Parenting has never been an easy task. Since the beginning of time, every generation has had a series of environmental and social obstacles to overcome. And yet, we’d all agree there is nothing more important than our children’s well being and safety. From cave parents who kept their little cave babies safe from wildlife lurking in the shadows until the present day, we’re biologically and genetically engineered to protect the hapless little creatures we call children. It’s just what we do – and we’ll do it at any cost.
Over time, parenting, or at least keeping our kids safe, has gotten easier in many ways.
I mean, we’re not living in caves for one thing – which is a pretty good start. Likewise, advancements in medicine and infrastructure (in developed nations, at least) have significantly improved the ways and means with which we can protect our kids.
We’ve made astronomical leaps in maternal and infant survival during pregnancy, labor, and delivery. Vaccinations have helped eradicate devastating diseases like smallpox, influenza, and polio. We have infrastructure that insulates us from the elements and any number of external dangers. Peacekeeping measures keep us relatively safe from threats of physical violence.
Of course, bad things still happen and natural disasters can only be controlled so much, but, again, as parents fortunate enough to be raising children in a developed nation, we are given access to relatively high levels of relief from famine, the environment, and other such outside influences.
However, as worries of disease, war, and famine have dissipated, we’ve replaced them with new worries – worries about mental health, emotional well being, and physical supervision.
So while it’s true that worries have plagued parents since the beginning of time, today, anxiety seems to permeate our parenting experience in ways that no other generation has experienced before. We worry about our kids’ exposure to the media, we worry about their online activity, we question their mental health, and we feel an almost overwhelming need to provide constant, unfaltering supervision.
It’s no wonder we feel so much anxiety.
With advancements in science – both physical and psychological – we know more than we’ve ever known before. From the moments of conception on, we are flooded with a constant influx of information about what we should be doing, how we should be doing it, and how we’re mostly likely not doing it right. And the worst part? Perfection is a constantly moving target. No sooner does one study or team of experts declare unequivocally that THIS method is the only way to ensure success, then a new set of data, statistics, or experts counteracts it with opposing information.
It’s enough to make our heads spin.
When I was growing up, we climbed over the bench seats in the car from the moment we were out of infant seats. We jumped on trampolines that didn’t have safety nets. We stayed home by ourselves and ate ice cream and snuck in an hour or two of TV just because we could. We rode our bikes (helmetless, mind you) for miles through parks, neighborhoods, and city streets. We played in the woods without even thinking about ticks. We went to the pool without reapplying sunscreen every five minutes. We climbed trees as high as we possibly could. We ate processed hot dogs, drank Kool-Aid made with nothing but powdered food coloring and sugar, and we played “Ghosts in the Graveyard” with friends long after dark.
And yet, the thought of allowing my kids to do ANY of these things today actually gives me heart palpitations. Like honest-to-goodness, straight-up anxiety. And it’s not that I don’t think my parents worried about me and my siblings – I know they did. In fact, I know that my parents STILL worry and we’ve been out of the house for more than two decades. But it’s not just worry that we feel these days, it’s fear. We are so inundated with stories of what could go wrong, that we struggle to think of what might be going right.
I recently heard an interview with Kim Brooks, a mother who was charged with child negligence after her four-year-old asked if he could stay in the car while she went into the store for a few minutes. Although she had never contemplated something like this before, she was in a hurry and it was a cool day, so she cracked the windows, set the child locks, and gave him an iPad to play with while she ran her errand. A bystander recorded the whole thing and reported her to the authorities. As a result of her experience, she wrote Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear. Her work examines the idea society has created – that we have to be watching our kids every single second of every single day. However, she posits the idea that for many parents, this creates “impossible choices.” And as I listened to her, I realized just how much I am ruled by this idea as a parent.
While I don’t worry about my kids being attacked by lions and tigers and bears should they walk down the street alone, I am constantly fearful of human predators snatching them off the street. If I think of leaving my kids alone at home, even with the doors locked and the security system on, I can’t help but imagine coming home to a house engulfed in flames or crawling with burglars trying to break through every window. The thought of unsupervised internet, media, or even TV leaves me spiraling down a rabbit hole of the inevitable psychological damage that will be done should their sensitive brains be subjected to such influences.
With childhood depression and anxiety at higher levels than ever before, we have to question some things.
On the one hand, we do have more knowledge and awareness of mental health issues, therefore, we have more data to work with. The fact that more kids are dealing with mental health issues today by no means that they didn’t exist in the past, we just know about it now whereas previous generations didn’t. But, the fact remains, kids are more stressed than their generational predecessors. And the more I’ve thought about the topic, the more I’ve realized that it’s not just the world that creates anxiety and depression – sometimes it’s us. When we are in a state of constant anxiety, even our non-verbal communication transfers that fear and worry to our kids.
I am so grateful for the tools I have at my disposal when it comes to keeping my kids safe. I am grateful for medicine and science and infrastructure. I’m grateful for all of the parenting advice I’ve read over the years. I’m even grateful for sunscreen, even though it’s a pain to reapply every 10 minutes on a wriggling, slippery toddler. But I also wonder how much of my parenting experience I’m missing by constantly worrying. And even more importantly…
I wonder how much of their childhood my kids are missing by the stifling effects of my fear?
I remember when my middle daughter was three years old. Despite being smaller than most of the kids on the playground, she was the most daring. I learned early on that short of sitting on her, there was no way to keep her off the absolute very top of the jungle gym. That left me with two choices: I could either spend the afternoon constantly climbing after her and pulling her to safety, or I could let her get really, really good at climbing. I chose the latter.
When other parents would look in alarm at my graceful little monkey perched atop heights that certainly didn’t seem safe, I would shrug and say with confidence, “Don’t worry, she’s got this.” Granted, I would stay nearby with an eye always on her and I was never so far that I couldn’t catch her if she fell. But I put my trust in her and she learned how to keep her balance, choose her steps carefully, and most of all, she learned how to enjoy the view from the top.
Vigilance lies at the heart parenting, there’s no doubt. But vigilance doesn’t have to be a military exercise.
Vigilance can also be observation from a distance. The more we hover and constantly fuss over our kids’ every action, the more I have to question if we are actually robbing them of important development. I think it’s time for us all to relax…even if just a bit. And no, that doesn’t mean giving free reign on social media, the internet, or TV. And no, that doesn’t mean setting our kids free to wander the streets at will. But maybe it means trusting them a little more. Maybe it means giving them a little more independence when and where it’s appropriate.
We can start giving our kids independence by loosening the reigns of our own fears and anxieties.
Don’t stop putting sunscreen on your kids by any means, but don’t worry if they get a little red once or twice. Perhaps the experience will prompt them to ask for sunscreen themselves. It’s a slippery slope for sure because bad things DO happen and our brains do a much better job of storing horror stories than they do of holding on to rational thought. But the more we learn to relax and lean into the joys of parenting instead of the fears, the more we allow our kids to grow, learn, and develop into the adults we want them to be.
And who knows, we might all just learn to have a little more fun along the way.