Safe Child Syndrome

Protecting kids to death

All this worry might be worthwhile if any of it were actually good for the children--or for us. But my son needs to know that tantrums won't be rewarded, and that little girl in the red sweater needs to know her own coping skills are developing nicely. As it is, I'll bet she would never dream of ditching her father, shimmying up the fiberglass climber and imagining herself in a secret fort, high above everyone else. Dad's hovering, after all, sends the twin signals that the climber is dangerous and that she's not competent to navigate it.

Later, on our way out of the park, my son and I passed the little girl and her dad, this time at the moonwalk in Edinborough's gymnasium. She was bouncing straight up and down, her eyes trained on her father, who was standing less than a foot away on the other side of the net window, staring at her just as intently. Both seemed oblivious to the three other kids in the bouncer until one of them bounded into the girl's quadrant, near enough that her footing wobbled.

"Hey," Dad barked. "Hey, you could hurt her." His yell startled the girl, and after a minute she bounced over to the inflatable castle's exit flap and slid quietly out. If Dad keeps it up, he's going to find himself henpecking her teachers and ghostwriting her college entrance essays.

 

I have a friend who works with people who commit awful crimes. If anyone I know hears enough horror stories to justify wanting to cloister her own children, it's her. But instead, she seems to have a sense of scale about the real roots of the bad things lurking out there, of how much has to go wrong, and for how long, for someone to end up in one of her case files.

She has a son in kindergarten at a southwest Minneapolis school. He rides the bus, but most of the other kids get driven. In his class, in fact, there are half a dozen mothers who park their cars, walk their children inside, and help them off with their coats. Several of them then sit down and help the pupils get started on the day's first activity. One brings her younger kids.

My friend fantasizes about standing up for these kids. "They can do this," she wants to tell their mothers. "It's their life, not yours." But she knows what the moms would think, and maybe say: that my friend works. That she isn't even raising her own kids. And that to complain of their hovering really only suggests what's wrong with her.

And she's probably right. Like her, most of those mothers are educated and spent years building careers before having kids. It stands to reason that we can't just shut it all off, the jockeying and positioning and thinking two steps ahead. Which makes the playground a far more competitive arena for parents than for kids, the most popular game of one-upmanship being I'm More Attuned and Attentive than You Are.

At its most basic level, this involves sacrifice for the good of the children--anything from planning meticulously to assure that every day holds a steady stream of stimulating activities to giving up that job. Compare notes with enough parents and you'll run into more extreme variations. There are people who argue that strollers and baby carriers are "detachment devices," putting an unnatural, unhealthy distance between parent and child. There are advocates of "noncoercive parenting," who believe children shouldn't be made to do anything they don't want to do. There are parents who only allow wooden toys, organic food, and incandescent lighting. It's as if the biggest worrywart stands to win a Parent of the Year award.

Worrying is a secular form of prayer, according to David Anderegg, a psychology professor at Bennington College in Vermont, and the author of Worried All the Time: Rediscovering the Joy in Parenthood in an Age of Anxiety. Earlier generations coped with the thought that they couldn't control what happened to their offspring all the time by reasoning that once the kid walked out the door, God took over. But accidents are no longer seen as divine intervention, and the parents Anderegg now sees in his private practice often equate worrying with being devoted.

Pathological worriers often believe that worrying will stave off dire happenings. "The reason why many worriers have difficulty responding to treatment is that they are afraid to give up worrying, because worrying is seen as something good," Anderegg writes. "Worrying about a potential plane crash ahead of time might have some marginal value if those worries motivate a person to study the relative safety records of several different air carriers, but once the plane is up in the air, no amount of worrying is going to hold it up."

Anderegg's book has sold well with teachers and mental health workers, but not with parents. "Parents come to my talks and listen politely and invariably say, 'I don't need this, but I know someone who does'," he says. "With parents, it's not selling well. People don't want to hear it."

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