I wrote yesterday about the fear of social services I received from my parents and from the wider homeschooling community. Once I grew up I realized that this fear was both irrational and counterproductive. Social services was not the enemy, and social workers do important work protecting children from abuse and neglect. Sure, social services isn’t perfect, and they sometimes make mistakes. But what good does teaching children to be afraid of social services do? Absolutely none at all. When I had children of my own, then, I determined to do things differently. I wanted Sally and Bobby to see social services not as an enemy but as a friend.
Several months ago we got from a store and Sally refused to get out of the car. She was tired and was comfortable where she was. She was four at the time, and I needed to take her inside and get on with my list of things to accomplish for the day. My options, as I saw them, were to either pick Sally up and carry her into the house or to convince her to come inside voluntarily. I decided to try the later and save the former for last resort.
“I can’t leave you out here,” I told her. “I’m your mom and it’s my job to take care of you.”
“I don’t care about that, mom!” Sally insisted. “I don’t mind if you leave me out here!”
“Okay, let me see if I can explain this,” I said, and I got down on her level. “Kids don’t know everything yet, and sometimes they can get hurt. Kids can get lost or hit by cars or stolen or drown or any manner of things. So parents’ job is to protect their kids and take care of them. That’s me—that’s my job.”
I took a deep breath and considered whether to go on. I didn’t want to give her my childhood fear of social services, but I wanted her to understand that I really truly and honestly am required by law to take care of her, and that leaving her outside in the car alone is literally not an option. Sally likes understanding how the world works and having reasons for things, and she tends to be fairly mature for her age. So I went on.
“There are laws that require me to take good care of you,” I told her, “and if I don’t take good care of you I will get in trouble. There is an agency called social services that helps make sure children are taken care of. If parents do not take good care of their children, social services will come and tell them they have to take good care of their children. And if parents still do not take good care of their children, social services will find them a new mommy and daddy so that there is someone to take care of them.”
Sally considered for a moment.
“Okay, I’m coming inside, mommy,” she finally said, climbing out of the car. “You have to take good care of me, because that’s your job.” And she looked at me and smiled. “It’s your job to take good care of me!”
Sometime later we were at an outdoor event when Sally asked if it was fine if she go off on her own. I told her that I was okay with her moving around a little bit but that she had to stay close enough that I could see her and would know where she was. I reminded her that it’s my job to protect her and take care of her.
“That’s right mommy, it’s your job to protect me!” she said. “And you can’t protect me if you can’t see me!” And with that, she laughed as though she’d told a joke—and she stayed close enough for me to keep tabs on her throughout the event.
I was glad to see Sally being more understanding of times I had to tell her “no” because what she was asking was not safe. Sally had definitely taken to heart that it was my job to take care of her. But I still worried that she might take the bit about social services finding new mommies and daddies for kids who were not taken care of the wrong way, and end up feeling afraid.
Some time after this I was carrying a load of groceries from the car into the house, and Sally was dawdling and lagging behind.
“Come on Sally!” I called over my shoulder. “Hurry up!”
“I’m coming, mommy!” Sally called out as she picked up per pace and jogged to catch up. “Because you have to take care of me, mom, or they will find me a new mommy and daddy, and I don’t want a new mommy and daddy!”
And there it was. Had I messed up, I wondered? Was I giving her the same fear I had had? After the groceries were safely on the counter and we were both in the house, I pulled Sally aside.
“Sally, daddy and I try very hard to take good care of you,” I told her. “If social services came here to check on you, they would see that we take good care of you. Social services only takes children away from their parents if their parents are not taking care of them at all, or if their parents are hurting them. Does that make sense?”
Sally paused to think. “Those kids need new mommies and daddies, because they need someone to take care of them!”
“That’s right,” I responded. “Social services comes to check things out if someone calls them and says, ‘that child’s mommy and daddy are not taking care of her, she needs help.'”
“And then they help?” Sally asked.
“Yes,” I told her. “They try to help the family, and they only find kids new mommies and daddies if their parents still refuse to take care of them. If social services ever comes to our house and a social worker wants to talk to you, don’t worry about it, they’re just trying to make sure you’re taken care of and happy. They’re nice people and they want to make sure kids are safe. If that ever happens you can just answer their questions, okay? It is their job to make sure children are taken good care of, and that’s a good thing, because it is good for children to be taken care of and not get hurt. Does that make sense?”
“Oh!” Sally exclaimed, “If they come to our house, they will say, ‘do your mommy and daddy take good care of you?’ And I will say, ‘yes, they do!'” And then they will say, ‘that is good, we like mommies and daddies to take care of their kids!’ Right mommy? Right?”
“Wow, um, yes, that’s absolutely right,” I responded. I’m telling you, you just never know with this kid. She does voices and everything. And with that, our conversation was over and Sally was off to play.
It has been some time now since this second conversation, and Sally has not expressed any fear of social services. Indeed, her comment as she ran to catch up with me—the comment that prompted our second conversation—was less one of fear than one of stating facts. Sally is a very logical and ordered child, and tends to be matter of fact like that. I have to remind myself not to let my own childhood fear of social services determine my interpretation of Sally’s comments.
That it is my job to take care of her, and that I’m required by law to do so, has continued to help at moments when Sally would really like to be outside alone, or to wander around on her own at an event, and I can’t let her. It means that Sally understands that I don’t let her do those things because it is my job to take care of her and I’m required to do so, and not because I want to kill all of her fun.
Now I’m not saying any of this as a prescription. I don’t know for sure whether I’ve handled this topic correctly, or whether I should have held my tongue and found some other way to coax her out of the car that time several months ago—say, offering her a cookie once we got inside, or emphasizing all the things I had to get done in the house that evening. I do know that I just looked around the internet and couldn’t find a single guide to talking to your children about social services. Perhaps that means most people say nothing, and maybe that’s what I should have done too. But with my background of fear, and my parents in my children’s lives, I think part of me wanted to offer Sally a healthy perspective rather than leaving her with a vacuum.