Drawing on her Jewish heritage and experience as a mother and journalist, Abby Schachter argues in her new book, No Child Left Alone: Getting the Government Out of Parenting, that government intervention is interfering with parents’ ability to make basic decisions about how to raise their children. Expansion of child protection policies and activities, says Schachter, means the diminution of parental control, and of parents’ ability to raise independent, fully functioning offspring. Moment senior editor George E. Johnson spoke with Schachter on the eve of the publication of her provocative new book.
Why did you write this book?
The first reason is personal. We have four children, and have been sending them to state-licensed preschool since 2008. Every year there were more annoying rules: How and what you could send in their lunches or snacks, how you could prepare them. The worst was the state, Pennsylvania, requiring day care providers to throw out any uneaten food. They were not allowed to put anything back in the refrigerator, not allowed to offer it a second time. The state decided that the food might have become hazardous.
But the straw that broke the camel’s back was in 2013, when we brought our son, then nine weeks old, to day care. I said, “I need my son to be swaddled”—wrapped tightly in a blanket, for sleeping—which has been done for thousands of years, is in Harvey Karp’s book, The Happiest Baby on the Block, and works. The day care operator said, “We are not allowed to swaddle; you have to get a note from a physician. If we get a note, maybe we can swaddle him.”
Did they say why?
They said it was a state rule. But it turns out that this state rule started out as series of guidelines written by a group called the National Resource Center in Denver, Colorado, for the Department of Health and Human Services. States like Pennsylvania were looking for a quick way to license day care centers, and here comes this quasi-governmental operation that says, we have this book of guidelines, everything you need, no problem, everything that might come up, and we’ve talked to the experts—the American Academy of Pediatrics for some things, nutritionists for other things, and so on. All the state has to do is pass it. Except that it did not ask any day care operators, didn’t ask any parents.
Talking to The National Resource Center is like entering a George Orwell novel. I called and said, “Why are you banning swaddling?” The woman there said, “We’re not against swaddling, we’re against blankets in cribs.” This, to me, was an extreme example of interference from some unaccountable person, entering into the life of my child. I said to myself, Am I crazy? Am I the only person who feels this way?
The second reason for this book is, I am a journalist. I’m a writer. I had already been following the stories of parents who had been criminalized for certain parental behavior that used to be perfectly normal and acceptable: Sending your kids to get pizza themselves, waiting in the car for ten minutes while you go on an errand.
It depends on how old the children are, right?
But in so many of these cases, nothing happened to any of these children. And yet the parents were arrested. Parents were given open cases by child protective services. They had hearings. Some had to pay legal bills. Some of them were held in jail. In some of these cases, they were single mothers. How is it that the state comes along and takes the only parent that the child has? So I said to myself: How much more is there? That is when I started to look whether this was a systemic problem. And what I discovered is that I did not know the half of it.
How does Jewish culture, or Judaism, enter into your thinking about this subject?
One of the very first things that Judaism says about your responsibilities as a person is your relationship with your parents. It’s very much like the relationship that Jews have with God. It’s a two-way street. While the commandment is to honor your father and mother, parents have a whole list of things that they are supposed to transmit to their children. You get the kid married. You should teach him Torah. You’re supposed to teach your kid to swim. And you’re supposed to teach him a trade. You have to make them a functioning person, a person who can save his own life and the lives of others, a person who can contribute to the world and who can contribute to the Jewish people. I think this is an amazing worldview, and what it says is that the family unit is so important. It is the backbone of our society.
I have a real problem with the direction we are going. The role of families in American culture used to be different. And the view that the government took toward the importance of families was different. There has been a shift away from the family as a unit toward thinking about children as separate and distinct from their parents. There now are a whole host of government-approved actions affecting children that parents are not asked about, not asked to approve. There is a lot that Judaism has to say about how to be parent and how to raise children. I would like the country that I live in to respect that, but I don’t think that it does anymore.
How is your book structured?
There are six chapters: Childhood independence, breastfeeding and the feeding of babies generally, day care, nutrition and health in public schools, “the war on fun” and child obesity. It goes through, step by step, all the areas of life where parental discretion and authority has been undermined by. or superseded, I should say, by government rule.
Let’s pick one, “the war on fun,” to illustrate.
Sledding is banned on public hills. Running is banned on playgrounds, in schools and in public playgrounds. Playing with balls, playing certain games. Cartwheels. Pushing another child on a swing. Recess has been curtailed at schools because they are afraid of bullying.
Some schools ban recess?
Yes. In Florida, a school curtailed recess because they said that the children had too much to do in the classroom. The parents came to and protested in front of their school. So, you do have parents who will argue against stuff like this. Sometimes they win and sometimes they lose. I call them “Captain Mommies and Daddies.” They feel, as I do, that when you are confronted by an overbearing state, someone is taking away individual parenting decision-making. They think, these are my private parenting decisions, and they’re being taken out of my hands.
The other thing I talk about concerning fun is the role of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Like many federal agencies, it takes the grain of an idea—and it’s a good one, here, of consumer protection—but it needs to justify itself over time. So it starts expanding its mandate. It’s no longer only about, say, banning toys from China that were found to have high contents of lead.
They don’t have to seek public comment for their recalls. Relying on their own experts, they publish alerts, on a weekly basis, to consumers, declaring certain products to be hazardous or dangerous, or potentially risky. So even in the case where there hasn’t been an injury, they will still ban something, reasoning there is a potential hazard. They also don’t have to show the costs versus the benefit. They don’t publish the probability of the risk.
How do you balance the rights of parents and role of public welfare?
The Supreme Court ruled that parents essentially have authority over their children except that they are required to have the child educated. That, to me, is a perfectly fine standard. That’s where we should start. Why should the government get involved in telling mothers how they should feed their babies? Why should they have an opinion? Leave the mothers alone, make the decision, talk to whomever they want to consult; the government should not have a view that one mode of feeding a baby is better than another.
I would like there to be a parental bill of rights defining what is a public welfare issue and what is private. Here, the burning example is vaccines, where you’re talking about a potential public health crisis. Without group immunization, there is no protection against these diseases. It’s no good if I get my child immunized but the kid sitting next to him in preschool is not immunized. You need a high rate of immunization for the public protection of everybody.
I want the state to acknowledge that it has a limited role in families. I don’t believe that there is a “one size fits all” solution. I would like to see greater awareness and understanding of this problem. And I want to highlight the people who already are engaged in trying to limit the overbearing state.
This interview has been edited and condensed.