is from 1993, though the strip may have been printed before then, yet the story may be of interest on the issue of kids engaging in unorganized play, along with risk-averse companies and well-intended efforts to keep kids safe but which have unintended consequences.
I’m 26. When I was a kid, I just assumed that the lack of adult rules, rule negotiations and supervision was a convention, like how no one goes to the bathroom. You don’t read what the characters ate for breakfast unless it’s important, and you don’t read long dialogues about what the kid is allowed to do, because that would be boring to read about. It was a bit weird and unrealistic that Calvin and Hobbes were always running around in the forest or that Susie was coloring on a sidewalk or bike path that wasn’t directly in front of her house. Obviously kids can’t be outside on their own, but then there wouldn’t be a story, so writers let kids roam free, or write out all the parent figures, or the kid suddenly ends up in Narnia with no parent in sight, and so on.
It BLEW MY MIND when I realised that one of these was not like the others. Kids running outside on their own is NOT as made-up as Narnia! Apparently it didn’t even used to be a sign of extremely open-minded parenting. Apparently, it used to be… normal.
I always did wonder about that “go play outside” thing, surely people realise that it’s not very fun for a kid to just stand around in the back yard with nothing to do? But, apparently that’s not what it used to mean. Oh man, if I’d been allowed to play in the forest patch next to our neighbourhood and just do what I wanted, I would have been outside all summer! Not to mention use TOOLS – another crazy thing book kids did but real kids obviously weren’t allowed or ABLE to do unless an adult told them how and watched the entire time to tell them how they were doing…
Bravo! Great article.