Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Reflections on Library Service to Unattended Children

In my first two and a half years of parenting, I have become increasingly supportive of the idea of Free-Range Parenting. After a local couple was repeatedly harassed by CPS for allowing their kids to play unattended at a neighborhood park, I started thinking about the way communities treat children in the absence of their parents. Naturally, with my library background, I eventually came around to considering the treatment of unattended children in the library.  Many libraries have unattended children policies, and this post is not meant to put those down in any way. Libraries have to have rules in order to fairly accommodate all users, and my own state has a law about unattended children which heavily influences library policy. This post is not about handling unattended children who are in violation of library policy, as every library will have its own disciplinary code for handling those situations. Instead, my thoughts today are about serving children who are lawfully unattended in the library.

Mind your own business.

Or, more to the point, do not mind that which is not your business. Everyone has personal feelings about kids being left to their own devices in public places. The fact is, however, that it is the responsibility of a parent to determine when it is appropriate for a child to venture out on his or her own. Because librarians do not act in loco parentis, their business with unattended children extends only to library use and library policy. It is not appropriate, for example, to ask a child who is lawfully using the library without a parent where his or her parents are. Most children will probably answer such a question because they perceive the questioning adult to be an authority figure, but it is not your business why his parent is not in the library. It is also not up to the librarian to determine whether the child is allowed to read certain books, view certain websites, or slack off instead of working on homework, unless the child's activities are against library policy. It is never the business of a librarian to comment upon a parent's choices, or to penalize a child for them.

Do not become emotionally involved.

Most people who work with children love children and enjoy spending time with them. It makes me uncomfortable, however, when librarians say they treat the kids in the library as if they were their own. For me, children in the library are customers in the same way that adult patrons are customers. I can speak to them warmly, welcome them with a smile, and even offer hugs and high fives, but I never think of myself as something other than a community helper providing a particular service. When librarians become sentimental over the kids who visit their library, they begin to lose their objectivity. Suddenly, they are invested in things that are not their concern - who the kids hang out with, whether particular kids are dating each other, if a certain child's parents are going through a divorce. It may sound heartless to say a librarian should not care about those things, but if we are truly in the business of protecting and respecting privacy, we should not insinuate ourselves into the lives of young patrons and begin thinking of ourselves as surrogate parents or guardians. If a child shares with you, listen with the same sympathy you reserve for adult patrons with tales of woe, but keep your personal feelings - and advice - to yourself.

Do not assume the worst. 

Not every unattended child in the library is there as a result of neglectful parenting. Some parents really do want their kids to learn how to interact with others in a public space without help from their parents. While some kids definitely hang out in the library because they don't have anywhere else to be, there are also kids visiting the library every day because there's nowhere else they'd rather be. If a child is not disruptive, or otherwise in violation of library policy, it is wise to act as though she or he is in the library for a positive reason. When your default assumption is that an unattended child is a problem, your overall spirit of customer service is diminished, and your library, by extension, becomes less friendly to the very patrons that keep it in business.
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