Our parenting culture pushes and pulls us from two directions. Helicopter parenting has made us hyper-aware of danger, so much so that it's rare to see children walking by themselves or playing alone in the park. But we also want to teach our kids independence and resilience. When we see kids roaming free, we don't know how to respond. We as a culture are so worried about children's safety that it can be difficult to remain bystanders when we think kids are in danger. Problem is, some of us are inclined to see danger everywhere. The Maryland parents who made headlines last year for letting their two kids walk home alone are once again in the news. Someone saw their children, ages 10 and 6, playing alone in the park and called the police. The kids are back with their parents, but the ordeal raises the question, what would you do in that situation? What should you do in that situation?
Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids:
"If I was going to be there anyway, I would watch them for a while. It's easier for me being female to go over to them and say, 'Hey kids, do your parents know you're here? Do they let you play here?' If I was terribly worried, if it seemed like they had been there for days and they'd made friends with the rats and they were eating roots, then I might say, 'Can I call your parents just to make sure that everything is fine?' One of the problems is that now we're afraid that any interaction with kids will be considered that we're the predators."
When would you call the police? "Certainly, if a child looks distraught, abandoned, beaten. And if you talked to the kid and they couldn't explain why they were there, I would be concerned."
Tracey Warren, national director of Injury Prevention & Education at Child Safe Canada:
"You don't know if the parents are sitting in their front window across the street watching. And you don't know how old those kids are. So we have to slow down and look at the big picture. If you see children in distress you always step in and intervene. If you see any crime in progress you're going to call 911. As a safety expert, I'm happy just to see kids in parks these days. Why are you a stranger going up to start speaking to these kids in a park? If there's nothing happening and they're safe and they're playing, why are you intervening? Allow the children to play."
When would you call the police? "In the preschool age. I would first audit the environment, look for any adults around, ask them what's going on, if there's anyone tending to these children. And then and only then would I ask the children where their adult is. And then if there was no adult or there was something that seemed amiss, then I would be contacting the police."
Ricky Shetty, Vancouver-based founder of Daddy Blogger:
"It's always good to talk to the actual kids. I'd ask them, 'Are you guys okay? Are your parents around? Are they coming to pick you up?' That way you're not assuming things. Their parents could be in the washroom or coming in five minutes. You don't want to be too quick to call the police. But you could call the police not to come but just to get some advice on what to do in that situation."
When would you call the police? "If I saw the kids were scared or in any kind of danger. Or if I talked to the kids and they sounded unsure or unsafe. It's better to call the police and be safe than not call the police and something bad happens."
Jennifer Sidhu, Toronto Police spokesperson:
"If you have a 10-year-old and they're responsible for their age, it's just like babysitting. There's no set age on when a person is allowed to babysit. If they showed that they're mature and responsible for their age, they're given the responsibility. If they're at a park at 5 or 6 p.m. and the lights are still on and the sun is still shining, there really isn't anything from a police standpoint [to warrant concern]. If you feel that they are in danger or they look like they're in distress or that they may need help, then definitely be an involved citizen and ask, 'Are you okay? Do you need help? Where are your mom and dad?' But if you've got two kids just playing in the park, it wouldn't be suspicious on the part of the police, nor would we investigate it."
When would you call the police? "If they look uncared for. If they look hungry or their clothes are dishevelled. They seem distressed or they've been crying. Something like that would be an indicator that yes, maybe police do need to get involved. It's better to be safe than sorry in that sort of situation."
Linda Liebenberg, co-director of the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University:
"From a research perspective, I must say what I'm seeing more and more is that when you have more of that sort of that old-fashioned community response to things, I think things tend to go a lot better. Being an engaged citizen, not handing this off to someone else and saying, 'Here's a problem, you come deal with it,' and assuming there's a problem."
When would you call the police? "If you go up to them and ask if they are okay or where are their parents, [I would call the police] if their responses cause some kind of concern."
These interviews have been condensed and edited.