When I was in Kindergarten, my brother and I had free range of our entire yard. We often crossed into the neighbor’s grass, playing with the two boys who lived in the house behind ours with little to no parental supervision. There were no scheduled playdates, and we rarely entered the houses where our mothers were preparing dinner or cleaning or enjoying a few precious moments of peace.
Fast forward thirty years and I’m terrified by the mere thought of my first grader wandering outside unattended. Times were different back in the ‘80s, but I doubt the dangers have multiplied. If anything, my quiet street offers less hazards than the busy road of my childhood home. But I’m not alone in my fear. Parents today, it seems, have lost confidence in other people and our own children.
I grew up in the shadow of the Adam Walsh case, and the horrors kept coming: poisoned Tylenol, Columbine, 9/11. Because I’m too scared to let my children into the world alone, I’m now tasked with finding safe, supervised entertainment in the form of ballet lessons, play dates, and—dare I say it—screen time.
The truth is kids have always been in some degree of danger. My maternal great-grandmother lost multiple children to still births and diseases that are now prevented with prenatal treatments as well as vaccines. My paternal grandfather lost a brother to pneumonia. Losing a child, while unimaginably horrific, was once sadly common. With a few devastating exceptions, science has discovered treatments for the illnesses that once claimed so many children’s lives. So why are parents today more fearful?
Are you uncomfortable yet? I know I am. Just thinking about all the things that could go wrong, sends most of us into a panic.
To start, connected devices like smartphones bring a new set of problems: age-inappropriate content accessed by tiny fingertips and a new generation of pedophiles and bullies who lurk in cyberspace, faceless threats with real-world consequences.
Compounding everything is the knowledge that even after child proofing and installing proper car seats (correctly), someone may decide to open fire in a school or blow up a bomb on the sidewalk. Terror attacks have become the cholera and scarlet fever of the modern age. Just as parents before us had no control over the microbes that indiscriminately claimed their children, there’s little any of us can do to shield our children or ourselves from random acts of terror.
So, we fear everyone. What else can we do?
As parents, our primary job is to protect our children. We apply sunscreen and brush teeth; we vaccinate our kids and agonize over food choices. Still, accidents happen. Mistakes happen.
This summer alone children have tragically died in hot cars, at Disney World and on a waterslide. These were all terrible accidents, a parent’s worst fear realized. But in addition to the outpouring of sympathy, the grieving families were judged and criticized for failing to keep their children safe. Again and again, parents living their worst nightmare were condemned both online and in the media. I have to wonder, is this type of criticism compounding parental fear?
We now live in a culture where we trust and rely on no one, yet the village isn’t gone. It’s there, ready to judge and criticize. It seems we can still rely on others for that.
I will do my best to protect my daughters from harm and, God willing, I will succeed in raising them to adulthood. Then what? Will they be too afraid to go forth alone?
I certainly hope not. The world remains an amazing place to explore, and I want them to embrace it. Which is why, in addition to looking both ways before crossing the street and always wearing their seatbelt, I hope to teach them to hold judgment whenever possible and show compassion as much as they can.
While terrible things happen, we should keep an open mind. We should strive to be part of a supportive village. Little by little, person by person, our faith in each other can be restored. I may never be fearless again, yet in time, perhaps my children, and yours, can be. Maybe the next generation of parents will again rely on one another for more than harsh words.