Like most readers, I’m a sucker for a juicy headline. That probably explains why I immediately clicked on the link last week on the Star-Telegram’s Web site: Grapevine mom investigated after children left alone in bitter cold.
As it turned out, though, the story wasn’t nearly as salacious as the title would have implied. A single mother had dropped off her two children, ages 5 and 7, at school. On her way to work, she turned on the radio and realized, um, whoops, school is actually closed. She turned around immediately and retrieved the kids.
No big deal, right? It’s one of those tales that, back in the day (and by back in the day, I mean 1988) would inspire a good round of yuk-yuks at the Thanksgiving dinner table every year.
Hey, mom, remember that time you dropped us off at school and it was closed and we nearly froze to death?
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Think again. In our era of hyper-protectiveness and madly misplaced priorities, the woman returned to the school to find the police on the scene. The case was referred to Child Protective Services. On the comments section of the Star-Telegram Web site, the woman was termed "completely negligent." "Jail her and take her kids away," noted one reader. "This is one of the Mothers that will be on the news giving all sorts of excuses why her children were abducted," said another (as if any mother, good, bad or indifferent, should be blamed for her child being abducted).
Let me make this clear: I don’t know this woman. She might very well make the evil mother played by Mo’Nique in Precious look like a pussycat. But I’m going to play the odds here. My guess is that she loves her kids and was a little harried that morning and needed to get to work because, like all of us, she needs to pay the bills. She got distracted. She made a boneheaded mistake. As soon as she realized what had happened, she turned around and fixed it.
But we don’t seem to have much empathy left for people anymore: One error, and we’re ready to convict. Nor do we seem to understand the difference between genuine threat and the manufactured kind. Maybe it’s because we’re all inundated with media reports that have managed to convince us every third child is being kidnapped, murdered, abused and locked up in the basement. But when did we get so willing to condemn and criminalize something that should be chalked up to forgivable human error?
I understand the counterargument: Those kids could have died out there! But they didn’t. The kids are fine. The mom has likely learned her lesson. So let’s stop judging people based on our most paranoid fears — fears flamed and fomented by the endless media obsession with dastardly deeds.
None of this is to suggest we all shouldn’t be deeply vigilant about signs of child abuse and neglect. But instead of working ourselves into a frenzy of Crucible-like hysteria, maybe we should try to take a deep breath and reassess the priorities of the situation. Attacking this Grapevine mom as a bad parent makes about as much sense to me as subjecting an 80-year-old grandma to a full-body scan next time she walks through airline security.
But we can never be too careful. Granny might very well be packing enough TNT to blow the entire planet to smithereens.
I’m apt to disagree. I think you can be too careful, especially at a point in history where everybody is suspicious of everyone else, and people jump to conclusions on misleading headlines. Yes, granny could be a terrorist; and yes, Grapevine mom might be Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest. But most likely they’re not. And I for one would rather the Grapevine police department and the National Security Agency concentrate their energies elsewhere, perhaps on intelligence that identifies and solves real problems as opposed to overestimating minor ones.
As for my brethren in the media: I think it would help us all if we turned the volume down and tried to take stock of what’s really going on.
Grapevine Mom makes dopey mistake; life carries on. It might not be the sexiest headline, and it might not sell newspapers or increase Web traffic. But it would be a truth a lot more honest than the ones we’re serving up.
Christopher Kelly writes about movies, food, books, art and popular culture for DFW.com.