Parenting has come a long way in the last several thousand years. Gradually we’ve learned a thing or two about safety. We now know, for example, it’s not a good idea to bring our infants along on mastodon hunts, or send our six-year-olds to work in coal mines, or chain-smoke Marlboros in a car with the windows rolled up and little Tommy riding shotgun with no seat belt.
But the downside—and I know this is a pretty obvious statement—is that our abundance of information also makes us paranoid. New studies come out every week about keeping our kids safe and healthy. We’re about 73 per cent more Informed than our great-grandparents were about how to raise kids… and 892 per cent more Terrified of Everything.
You know what I’m talking about. We’ve all read the stories about parents who flip out when some communication breakdown leads to their child walking an entire kilometre alone(!) through their subdivision instead of being dropped off at their doorstep. Or the mother who threatens to sue when her daughter is left off the cheerleading squad, therefore suffering irreversible psychological damage.
Media love these stories; they come up with fancy trends like “hyper-parenting” or “helicopter parenting” and lecture us that we’re turning our children into insufferable narcissists who can’t even make a sandwich. And there’s some validity to it… but it’s also kind of the media’s fault that 21st-century parents are crazy.
Ever pick up a parenting magazine? Sometimes they’re a source of useful, entertaining information; we’ve subscribed to a couple of different ones in the past. But they’re also full of articles that have titles like Why You Should Cower from the Sun: New Evidence that Your Child is Developing Skin Cancer at this Very Moment!
Magazine editors would argue that this information is helpful, and maybe it is. But they also know that fear makes us buy things. We snap up the latest gadgets that promise to protect our children. I guarantee that not too far from that magazine article about the dangers of the sun, you’ll find an ad for the latest sunscreen. (Try our new SPF 9,000! Will actually make you whiter!) Meanwhile, a new study six years from now will tell us that sunscreen use causes ADHD and early-onset puberty. And we’ll freak out all over again.
I often think about the connection between consumerism and fear in our culture that’s overstocked with both. (Not to be a conspiracy theorist, but did you ever wonder how much the hand-sanitizer companies raked in last fall when we were collectively soiling our pants over H1N1?) But it’s fresh in my mind after reading a New York Times Magazine article called “Can Preschoolers be Depressed?” This is exactly the kind of article I mean, as Steve Almond points out in his great reply on Salon: maybe this is useful information for some people, but the Times published it knowing full well that 1) it would have a huge readership, because it’s about kids in peril; and 2) every single parent who read it would have at least a moment of anxiety where they wondered if their preschooler’s morning meltdown was actually a sign he’s actually a budding mini-Kurt Cobain.
I admit, I considered it for all of four seconds, until I remembered I was thinking about these two.
The reason why all of this is so effective is that being a parent really is terrifying. Who doesn’t wonder at least once a week whether they’ve scarred their kids for life? And let’s not even mention all the stuff that’s completely beyond our control.
But it’s not an option to sit paralyzed or lock our kids in bedrooms coated in bubble wrap. So at our house we try to raise our kids to be wise, but full of wonder; considerate, but a little bit dangerous too. I’ve written before how we let them climb too high and come home scraped and muddy.
That’s not to say we’re completely fearless: I still hold my breath a little bit when Xander goes whizzing out of my sight on his bike, and we tell Oscar to be careful at least 20 times a day. (Usually for the sake of his younger siblings, who often scatter like pylons in the wake of his Crash Test Derby enthusiasm.)
But I want my kids to believe—even more absolutely than I believe it—that the best way to get over fear is to live. To take risks, fall down, get up and say, ‘well, that wasn’t so bad.’ I’m not always there myself… but I want to be, for their sake.