Safe Child Syndrome

Protecting kids to death

Birthrates have only continued to fall, and the need for education and the availability of resources to provide it to rise. In search of ever better launching pads for the brood, families have flooded out of the central cities and into suburbs over the last 50 years. In the process, however, more and more families find themselves not just far from relatives, but from other social supports.

We don't seem to realize that our response to this, further closing ranks, is terribly counterproductive. People had stronger attachments back when they had more of them.

"People identified strongly not only with their family or clan but with their church, their village, their guild if they belonged to one, and their social class," writes Robert Karen in Becoming Attached, his survey of Bowlby's legacy. "They worked, worshipped, celebrated, and amused themselves in the context of these groups. They did not consider themselves to be special or apart, but cut from the same cloth as their peers. Indeed, personal identity was inconceivable outside these affiliations, which were emotionally and spiritually sustaining and saturated with mutual help. They were in every respect attachments, social attachments, as imbued with love, rage, hurt, and happiness as a child's attachment to his parents."

With this breathing room, everybody fared better. "In previous generations, Bowlby noted, mothers were surrounded by teenage sisters, cousins, and their own mothers, all of whom pitched in with the child care," Karen writes. "The child, meanwhile, has alternate attachment figures; and less pressure was, therefore, placed on the bond with the mother to provide him with all his needs. 'It has taken the world's richest societies,' Bowlby said, 'to ignore these basic facts.'"

Mintz recalls that his generation fought with its parents at every turn--Vietnam, long hair, premarital sex--and was probably stronger for it. "Our sense of ourselves and our happiness didn't [used to] depend so much on what our children thought of us," he says. "Now, with divorce and instability, people want their kids bound to them with bands of steel. Marriage is fragile, so it's a lot safer to invest in your kids.... Parents still think they're raising kids for independence, but they don't."

The developmental purpose of Bowlby's attachment might have been to send functional young adults out into the world, but we've redefined it as removing all speed bumps from the life of the child in the hope that they'll stay.

 

Last summer, four-year-old Jenny Haffely got tangled in a rope ladder and strangled. It was a Saturday, the last afternoon in July, on a tiny playground in the housing development near Maplewood Mall where Haffely lived. According to newspaper reports, there were several adults and at least five children present. Haffely was probably trying to clamber from the slide to the ladder when she fell, tragically during the single instant when no one was watching.

Everyone seemed to catch on at the same time. Haffely's 11-year-old brother and his friend worked together to untangle the girl. Her mother came running, hysterical. Another grownup started CPR. Police cars and ambulances tore over speed bumps and through the complex. Haffely was taken off life support the next day. The Ramsey County Medical Examiner's preliminary findings: asphyxiation due to hanging, as an accident extremely rare.

Still, newspaper accounts seemed to search for someplace to put the blame. The company that manages the complex proved it had inspected the jungle gym and coughed up the age of the equipment. Neighbors defended Haffely's mother as ever vigilant. The stories dutifully consulted the University of Northern Iowa's National Program for Playground Safety, noting that every year on playgrounds 200,000 young children suffer injuries severe enough to require a trip to the emergency room; between 1990 and 2000, 147 children died of playground accidents.

(Turns out the federal government keeps even more detailed numbers: 82 of those deaths were hangings. In two of the hangings, the children were wearing bike helmets, which became entangled in other things and choked them to death.)

Stories about tragedies such as Haffely's rarely include any reassuring context, however. Those injuries are spread among the United States' 73.3 million children. And playgrounds are hardly the only place kids get hurt: According to federal statistics, there are nearly 13,000 stroller-related injuries a year, some 4 of them fatal; high chairs are involved in 10,000 injuries; and an annual average of 21,600 children 5 years old and younger were treated in hospital emergency rooms for shopping cart injuries during the years 1985 to 1996.

It reminds me of the hysteria over the daycare molestation scares of the 1980s. Following endless news stories about one months-long high-profile trial in Los Angeles, scores of preschool teachers around the country were accused of everything from sex abuse to Satan worshipping. Most of the accusations turned out to be groundless, but they are as deeply embedded in the public consciousness as the equally rare nannies that shake babies to death and razor blades in Halloween candy.

Given that this is the safest time in history to raise a family, I'll wager this obsession with eliminating small risks is another form of displaced anxiety. In the United States one in every six children lives in poverty, according to the Children's Defense Fund. Thirteen million live in households suffering from hunger or "food insecurity without hunger." One in eight has no health insurance. If we're so concerned with the welfare of children, how come we can't see past the ones in our own houses?

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