For most of us, the sight of a little girl walking her dog around a suburban Chicago neighborhood probably wouldn’t inspire frantic calls to 911 about children gone wild.
Eight-year-old Dorothy was, after all, fulfilling the promise she had made to her mom: If she got a dog, she would have to take care of that dog. And mom, Corey Widen, was at least within eyeshot.
“I wanted her to learn responsibilities,” Widen later told NBC News.
And certainly the tiny white Maltese — appropriately named Marshmallow — wasn’t much of a leash-tugger. But someone, somewhere along the way, did reach for the phone. And within minutes of Dorothy’s return, police officers were knocking on the door.
Responding to a report of an unattended child, they questioned Widen briefly, before deciding she hadn’t done anything wrong.
The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, on the other hand, wasn’t so dismissive. A few days later, Widen got an official letter: The agency had launched its own investigation.
“For something like this to happen to me, there’s something really wrong,” Widen told the Chicago Tribune. “She was gone for five minutes. I was in the backyard and I could see her through the yard.”
What about free-range parenting?
If only young Dorothy could just tap her ruby slippers and go back to a time when this kind of parenting wasn’t a 911-level offense — but considered a healthy way to build self-confidence, self-sufficiency and yes, even a little happiness in children.
Even today, there’s a movement to get back there. It’s called free-range parenting — a wholesome embrace of the idea that kids can play on their own and walk to the store and even ride the bus without parental attendants following close at their heels.
That’s the opposite of "helicopter parenting" — that modern pox of parenting that sees adults hovering over their kids, ready to attend to every perceived need.
These parents, it seems, have such an abundance of helicoptering in them, they're ready to swoop down on other people's children too. Who could forget the South Carolina woman who was charged with a felony in 2014 for letting her daughter play in a park across the street from the McDonald's where she was working? It took two years for Debra Harrell to prevail in that legal battle.
Widen won't pay such a heavy price for embracing the free-range school of parenting. But the dog-walking incident did result in a stressful investigation. Family members were interviewed. A pediatrician was questioned. Eventually Children and Family Services cleared her of all wrongdoing. The "mom shame," however, lingers.
“You never know who did this to you and it turns your life upside down.” Widen told CBS News. “I'm a homeschool mom and I'm always with my kids. You can accuse me of a lot of things, not supervising them, is not one of them. My entire life revolves around them.”
For Dorothy, it was about learning the wrong kind of lesson about consequences — that exercising even the slightest measure of independence can have traumatic results.
And for the rest of us, it’s a sobering reminder that the helicopter parenting can’t get up, up and out of our children’s faces fast enough.