When my first child was born, I was deep into baby care books, sleep solution books, and parenting books. I needed help, and I would read just about anything to get it.
Those early months were tough; I didn't have a circle of experienced women and babies around me to help navigate the ups and downs. So I turned to the experts for their guidance. Soon I was able to mete through all the opinions and recommendations and tune into my own parental intuition. By the time my second child was born, the books were gone and I was feeling pretty confident.
Of course, that's when things changed again, as they always do when parenting. As my children got older, questions of weaning and potty training evolved into new challenges and questions. Now, with a 9-year old and a 4-year old, we're navigating an ever-changing landscape of developmental stages. Again, I find myself turning to books not for advice so much as a realignment with what I believe about my children and parenting.
I recently devoured the book Small Animals: Parenting in the Age of Fear by Kim Brooks. In it, Brooks describes the everyday decisions leading up to the moment she left her four-year old son alone in the car.
I looked at the clock. I looked at my son. Then, for the next four or five seconds, I did what it sometimes seemed I'd been doing every minute of every day since having children, a never-ending, risk-benefit analysis. I noted how close the parking spot was to the ront door, and that there were a few other cars nearby. Mostly though, I visualized how quick, unencumbered by a fussing four-year old, I would be, running into the store, grabbing a pair of headphones, checking out, and coming back to the car. So I let him wait there. I told him I'd be right back. I opened the windows halfway to ventilate the car. I child-locked the doors and double-clicked my keys so that the car alarm was set. I went into the store to get the headphones.Small Animals by Kim Brooks
When she returned five minutes later, her son was just as she left him.
There wouldn’t be much of a story if a stranger hadn’t filmed the child inside the car and then called the police, who arrived after Brooks had already driven away. What followed is becoming more common and is directly linked to gender, class, race, and culture.
Brooks does a deft job of sharing her own story of what happened next while layering in stories of other parents and critical research from sociologists and psychologists. It turns out, all that anxiety and fear we modern parents feel has been cultivated over the last generation or two. It’s not our fault! Whew. And yet, we live with it everyday. What’s a modern parent to do?
People (women, mostly, if we’re being honest) who are otherwise perfectly capable, intelligent, sensitive citizens inevitably wake up somewhere early in their parenthood gig terrified. I can relate. The moment I became a parent, everything held potential terror and heartbreak. I suddenly began doubting and second-guessing every decision related to my child.
As a society we’re scared of making the wrong choices for our children. We’re scared they’ll get hurt. We’re scared we’re going to mess them up. We're afraid of not doing the "right" things to ensure their success as capable future adults. The examination of their every action—and ours—can be relentless, anxiety-filled, and exhausting.
This cycle of doubt and fear begins with the myriad choices we have during pregnancy and continues with the seemingly innocuous choices like monitoring tummy time, scheduling nearly constant playdates and extracurricular activities, supplying enrichment activities and educational toys and invitations to artful play.
This determinism leads parents to take on the job not just of loving, feeding, and teaching their children, but of providing them with endless opportunities for adult-directed play, entertainment and enrichment...[American] parents dissect almost every parenting act...analyzing it in minute detail, correlating it with negative or positive outcome, and endowing it with far-reaching implications for child development.Small Animals by Kim Brooks
No wonder we're stressed out and exhausted! And what about the kids?
We want the best for our children, we want to give them opportunities to thrive, to pave the way to success. Pretty soon, and without us even meaning to, our kids have no time alone. Every part of their days is scheduled or structured, and they are always, ALWAYS, under appropriate adult supervision.
But what if that’s hurting them?
What if all the things we’re doing to make sure our kids survive childhood unharmed and fully exposed to all the right opportunities to lead to a successful life are actually holding them back?
The slow creep of society’s shift in perspective on what makes for a safe and thriving childhood has shifted in the past generation. Chances are you have a memory of something you did as a child that made you feel free, independent, brave, capable. Something that society has now decided is unsafe. Where once children were allowed to play outside unsupervised, such an action is now perceived as negligent and possibly criminal.
As a child, I was allowed to play alone outside, unsupervised, for what felt like hours. I could wait in the car while my mom ran in to the bank. I could even go into a store on my own to buy something.
This can’t happen now. We’ve decided that unsupervised kids are inherently unsafe. When compared to my own kids’ suburban habitat, my ability to roam seems not only impossible, but fantastical, almost magical. Was it even real?
I have started letting my kids play outside alone. This is not something I do thoughtlessly, though sometimes I wish I was less worried about it. I am aware of the risks, perceived and real. I'm also worried about what other people will think (remind me to tell you about the time my son pooped in the front yard).
I want my children to experience the freedom of being untethered to me, to make their own decisions. To feel the thrill of walking outside alone and choosing for themselves which way to go. To get a flat tire while riding bikes and have to figure out what to do. To suddenly realize they have to pee, finding a bush, urine spattering on their dirty shoes.
Children deserve to have time to explore and make choices outside of the adult gaze.
These experiences, when given under thoughtful circumstances, are opportunities, not risks. Opportunities to build a sense of self; to develop true resilience and problem-solving skills. We can’t give them that in a packed extra-curricular calendar, no matter how carefully curated the activities. And we cannot give them that if we never take our anxious, well-intentioned eyes off of them.
Also check out this post about great parenting books.