Friday, September 6, 2013

When Reality Checks Your Privilege

I want to say that last night I witnessed the worst display of parenting in my life... except that it would imply that some sort of parenting was involved.

Even as I write that it makes me wonder what these kids' lives are like, I just got a snapshot, I don't know what life is like at home for them, what their parents are like, or if they even have adults looking out for them in the slightest... if their parents have 3 jobs and are never home just to keep a roof over their heads and clothes on their backs, the children all seemed fairly clean (although they were in a swimming pool, so who really knows) and well fed, so at least they had that going for them.

I know these statements seem to start in the middle of a story that I haven't told yet, and I will get there, but those are the thoughts that are running through my mind presently.

Last night started like any other night might, a friend of mine texted me asking if I wanted to come over to hang out at the pool in her apartment complex. My only plans for the evening included drinking a beer and watching One Tree Hill reruns so I of course jumped at the chance to beat the heat at the pool. The original intent of the evening didn't include anything more than sitting on the pool deck with our feet/legs in the water, but after witnessing some abysmal swimming skills in the kids that surrounded us, we decided to suit up and school the youngsters (in the best, most patient, looking out for their best interests, not letting them drown in 3 feet of water manner)... also the cute 10 year olds had been cajoling us to get in and play for the better part of an hour.

So we helped the kids with their technique for awhile, then decided to get into the hot tub (it was getting cold outside, it was after 9pm at this time), and the kids followed us in like lost puppies. It was painfully obvious these kids were starved for positive adult attention... even while we were helping them with their swimming every once in awhile one of the boys would get a panicked look on his face and ask "Is this okay? Am I wrong?" it was heartbreaking. We talked about school, and how important it is to do homework and get good grades, and you could tell this was something new to these kids. They were so excited to talk about their accomplishments and dreams for the future, about who they wanted to be when they grew up, and if they should worry about finding a girlfriend now or wait until they're older (we advised that they wait).

As the minutes tick by we notice that no parents or even adults are showing up to pick up the kids as the pool is getting ready to close. One of the boys mentions that they all walk home to neighboring complexes, and one had quite a bit further to go alone (probably about a mile away, but it was late and not on the best side of town), my friend and I were horrified that someone would allow their 5th grader to not only go swimming without adult supervision (or stronger swimming skills) AND that they would allow them to walk home that late at night, we were slightly less horrified that it was close to 10 pm and he still hadn't done his homework (because honestly, his safety is more important than a spelling list). Then we were faced with a really tough decision. The boy asked us (strangers) to give him a ride home, normally he'd walk, but it was getting cold outside.

We didn't know what to do. We didn't want him to walk home without an adult, but it's inappropriate for adults to have strange children in their car. What would happen if for some reason we were pulled over and couldn't explain why he was there, or who he was for that matter. What if his parents saw him with us and were pissed off that we intervened. What if we let him walk home by himself and someone hurt him, kidnapped him, if he got lost didn't make it back to his house? In the end we were more concerned that something bad would happen to him if we let him walk by himself (even though he does it all the time and doesn't even know what a curfew is) than what might happen if someone saw him in the car.

My heart is still heavy 15+ hours later.

Reality hits hard.

I lived in that same complex (as the pool was, not that he lived in) when I was his age, 22 years ago. My mother would have NEVER allowed me to go to the pool unsupervised, and I was a fairly decent swimmer. She would have never let me out of her sight after dark. If she had to work late there was always someone to take care of me and make sure I was safe and warm.

I think I knew in the back of my mind that there were kids like these boys out there. That at a young age were basically on their own and dealing with life without supervision, but I hadn't really seen it in person... or maybe I never paid attention.  My mind was completely blown that there are people in this world who would be okay with their kids playing in a pool without a lifeguard, adult supervision, anyone with basic knowledge of CPR or First Aid, that they didn't know that there would be some one there to jump in and pull their kid out if he got into trouble. That they were okay with their kids in a swimming pool without really knowing how to swim. There was no one there to tell them that running on the slippery pool deck was dangerous, that diving into the shallow end of the pool could lead to catastrophic injuries, that it's not polite to splash strangers (okay this was the least of my worries, but in the beginning my biggest annoyance). These kids didn't even know there was anything wrong or (I hesitate to say) abnormal about the situation.

Looking back I realize that any time I ever felt like my mom was too strict, that I should have been allowed more freedom, more independence, any type of less involvement I WAS WRONG. She made rules and had expectations to keep me safe, smart, and on track to having a decent future. I never had to look to strangers for anything. I never felt unloved or unimportant. When I spoke to her she listened... and while like a lot of kids I was afraid of failure, it was because I didn't want to disappoint her because she believes in me, not because I thought that if I did something wrong that she wouldn't love me as much.

I may not have grown up in a mansion, but I always knew I was loved and well taken care of, that I never had to want for anything truly important, and that's really the biggest privilege of all...and I realize that it's incredibly sad that those things are a privilege and not a right of every child.