Thursday, August 05, 2010


Several years ago, my dentist had a heart attack. He was still young at the time, and many people asked questions of his wife. Does he have a family history of heart disease? Does he eat a lot of red meat? Does he exercise? Is he under a lot of stress?

No, no, yes, and no. My dentist is an otherwise healthy, fit guy who eats well and jogs regularly. But people who hear what happened to him are looking for some reason the same thing can't happen to them.

Similarly, whenever anything goes wrong with a child, many people are quick to blame the parents. Reading the online reader responses to any St. Louis Post-Dispatch article about an accident involving a child is a harrowing experience and not for the tender-hearted.

Not only is any accident the cause of parental neglect, but most likely it was a result of intentional malfeasance.

Recently a four-year-old Illinois boy drowned at a park three blocks from his house, where he was playing with a few other children, one of them 12-years-old. The child's parents were charged with felony child endangerment for allowing the him "to leave home without adequate supervision." The couple's other children were removed from their home.

Now, I don't know anything more about this case or this family. Perhaps there was other clear evidence of neglect. But based on this story alone the parents have been called "nitwits" and "idiots" who should be "sterilized."

As it turns out I don't let my 3- and 6-year olds go to parks without me or another adult. Then again, I don't have a 12-year-old handy and I don't live in a particularly walkable neighborhood. As a 12-year-old myself I did a lot of babysitting for other people's children. And my daughter's first regular babysitter was twelve when she started sitting for 2-year-old Ellie. (She's now in high school and is still an amazing, resourceful, responsible girl.)

In a Facebook discussion about this situation - in which I suggested that 12 isn't a crazy young age for responsibility and 4 isn't infancy - a former classmate of mine said that parents who think that other kids are "adequate supervision" should be "fried." And even under controlled situations (e.g. at a child's home) having a 12-year-old babysitting is not good parenting.

A couple months earlier a friend of friends blogged about "competitive mothering" and I nodded along as she discussed how awful it feels when parents teach their kids to be afraid of every little thing (and every nearby male) in the name of safety. Then she responded to a post on my blog (via Facebook) a few days later, disagreeing with something I said and adding that if I am willing to risk my child's life by XYZ, well, that's my choice. As long as I'm willing to accept the consequences of my actions. We'll probably all survive anyway. But there's risk and for what it's worth her kids will never . . . etc. Competitive mothering!

(Incidentally, I wasn't proposing undertaking any dangerous activities with my children, just starting a conversation about the way FEAR is legislated onto us as PROTECT THE CHILDREN FIRST without always allowing common sense and science into the discussion.)

I get this. We so afraid of something terrible happening - dying of an early heart attack, harm befalling our children - that we convince ourselves that we're immune. The precautions we've taken will protect us. And our children.

But this peace of mind comes at a steep cost when we blame other victims for the tragedies and unfortunate accidents that befall them.


keribrary said...

One of my staff members just had her family in the spotlight when her sister kidnapped her own child at gunpoint. Two sisters, same family, same upbringing, much different lives. She was very upset when reading the reader comments on news sites. A lot of angry, judgmental people out there. No one can ever say they know the whole story.

Sarahlynn said...

What an awful story.

And you're right. Empathy is sadly lacking.

S. said...

Thanks for the thoughtful post! I think you're totally right that people immediately try to distance themselves from tragedy by telling a story of how this would never happen to them.
I would have let a 4-year-old go to the park with a 12-year-old, if they were both reasonably responsible people. Terrible things happen, yes. If something happened, it would be terrible, yes. But parents take risks everyday (just driving your kid around in a car is actually a pretty dangerous thing to do) that we've accepted as a society. It's okay, for example, to give birth in a hospital - if something goes wrong, even if it's DUE to medical intervention, that's acceptable, and society absolves you of blame. If you give birth at home, however, if something goes wrong, it's your fault. We've chosen collectively which risks are okay for parents to take, and which aren't, and sometimes they seem pretty arbitrary.

Sarahlynn said...

Yes! Exactly!!

Anonymous said...

The obsession with perfect safety is one of the most pernicious obsessions, I think. Combines a 'Blame the Victim' mentality with a longing for authoritarian certainty.