Safe Child Syndrome

Protecting kids to death

Bowlby spent the rest of his life studying the bond, or "attachment," between parents and children. Children thrive, he concluded, when that tie is strong and loving, providing a "secure base" from which a child can explore and, as she grows up, become increasingly independent. Bowlby's work and the research others have done to build on it revolutionized psychology and a number of other fields. (University of Minnesota developmental psychologist Alan Sroufe is one of the world's foremost researchers in this arena.)

But as the concept began to filter into the popular vernacular, it was promptly perverted by a new generation of parenting experts. In 1993, pediatrician William Sears and his wife Martha published The Baby Book, which replaced Dr. Spock and became the central canon of a movement known as attachment parenting. In the translation, Bowlby's idea that children need a consistent, loving adult had been rewritten to suggest that great harm comes to kids when their parents--the Searses prefer Mom, but offer suggestions for how Dad can play helper--aren't with them virtually all the time. (The Searses have gone on to crank out an entire "Christian Parenting Library," something the zeitgeist has conveniently ignored.)

A decade later, the notion of putting a newborn in a crib panics most first-time parents, who fear that being alone will scar the tyke emotionally. And even though the number of women working outside the home continues to rise, we still spend vastly more time worrying that daycare harms children than we do trying to find ways to make sure all kids have access to high-quality care.

Return, for a moment, to the notion of disowned aggression. Raising children in our time and place requires huge amounts of self-sacrifice (forget Adventure Peak--homeschooling, anyone?), money, and, despite the fact that in most families both parents need to work full-time, apparently the constant physical presence of Mom or Dad. Who wouldn't, on occasion, have aggression to displace?

"The mother impelled to possess her child's love," Bowlby wrote, "by her endless self-sacrifice, tries to ensure that her child is given no excuse for any feelings other than those of love and gratitude. This mother, who at first sight appears so loving, inevitably creates great resentment in her child by her demands for his love, and equally great guilt in him through her claims to be so good a mother that no sentiment but gratitude is justified."

 

At a cocktail party last summer, I mentioned to a group of grandmothers how lucky I am that my parents are nearby and quick to pitch in. One of the women, whose job includes daily responsibility for the welfare of hundreds of children, told me her own grown children usually turn down her offers to babysit.

"I know plenty of parents who see leaving the kids with Grandma as selfish," I told her. "They think it's important their kids spend as much time with them as possible."

She gasped. "So you mean they're trying to be good parents?" Aghast, the other grandmas shook their heads.

 

When I was a toddler, my father's parents both were hospitalized for long periods, Grandpa for emphysema and Grandma for a heart condition that was diagnosed as the result of trying to care for him by herself. My mother logged long hours at the local hospital, which in those days didn't allow children on the wards. She would drop me off in the waiting room and whoever was there would play with me until she came back.

I asked her recently whether she was embarrassed to admit this now. No, she said, everybody did it. Besides, it wasn't like she shopped me from one rank stranger to another. The people in the waiting room weren't friends per se, but they weren't exactly unknown quantities. They were from the neighborhood, and many also had kids who couldn't go back onto the wards.

My generation, meanwhile, won't drop Jr. off at the neighbor's for an afternoon. No, much like the squad of grownups policing Adventure Peak, parents these days stay for the duration of the kids' "play dates." If they permit them to occur at all, that is. This business of treating kids like hothouse flowers seems to go hand in glove with the idea that we should endeavor to keep them away from the rest of the community.

Before the Industrial Revolution, families had to produce virtually everything they needed, from bread and clothes to agricultural implements. To accomplish this, everybody worked, including children. And there were lots of children: Their survival wasn't assured and their labor was valuable, so people cranked them out. After mechanization drew people into cities and factories, the luckiest families were able to keep one adult out of the workforce: the housewife, whose job was to school and protect her little ones. Quickly, Mom's self-image entered into the picture.

"In part, the reduced birthrate was a matter of economics, as middle-class parents regarded their children not as sources of labor but as 'social capital' requiring substantial investments of time and resources," writes University of Houston professor Steven Mintz in Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood. "As a result of rapid changes in manufacturing, transport, and marketing, adults could no longer rely on passing on their farms or shops or imparting their skills to their children, who increasingly needed formal education."

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