Keith Kaplan served as a Township Councilman in Teaneck, NJ, for four and a half years. Just before his term ended this January, he sponsored a Reasonable Childhood Independence bill for his town of 40,000.
This makes Teaneck a Let Grow town where kids are allowed – even encouraged — to be out and about on their own. Their freedom will not be considered neglect unless a parent is putting them in obvious, serious, and likely danger.
Here is Let Grow’s Q&A with Keith, edited for length and clarity:
LG: What made you want to sponsor the Reasonable Childhood Independence bill?
KK: Kids have fewer options today than when I was little. It’s very hard to give them independence without seeming like you’re doing something out of the ordinary. For instance: I have 3 wonderful, precocious girls. We’d go for a walk and they wanted to explore 10 or 15 feet in front of me — get a little sense of independence. They loved it! At 4 or 5 years old, they’d stop at the corners and wait for me.
One day my oldest daughter’s walking ahead and she sees a man with a dog. She asked him if she could pet it and the man didn’t know what to do. A child was talking to him! He was kind of frozen in place until he saw me come around the bend and said, “Oh! Hi! Your daughter asked to pet my dog.” I said, “Fine!” But it really dawned on me that adults have been conditioned not to even say hello, or talk to kids anymore.
LG: That’s sad!
KK: It is. Two weeks ago my wife and I were at the supermarket and there’s a mom putting her groceries in the car. As we walk by, I wave at the kid in the shopping cart seat and my wife says, “You can’t do that! People will think it’s creepy.”
LG: It’s as if every person is considered a potential predator and every greeting = grooming.
KK: Little things add up. When my daughter was 6 or 7 we watched ET and there’s that scene where some kids ride away from the house on their bikes. My daughter said, “Their mom doesn’t know where they are!” She viewed this as abnormal and wrong and dangerous. That made me think: What’s going on here? I spent my whole childhood riding bikes!
LG: Seems like culture-wide catastrophizing.
KK: When I became a town councilman I knew right off the bat that one of the things I wanted to do was help model a change in the norms here. I ran on it.
LG: Can you cite any local examples of over-protection / overkill?
KK: There are too many, whether it’s kids being told they were too young to play basketball in the park, or having police called on a painter for a possible “luring attempt” when he asked a kid where a street was located. But the worst happened a few years back after an ex-policeman saw my friends’ 7-year-old walking around the block by his home. The girl was properly clothed for the winter, but the ex-policeman called the cops, who responded. At first it was one cop who approached her, and asked where she lived. She said the street name and number. A reasonable person would have called the mom if there was a concern. But instead, the cop decided to walk her home.
LG: Somehow I guess the end was not, “Here’s your kid! Goodbye!”
KK: No. The officer wouldn’t give her back to her parents if they didn’t show identification. Here’s a girl saying, “But this is my mom and dad.” The parents are saying, “This is our kid.” And yet the cop said, “I can’t release her out of our custody unless you show i.d.” The parents said no — we didn’t do anything wrong. And like many of these stories, at that point, the officer called for backup.
By now, the kid is crying. The supervisor arrives and he’s trying to calm her down, telling her she didn’t do anything wrong. The parents still weren’t showing i.d., but then the dad did what any dad would – he went to hug his crying kid. And at that point he was arrested. With handcuffs. Three cops took the dad down to the ground and put him in the car in front of his daughter and wife.
LG: How do you know about all this?
KK: These are family friends. The mom called me when the cops got involved. I walked over and recorded it.
LG: What happened to the dad?
KK: They released him later that day.
LG: They’d locked him up???
KK: Yes. And the police report indicates that they had someone from DCPP [Child Protective Services] interview him “in his cellblock.” She found he posed danger.
LG: Well that seems like a good enough reason to sponsor a local Reasonable Childhood Independence bill.
KK: Parents make hundreds of decisions every day, which are never subject to community veto. There’s no reason we should have to fear [allowing our kids to encounter] a situation we know our kids can handle, just because it involves public spaces. My ordinance will hopefully send a message to parents and their neighbors, as to who ultimately has the authority to decide when their kids can do things, like go for a walk.
And secondly: Someone like my friend can show [the authorities]: “We have an ordinance on the books that says as long as a reasonable parent says their kid is capable of doing something, it’s okay.” It tells parents that their opinions on how to raise their kids will be respected.
LG: What was the final vote on the law?
KK: 4-1 in favor, and two absent. You can read it here.
For more information on the Reasonable Childhood Independence law, please click here. To read Keith Kaplan’s Teaneck Today blog, please click here. His email address is [email protected]