Thoughts on the Mom Handcuffed for Having Son, 8, Walk Half a Mile Home

Does it matter that this was a consequence of his misbehavior?

Perhaps you have already heard about Heather Wallace, a Texas mom of three, arrested for having her son walk home half a mile after he was bothering his younger brothers in the car.

You can read my story about it here. (Heather and I have been in touch since Oct., 2021. She contacted Let Grow when the case began.) What happened? Basically, someone called 911 when they saw her son outside, alone. That’s all it took. Cops swooped in, even though the boy was a block from his suburban home. Then they arrested Heather for child endangerment.

She took a plea upon learning she facing a two year MANDATORY MINIMUM sentence if found guilty. (We must end mandatory minimums, but that’s for another post.)

A night in jail, six months of drug tests…

Obviously, what made the story go viral is the sheer insanity of it: The mom handcuffed in front of her kids, driven to jail, spending the night in a cell. Then she had six months of community service, drug tests, and parenting classes…

All for a single half-mile walk by a boy in his own, quiet neighborhood. A story like that gets people talking.

But there was a secondary issue some brought up that has been less discussed. Some of these negative commenters were incensed that the mom had “made” her son get out of the car. They felt that somehow that changed everything. I feel otherwise. Here’s why:

Parents are allowed to make controversial choices.

When her son was bothering his brothers, Heather told me, she announced: “Calm kids get to stay in the car!” When her son remained un-calm, she asked him to walk home, knowing this often helps to regulate him.

That sounds absolutely fine to me, but more importantly: Who cares if it does or doesn’t? Parents are allowed to make decisions by the seat of their pants. Some may be great, some sub-optimal. That’s why we give parents great discretion in how they raise their kids. No one’s perfect and no one can be sure what perfect is, anyway. So unless the parent is putting their child in immediate, obvious, and LIKELY harm — they are allowed to muddle through, as parents always have.

Nonetheless, some commenters felt that because the boy was walking home as a consequence of misbehaving, somehow (god knows how) the walk was less safe than a walk home from school, or a friend’s house. Which reminds me of the landmark study done by three professors at the University of California, Irvine.

We think we’re judging danger. We’re really judging parents.

The researchers separated volunteers into five groups. Each got a different version of a story about a mom who’d left her child in the car for half an hour. I’m compressing the facts, but basically Group A was told the mom meant to return the second after dropping a book in the library book-drop, but got hit by a car and was out cold for 30 minutes.

Group B was told the mom had to do something for work for half an hour. Groups C and D were told the mom was exercising or volunteering. Group E was told the mom went off to meet her lover!

And — again, compressing/simplifying — when asked to rate the level of danger facing the car-kid, Group A rated it, say, a 5. Group B, a 6, and Group E — the group that thought the mom went off to commit adultery – thought the kid was in Level 10 danger.

Try a little rationality.

As the researchers put it, this showed that “the less morally acceptable a parent’s reason for leaving a child alone, the more danger people think the child is in.”

Perhaps that’s what was going on with the cops, or with the minority of folks chastising Heather online: They felt that MAKING a child walk home was more dangerous than LETTING a child walk home. So much for rationality.

Moral of story? It’s an apt one for a national day of thanks and connection: Try to judge folks a little less, and forgive a little more. We’re all in this together.

P.S. If you’d like to discuss this post, that’s what we’re doing on our Facebook group, Raising Independent Kids!

Heather Wallace