Marguerite Kelly
Family Almanac

When you think parents are neglecting their child

Q. I know a couple who refuse any outside advice because they think they’re doing a great job with their 4-year-old son. Their relatives don’t agree, however, and neither do I.

These parents rarely take their child outside their apartment during the day — even to the library or to run around in the park — nor are they preparing him for preschool or helping him interact with anyone other than themselves, their pets and their electronic games.

(Hadley Hooper/for The Washington Post)

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This is partly because they let their son sleep until the late afternoon, when the mother comes home from work and the father goes to his job. The child then runs around in diapers, watches television or plays with hand-held electronic games or the camera phone until his dad comes home at midnight. At that point, the parents go to bed, leaving him alone in his bedroom with the light on and the baby gate in place and tell him to go to bed when he gets tired.

Family members think the child is showing signs of autism, but the parents won’t take him in for a medical evaluation or change their lifestyle. It’s easier for them to treat him like a plant or a cute pet. I hate to stand by and watch this sad upbringing.

At what point can the public school or social services become involved?

A. This child is certainly growing up in a way-too-permissive household but it’s too soon to report the parents to his public school because every state lets every 4-year-old stay at home even if they live next door to a great preschool.

You probably shouldn’t report the parents to child protective services, either — particularly if the child looks reasonably happy at home — because a call to CPS can be a roll of the dice. Although most of its workers range from good to excellent, an inexperienced or overly judgmental worker might put the child into foster care, which is often run quite badly. This could be more psychologically damaging to the child than the care he is getting at home.

It would be much better if a relative treated the couple to parenting classes so they could find out how much their child will change when he starts school or if they invited their little boy on regular midafternoon excursions, so he can have a picnic breakfast at the zoo or on a paddle-boat or interact with other 4-year-olds at the playground after he eats his granola.

Preparing a child for school is about much more than teaching him his colors, his letters and his numbers. It’s about getting him ready for the school experience, which can be quite scary, especially for someone who usually gets his way. The first “no” a child hears shouldn’t come from a stranger.

Parents get their child ready for school by reading to him every day, so he learns to listen to rhymes; to syllables and to the first and last sounds that the words make; by exposing him to noisy situations sometimes, so he won’t be surprised by all the noise he hears at school; and by teaching him how to tell a classmate that he is standing too close and how to ask someone if he can sit next to her at lunch.

Most of all, parents prepare their child for school by letting him play with other children so he can learn how to share; to be patient; to take turns; to tolerate frustration and to weave fantasies with a partner rather than alone.

If a child always plays by himself, or with impersonal electronic toys, he may develop odd little quirks, twitches or other slightly aberrant behavior that can make him look strange and even autistic to others and can spiral swiftly out of control. If that happens, he’ll become a mark for every bully at school.

Someone should encourage these parents to toilet-train their son now, because only a few special-needs children are allowed to wear diapers to school, and to switch him to a daytime schedule. If they don’t, the middle of the morning will feel like the middle of the night to him and he’ll be tired all day.

If the parents won’t send their son to school next year however, or only send him erratically, someone should make a confidential call to the principal to report the parents for what is called “educational neglect” because the family lives in one of the eight states where 5-year-olds must go to school. A home visit from the teacher may be enough to make them change.

Parents don’t have to have a traditional lifestyle, but they must put the needs of their child ahead of their own.

Questions? Send them to advice@margueritekelly.com.

 
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