Safe Child Syndrome

Protecting kids to death

Meanwhile, pathological worrying has made its way into the diagnostic manuals as "generalized anxiety disorder." Cognitive behavioral therapists have long advocated teaching sufferers how to evaluate the chances this or that calamity will actually befall them. But this task is complicated, of course, by histrionic media treatments of isolated abductions, molestations, and the perennial ratings driver, substitute caretakers gone bad.

Personally, I find it quite telling that these tabloid tales are invariably punctuated by ads for antidepressants approved for the management of generalized anxiety disorder.

 

David Fick

"Mom," one of my boys said to me the other day, purple with rage, "I'm so angry I could kidnap you."

 

The only parent I know who owns up to hovering is a commercial litigator; risk is his bread and butter. Yet he reports that the first thought he had on seeing his daughter born was, "I love you more than anything in this world." His second? "I will do anything to keep you from dying."

He laughs at himself when he recounts this. "Here she's only seconds old and I'm thinking about her death," he says. "How sick is that?"

I can't bring myself to admit to him that when my older son was a couple of weeks old, I demanded that my husband put screws into our second-floor window jambs so that no one could break in. When he suggested I was being a touch irrational, I threw a hormone-juiced tantrum. I did agree that he could leave two windows unpegged; they aren't near a porch or tree and only Spiderman could reach them.

Upon publication of his baby bible in 1946, Dr. Spock worried that the very existence of a tome of "scientific" advice would make parents more apt to worry. "Trust yourself," urge the opening words of Baby and Child Care. "You know more than you think you do."

Spock encouraged parents to look for signs that their child was ready for more independence, and to applaud each new step away from the hearth. Overprotectiveness, he said, just makes for anxious children.

"Sometimes, the most important factor in overprotectiveness is the parent's inability to admit that she or he sometimes feels resentful or angry toward the child," he advised. "And a mother, for instance, may suppress her occasional mean thoughts and exaggerate the dangers of kidnappers or home accidents or inadequate diet. She has to stay close to the child to make sure the dangers don't strike, and her anxious expression convinces the child that her own fears are well founded."

Alas, Spock is dead. In his book, psychologist Anderegg wanted to repeat the same psychoanalytic tenet that overprotectiveness is often disowned aggression. His editor, he says, struck that passage.

Kids, of course, excel at exploring their mean feelings, and a good chunk of the parental playground hovering I've witnessed seems to be aimed at getting children to say only kind things to each other, to act selflessly, and generally observe the kind of social niceties their parents observe. It must be terribly confusing to them when we're so nice in public and then go home and say snide, judgmental things about one another.

 

At the age of three, one of my boys found a dead pigeon in a gutter downtown. "Nyah, nyah, boo boo," he taunted the bird, jumping up and down with glee. "You ca-an't fl-y."

 

Late on a weekday afternoon at the indoor park in Edina, a woman in corporate garb stands outside the moonwalk talking on a cell phone. She hangs up when her son, who looks to be about four, rockets out of the inflated bouncer and skitters across the floor. He scoops up a ball, throws it at a miniature basketball net, misses, and starts to cry when the ball rebounds at one of his shoulders. Next, he belly flops onto a wheeled platform and rolls across the gym. He stops twice, bursting into tears as he first stubs his toe and then nearly rolls over his own fingers. His mom is in hot pursuit, and each booboo earns him a rub or a kiss.

His attention span seems to be about a minute long, and at first his mother just seems long-suffering. If you watch a little longer, though, that changes: She's hovering so close that the boy can barely move, and she's keeping up a steady one-way dialogue about perils he should watch out for and her opinion of each activity he takes up.

After about five minutes, the boy loses interest in playing. He makes his way slowly over to the sidelines, where he clambers into an expensive McClaren stroller and starts to look at the ceiling. Mom produces an array of snacks and tries to get him interested. Right now this scene says more about the mother than the child, but that will change.

Generations of psychiatrists and analysts believed that young children were governed by inborn drives and unconscious fantasies. The notion that unresolved conflicts from parents' early lives got played out with their children only came to be accepted about 50 years ago.

In the 1930s a British psychiatrist named John Bowlby began collecting case studies on 44 juvenile thieves, ages 6 to 16, at the family mental health clinic where he worked. Each had a history of early deprivation and separation from his mother, and displayed "a remarkable lack of warmth or feeling for anyone"--themselves included. "Behind the mask of indifference," Bowlby wrote, "is bottomless misery and behind the apparent callousness despair."

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