How Realistic is the Child Protective System in “The School for Good Mothers”?

More realistic than you'd wish

If you’re reading “The School for Good Mothers,” by Jessamine Chan, you may find yourself pausing to shake your fist, gnash your teeth — and check on your kids.

This dystopian novel set in the near future is about what happens when moms are “imperfect” by society’s exacting – and impossible – standards. Mothers who don’t helicopter are sentenced to a year of state re-education, where every parent-child interaction is graded on whether it is sincere enough, warm enough, instructive enough, caring enough, selfless enough, and, of course, safe enough.

In addition to the main character, Frida, who really did do something wrong — she left her toddler alone in the apartment for two and a half hours (something she understands was a mistake) — we meet characters punished for far less egregious “misdeeds.” These include letting their child walk home from the library, wait in the car a few minutes, or play in the back yard, unsupervised.

At which point, the big question many readers might have is this:

Does That Stuff Really Happen?

Unfortunately, yes. Regardless of the inciting incident in the book, real life good mothers HAVE been investigated and/or arrested or even thrown in jail, including for things like:

*Letting their 9-year-old play at a safe, popular park while they worked their shift at McDonalds. (See the case of Debra Harrell.)

*Accidentally losing track of their toddler a few minutes at a family picnic. (Vanessa Peoples, Aurora, Colorado.)

*Having their kids stay home alone while they worked their shift at a pizza parlor. (Often POVERTY is mistaken for neglect. See Shaina Bell, Ohio.)

*Letting their kids, 11, 9 and 5, play at the playground across from their apartment. (Natasha Felix, Chicago.)

*Letting their 14-year-old babysit a 4-year-old, who slips outside for 10-15 minutes. (The case of Melissa Henderson, in Georgia.)

The Cult of Constant Supervision

This novel helps make clear that most parents, however imperfect, know and love their kids. They deserve support, not shame and blame. But the sad fact is, child protective services can step in too heavily, on too little pretext. Real neglect occurs only when a parent is putting their child in obvious and likely danger — not just any time a child is unsupervised.

The book may also start a conversation about the fact that constant parental supervision is not only unnecessary, it actually hurts kids. As they grow, kids need some freedom to explore, play, take tiny risks and grow resilient. Over the decades as childhood independence has declined, childhood anxiety and depression have increased. Growing up under constant surveillance is damaging to kids, and so is parenting under constant surveillance.


There is Good News for Non-Helicopter Parents!

To date, three states have passed “Reasonable Childhood Independence” bills that narrow the neglect laws this way. Three more states — Colorado, Nebraska and South Carolina — are considering them right now! In fact, the Colorado House just passed this law unanimously this morning! Now it goes to their Senate.

If you’re interested in trying to change the laws in your state, please click on our “Laws & Advocacy” page.

If you have had someone call 911 about your parenting — or worry they might, please tell us your story here. We won’t share it without your permission.

You Can Be FOR Child Safety and AGAINST Overly Broad Neglect Laws

NO ONE thinks a toddler should be left alone for two and a half hours, the way Frida did in Good Mothers. But many of us believe that kids who are a little older DO need some unsupervised time to grow bold, curious, resilient.

Parents who want to grant their kids some independence – or who MUST do that, because they literally can’t afford the cost of constant helicoptering — need to know they won’t be treated as criminals unless they are truly ignoring real, not “What if ???”, danger.

Jessamine Chan, “Good Mothers” author