In the book Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry, Lenore Skenazy makes a case that, statistically, our children are safer than they’ve ever been – and by parenting out of fear, we are robbing our kids of the childhood they deserve. Chapter 6, “Ignore the Blamers,” discusses how parents inadvertently feed each other’s fears. For more from Lenore Skenazy, read her Babble essay Parenting Without Fear.
“Can you believe she did that?
Melissa, my upstairs neighbor, is staring wide-eyed, the way you do when you want someone else to open their eyes equally wide and shake their head in disbelief, so the two of you can sit there bonding over your utter shock.
I am having trouble doing this.
“Well:it:it doesn’t seem so bad,” I venture, squinting apologetically.
“Lenore! I could have taken her baby and she would never have seen him again! She was crazy!”
Ah, the crazy wars again. Who’s crazy: People who trust other people, or people who don’t?
In this case, I have to say Melissa was officially crazy. Because the person she did not trust was:herself. Here’s the story.
She – Melissa – was waiting in the checkout line at Costco, the giant warehouse store, with her groceries and her daughters, aged two and five. The woman in front of her suddenly remembered she had to get something at the back of the store and asked Melissa if she’d mind watching her baby, who was in the shopping cart. Melissa said fine and off the woman, a stranger, sprinted.
She came back two minutes later and Melissa had kidnapped and killed her baby.
No, no! Come on. Obviously, that’s not what happened. She came back two minutes later, thanked Melissa and that was that. One mom helping another. But even if that’s how the other lady saw it, that’s not what Melissa saw. She saw a wildly irresponsible woman entrusting her precious little boy to a total stranger who could have easily turned out to be a psycho killer buying bulk paper towels and Goldfish crackers – John Wayne Gacy in a dress.
All of which is a pretty harsh assessment of that mom’s actions. First of all, the baby-mom did not choose just anyone. She chose another mom. One who probably would have had a pretty hard time yanking the boy out of his cart, abandoning her groceries (and place in line!), dragging him out of the store, dragging her own kids out of the store, remembering where she’d parked, unlocking the car, shoving everyone inside, strapping them into their car seats and then gunning across the border, all while ignoring her little girls shrieking, “Mommy! Why are you stealing that lady’s baby?” And, “We want our Goldfish!”
Oh, and second of all, no one else would have noticed this little drama and perhaps said, “Uh:stop”?
This eagerness to distrust each other, and even find glaring fault with each other, means that it’s hard for moms and dads to ever relax. If the only good parent is a parent who never leaves their kids’ side – not even to run to the back of the store for a can of tuna fish – then it’s very easy to spot the bad ones. They’re the ones who let their kids walk to school, or stay home alone for an hour. They’re the ones inside while their kids play in the yard. They’re the ones making their teenagers get themselves to their activities, or even jobs. Things that previous generations did without a moment’s hesitation – or tragic outcome – have become grist for the gossip mill.
“I let my eight- and ten-year-old sons bike the three blocks to a friend’s house,” a mom named Amy wrote to the Free-Range Kids blog. “But when they returned, their friend’s mom insisted on accompanying them back home through our very safe neighborhood, ‘just in case.'” The lady was sending Amy a message: Your mothering leaves something to be desired.
There’s no high like self-righteousness. Sometimes the message is even more direct. A woman named Jess wrote that now that she lets her fifth grade son walk the five blocks to school – with a friend – her neighbor won’t let her children go to Jess’ house to play anymore. To this neighbor, says Jess, “I am a bad mother. I try not to let it get to me, I think I am anything but. I love my children and like all mothers, and only want the best for them.” But Jess’ definition of “best” includes sometimes untying the apron strings. Other mothers find that tantamount to child abuse.
Blame and fear are like Mean Girls. They pal around together and make everyone else feel dumb and self-conscious, or at least like they’re going to end up eating alone in the lunchroom if they don’t suck up.
GOING FREE-RANGE TIPS:
FREE-RANGE BABYSTEP: When you’re about to remind a mom or dad about some extremely unlikely danger their child might face – a danger they are probably just as aware of as you are- hush.
FREE-RANGE BRAVE STEP: Volunteer to watch the kids who are waiting with your own kid for soccer to start, or school to open – whatever. Explain to the other parents that you’re offering them a little free time. If they say no thanks, ask them to watch your kid.
ONE GIANT LEAP FOR FREE-RANGE KIND: The next time you make a parenting decision that you’re worried other moms or dads will find too lax, don’t keep it a secret. Admit that you left your daughter home alone while you went grocery shopping. Admit you sent your young son out on an errand. Talk about these things so that other parents can open up, too. It could be they’ll jump on you. (There’s no high like self-righteousness.) But it’s also possible that they do the same things you do, and feel very guilty about it. Blamers thrive on shame. Take away their power. Do not be ashamed of making parenting choices based on who your kid is, rather than what the neighbors will say.
Excerpted from the book Free-Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy. © 2009 By Lenore Skenazy. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.