Tying the Apron Strings Tightly

My kids are over-protected. I’m over-protective. And only slightly apologetic about it.

There. I’ve said it. And I won’t lie: there’s a part of me that winces when I tell you that we often allow our kids to play outside of our house with other kids, more or less unsupervised. What if someone reads this blog post, figures out where we live, and then lies in wait for my children to walk out the door, and then goes and snatches one of them? I’ve spent my whole life practicing the memorization of licence plate numbers just in case someone I love is ever abducted in a car, and I count my complete inability – to this day – to remember a licence plate as a portend of doom.

What could I have to do that could be more important than watching over them? Some days, I wonder how I let them out the door in the morning. What if they fall down those impossibly wide old stairs at school? They’re nine and seven, and still I worry about them eating a snack at recess: what if one of them chokes? Will their friends have the presence of mind to call a teacher? Do any of their buddies know the Heimlich manoever?

It’s crazy. And I know it’s crazy. And I keep my crazy mostly under wraps, hidden from view, because I know my crazy does my children no good. In every other part of their lives, I believe in allowing them to explore, test, and ultimately, to fail.  I do try to push them out of their (my?) comfort zones, but they’re not going anywhere; my nine year old won’t even walk half a block to mail a letter without me.

I’m not entirely sad about that.

I’ve tried to figure out where this irrational over-protectiveness comes from, but the only comforting thought I have is that there’s strength in numbers. I’m not the only one locking the doors constantly. Being overprotective has become a sign of “good” parenting, like feeding your children only organic veggies and demanding copies of their grade’s curriculum so that you can monitor your child’s daily progress toward their Expected Learning Outcomes.

We monitor our children’s every move during the day, but that doesn’t stop each and every one of us from lamenting the loss of freedom that we had when we were children. We live in cities that are considerably safer than when we were little. So what in the hell are we afraid of?

Nuclear proliferation. Watergate. Distrust of institutions. Energy Crisis. Hostage takings. Hijackings. Three Mile Island. Bhopal.

Ah yes. I was a child of the 1970s and 1980s. Half of our parents were divorced (a statistic, by the way, that hasn’t held true since the early 1980s, but I digress). We were educated by ABC After-school Specials, with episodes entitled things like “My Dad Lives in a Hotel” and “Which Mother is Mine?” In public school, I had a friend who was expected to be out of the house until dinner. Not that she had anywhere to go; it was just that her mom worked all day, and she wanted some quiet time when she got home. So when I went to their house, we played outside until six or seven at night. In January.

Can you imagine that now?

I read somewhere that Generation X went through its formative years as the least-parented generation in history (which may be news to the generations of children who were sent out to work before they were ten, but you get my point).  And while I feel obliged to include here that I was not under-parented myself (just because my parents were divorced doesn’t mean I didn’t spend a lot of time with my grandparents, thank you), I knew a whole lot of kids who were. And I bet every last one of them is trying to keep their kids safe from whatever boogeyman of uncertainty and insecurity haunted them in their childhoods.

So as a card-carrying member of Generation X, you’d think I’d just get myself into therapy – like everyone else – and get on with it. Why not try and push my kids to be more independent? But then I think of Sharin Morningstar Keenan, abducted from a playground when she was nine, in 1983. She was younger than me, but familiar; I remember, when she went missing, seeing her father on television, pleading for her return, and realizing that I recognized him: Sharin had her music lesson right after me on Saturday mornings. I still think of her, remember myself lying in my orange-wallpapered bedroom, listening to the news on the radio, and being so afraid: not for my own safety — I was streetproofed beyond measure — but because such evil existed in the world and I was helpless to do anything about it. I know, now, that most abductions of children are by people they know — most abuse is perpetrated by people that children know and trust — but that’s not the evil that frightened me most.

And I think that I’ve been given no greater gift than my children. If the kids of my generation turned out to be okay, so often cut loose, then I have to hope that our children will turn out all right for having been held onto a bit tighter than may be strictly necessary.


A Tissue-Wrap Mom

Lenora Skenazy describes Free Range Kids as “a commonsense approach to parenting in these overprotective times” with the ultimate goal of raising “self-reliant” children.

The fault I see with her definition is that “common sense is the most widely shared commodity in the world, for every man is convinced that he is well supplied with it.” (Rene Descartes).

And so we do what we do best.  We sit high on our thrones, judge others based on and freely dispense our common sense.

I admit it.  I have rolled my eyes more than a few times at parents.  At parents wiping bums of kids who can spell diarrhea, at parents who don’t allow their kids to do simple chores like sorting the cutlery for fear their six year old will impale their wrist with a butter knife or when parents baby proof their home to the extent even they are not able to open drawers, go freely down the stairs or plug in the toaster.

But those cases deserve eye-rolling (because c’mon, that’s just common sense!)

For the most part parents whom I know are not depicted in Skenazy’s show Bubble Wrap Kids, which has a tendency to focus on the polar extreme and just plain absurd.

I let my 5 year old take out the garbage without my watchful eye lording over his every move from the front door.  He is more than capable to walk to the end of our drive (which I could easily spit to) and I am happy to download this chore onto someone else.

The boys open the front door to visitors when I am home, they run ahead of me on the street.  They do not use public washrooms without being accompanied by an adult they know.  We will not let them drive in cars with most other adults.

I don’t feel by doing these things that I am raising particularly bubble wrap or free-range kids.  I feel like I am just being a mom, making decisions that feel right to me.

My common sense tells me that a child needs to learn to be independent and resourceful.  My common sense tells me that some times those lessons are learned best through experience.

A bubble-wrap mom, I am not.  A free-range mom, I am not.

A tissue-wrap mom, I am.

I want to wrap them in tissue, just like the precious gifts they are, to preserve their innocence and fragility for as long as possible.  After a delicate gift is unwrapped, the tissue can never be re-folded to its original virtue and the lid of the box never completely closes as it did before.

A Big, Silly Distraction

In Suzanne Collins’s wildly popular Hunger Games books, children are chosen by lottery to serve as gladiators who fight to the death.  The Games are televised for the entertainment of the general population.  Collins models her games on ancient Rome, where gladiators fought to the death and slaves were fed to the lions.  She even names her dystopian world Panem, after the Latin word for bread, as in bread and circuses, panem et circenses.  Bread and circuses refers to the cheap trick of persuading the masses to cheer for a lion or a slave, for one gladiator or another, rather than participating in or observing or acting to change the political arenaKeep the general population fed with the most basic of food and keep their minds off of rebellion with the distractions of entertainment.

As I read through Lenore Skenazy’s blog and watched her appearances on various chat shows, I kept thinking, “Bread and circuses.”  There is so much air time to fill, so television producers and headline writers make news of the Mommy Wars.  Free Range Parenting vs. Helicopter Parenting.  Stay-at-home Mothers vs. Working Mothers.  Breast vs. Bottle.  Sleep Training vs. Attachment Parenting.  Blah, blah, blah.  In one blogger’s take on the issue, she asks, “Free range parenting versus helicopter parenting: which team are YOU on?”  Really?  We have to pick teams?  These issues are so much more complex than x vs. y, but so much easier to digest if packaged in a familiar us vs. them format.

Image credit

In one clip, Skenazy and another parent appear on Anderson Cooper to replay how Skenazy was able to help this woman who is so much of the helicopter persuasion that in public washrooms she feels it necessary to go right into the bathroom stall with her daughter.  “Doesn’t everybody?”  this mother quips, when the audience gasps.  They feed this woman to the lions, then they rescue her, undo her public shame with a public reformation of her extreme and errant ways.

Unless it’s extreme, it’s not entertainment, so we have thown up on the screen all kind of wild and wacky folk on reality shows who hoard or dumpster dive for coupons for hundreds of free sticks of deodorant, saving up against Armageddon.

What good does any of this do?  Silly distractions from the reality lived in the murky middle ground.

I respect Skenazy and her husband’s decision to let their son ride the subway alone.  I respect her desire to move away from a culture where kids are kept bubble wrapped.  I respect her initiative to create a television show that capitalizes on the buzz that her son’s subway ride generated.  But I resent the circus atmosphere of telling the stories of bubble wrapped or free range kids.

Why do mothers keep feeding each other to the lion of artificially polarized public opinion?