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Parenting in the Age of Fear
Every parent has done it. Come on, ’fess up.
Your kid fell asleep in the car. Your errand is very brief. The weather is neither too hot nor too cold. Because your chore will take such a short time, you crack the windows, lock the vehicle, and dash into the store for two minutes.
Of course all is well when you return. Your child never stirred from his nap. Relieved, you unlock the door and continue your day.
Unbeknownst to you, a stranger observed this incident, photographed your license plate, and reported you to the police. The next thing you know, there is a warrant for your arrest.
Something like this happened to a writer named Kim Brooks, who found herself justifying her decision to leave her four-year-old in the vehicle both to the police and to the world at large. “If it had been warm out, I would have said no,” she wrote. “I knew about how quickly a closed car can overheat, even on a 60-degree day. But it was cool and cloudy. I’d grown up in that same town in the 1980s and had spent hours waiting in the back seat of my parents’ station wagon, windows open, reading or daydreaming, while they ran errands. Had so much really changed since then?”
Ms. Brooks contacted a lawyer, who told her to wait to see if the police would either press charges, or report her to the Department of Children and Family Services. “And so I waited, terrified, until the morning I received that second call and learned that I was being charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor (my son),” she wrote.
Ms. Brooks’ case might have loped along like endless other parents accused of negligence for something that was perfectly normal a few years ago – except she decided to look for other mothers experiencing similar accusations. “I was beginning to understand that it didn’t matter if what I’d done was dangerous,” she noted. “It only mattered if other parents felt it was dangerous. When it comes to kids’ safety, feelings are facts.”
Feelings are facts. That’s a terrifying standard, especially when parenting is under the microscope.
I know something of the fear Ms. Brooks felt. When our younger child was a five-month-old baby, I took her to town with me on a sparkling October day. She was attired in nothing but a diaper, so I put her in my trusty sling, draped a jacket across both of us, and we skipped across the parking lot toward the store. We were both laughing in the snappy air and pretty sunshine.
That is, until I stepped into the store. Immediately I was accosted by an outraged woman. “How dare you take that baby out naked in this weather!” she snarled.
Taken aback, I looked at our daughter. Her eyes were bright, the cotton sling was tucked over her bare shoulders, she was warm against her mommy’s body, and she was laughing out loud. “She’s perfectly warm,” I assured the woman. “She’s laughing and happy. See?”
Not satisfied, the woman dogged my heels into the store and absolutely lambasted me for my poor mothering skills, for my unthinking cruelty to take a baby out unclothed on such a cold day (it was 60F degrees), and quite literally threatened to call Child Protective Services over the unpardonable sin of not dressing my child in a down parka for the polar expedition of walking 50 feet across a parking lot in October.
She finally left me alone. I did my shopping, but before I stepped foot outside the store I confess I looked around to see if the harridan was lurking in a corner, waiting to take my license plate number and report me to CPS. For a young mother, it was a terrifying experience.
Parenting has changed over the last few decades. “What kind of parent wouldn’t buckle up his children in the car?” asked my husband rhetorically. “Oh yeah, my parents. Your parents.” In fact, most parents in the late 50s and early 60s didn’t buckle up their children.
When I was a kid, my father was always diligent about vehicle safety (he frequently sang this jingle), but even he didn’t hesitate to drive home at night with us unbuckled after we had all gone to a drive-in movie. We children were sound asleep on a makeshift bed in the backseat. Somehow we all survived the trip home and no one ever accused my parents of neglect.
Now don’t start laying into me about how important safety is regarding children. I’m not advocating leaving your kids unbuckled or neglecting to attend to their safety. But sometimes it can go too far – not for the kids, but for the parents. Mothers especially have been accused of the vilest offenses for things that – a couple of decades ago – would not have caused anyone to bat an eye. (For further examples of over reactions, see this, this and this.)
The demand to be a “perfect” parent affects all socio-economic levels. “We’re contemptuous of ‘lazy’ poor mothers,” writes Brooks. “We’re contemptuous of ‘distracted’ working mothers. We’re contemptuous of ‘selfish’ rich mothers.”
One of the accused mothers Brooks interviewed stated, “[N]o matter what color you are, no matter how much money you do or don’t have, you don’t deserve to be harassed for making a rational parenting choice.” This mother was censured for child “abandonment” for leaving her children in the car for three minutes while purchasing a Starbucks coffee.
So who’s perfect? “A mother, apparently, cannot be harassed. A mother can only be corrected,” states Brooks.
I concur. The busybody twit who harassed me for not dressing my baby in a parka was simply “correcting” me. Loudly. In public. While following me. While humiliating and intimidating me in front of strangers.
Ironically this forced helicopter parenting is creating a twin backlash. One factor is children who never have the opportunity to make unsupervised decisions while growing up, resulting in stunted abilities as adults. The other factor is parents pushing back against societal busybodies. “There seems to be a slow-brewing backlash to the idea that we should let our lives be ruled by the twin fears of danger and of disapprobation,” concludes Brooks.
Remember those golden summer days when children played on sidewalks and in parks? Remember the tree forts and the bike rides? Remember when children played outside like children should?
If you can remember this, you were a child of the 70s, 60s, or earlier. If you can’t, you’re a child of the 80s, 90s, or later when playing outdoors unsupervised became “dangerous.”
Today, our fanatical insistence on perfect parenting and eternally supervised children means kids stay inside staring at screens of various sizes and shapes. The tree forts and bikes are ignored or never purchased. The imaginative rough-and-tumble games are forever gone. Children never see the sun, but at least they’re “safe” – thanks to societal busybodies who won’t let kids be kids, or parents be imperfect.