I'm not sure when it changed. Maybe it never did.
Maybe my notion of a neighborhood where the adults all kept an eye on the kids, broke up squabbles, made sure they weren't breaking the rules and told the other parents what they saw is a romantic one – more a movie scene than reality.
It seems, though, that adults today are afraid. Afraid to step in when 8-year-old kids they don't know are fighting on the playground. Afraid to tell random kids at the pool to slow down when they're running recklessly. Afraid to intervene when a gaggle of middle school kids is teasing another kid and excluding him.
Afraid to call the parents when their teenager is heading to a house to 'hang out' when they have never met the kid or the parents. Afraid to tell their niece to quiet down at a family function when the adults are trying to talk.
Afraid to intervene
It's not a leap, then, to imagine that adults would be afraid to intervene when they see something really bad happening. At Penn State, for example, when the trainer walked in on Jerry Sandusky sexually assaulting the boy in the shower and walked out, most were surprised. We read that account, stunned and all high and mighty, thinking we'd have stepped in and stopped him cold.
And yet we can't even stop a squabble between kids on the playground. We don't intervene when the stakes are low and assume we will muster the courage when the stakes are high. I'm not so sure. It takes confidence to intervene, and it takes practice.
When should parents step in?
Culturally we have taken a live-and-let-live approach to life here in the United States, and in many ways, this is a good thing. We don't want other people micromanaging our lives or imposing their values or beliefs on us, but some things are universal: People shouldn't be bullied or abused or discriminated against. People should be respected and valued.
Our children should understand that the adults in their lives – not just their parents, but all adults – care about the choices they make and what they do. By standing up for children as an adult bystander, we give the bullied child a safe place, however briefly. By helping kids follow rules, we tell them we care and give them the confidence to follow them when we're not there. By calling the parents of our teenager's friends, they learn we want them to be safe.
Practice makes perfect
Adults need to practice these skills. It feels strange at first to correct or stand up for kids we don't know, and sometimes it's even more awkward to correct or stand up for kids we do, but over time, you get used to it. Teachers are naturals at this and are loved and revered. By practicing this sort of intervention when the stakes are low, you can be sure you'll have the confidence when the stakes are high to do the right thing.
In the case of the Penn State shower incident, with enough practice in low-risk situations, you'd have no hesitation when you saw this horrible sight and would have the confidence to walk straight over and knock Sandusky's block off.