Parenting without fear
Last year when my daughter Hollis was nine, I took her with me to run errands. I parked and darted into the dry cleaners. The car was locked, it was nice out, and I was in for a minute, maybe two. I could have watched her through the store’s glass front, though I didn’t look back.
When I came out a woman yelled at me through her car window.
“You should be arrested!” She screamed.
“What?” I honestly wasn’t sure whether she was talking to me.
“Child endangerment! You shouldn’t be allowed to have children!”
“She’s nine!” I yelled back, though I’m not sure why I did. She yelled again that I belonged in prison, and she drove away.
I’m sure you’ve heard the following story a dozen times or more.
When I was a kid, I rode in the front of the car. A ford pinto. No seat belts.
When I was a kid, I didn’t wear a helmet to bike. I didn’t know anyone who did.
When I was a kid, I’d go for long walks. Just me and my dog. In an actual forest, a mile or more of woods. My mom said I had to be back by dinner, but I was often late.
Three ways the world has changed – but are they really the same thing?
Yes, we have more safety equipment today (seat belts, bike helmets), and I would not seriously argue the merits of a child (or anyone, for that matter) riding around the front of a Ford Pinto. But our perception of ‘stranger danger’ is both out of step with real-world crime rates, and I believe a real hindrance to children’s development of independence.
A recent study found that in 1900, all emotions were expressed in English books at about the same frequency – glee, horror, passion, etc. Though there was some variation, emotional words moved more or less down and in lockstep until about 1975. At that point something startling happens1:
Your interpretation may vary, but here’s mine: in the mid 1970s we became very afraid.
Dr. David Altheide is a professor at Arizona State University, where he studies the language used by the news media. He says:
“There’s now a discourse of fear that pervades society… the sense that danger, dread and fear are pervasive and just around the corner.”2
I think media is a cause, but it also may be reflecting what works in a fear-based culture. If sex sells, perhaps fear is multi-level marketing. My fear increases your fear, which increases the fear of everyone else around us, which leads to the whole nation tuning in every year for shark week or to catch the latest tragedy involving a missing blonde Caucasian girl.
But here’s the thing – violent crime is down, WAY down. According to the US National Crime Prevention Council you are less than half as likely to be a victim of violent crime now than you were in 1981. In 1977 you were three times more likely to be a victim of aggravated assault than today.3 According to another study that compared 19 industrialized nations, the US is below average in both crime4 and violent crime5.
So, the upshot is that we are safer than ever before, yet more afraid.
In that philosophical classic, Pixar’s Finding Nemo, the father fish (Marlin) frets to another fish that he’s promised his missing son that he’d never let anything happen to him.
Have you heard of Nature Deficit Disorder? This term was coined by Richard Louv, who spent a decade gathering evidence that children’s behavior problems may often be associated with spending insufficient time outside. He suggests that our media culture has “scared children straight out of the woods and fields.”6.
I cannot swear that something bad may never happen to a child who plays outside unsupervised. But I can say that something wonderful happened to this child who did. Yes, I breathed fresh air, and got exercise. But, whether catching crayfish or climbing trees, I was also learning to appreciate nature and revel in its majesty. I learned to be independent, to get a sense of the time of day by the sun, and to become comfortable in my own skin and with my own thoughts.
Preschool children are still too young, even by the standards of the 1970s, to be wandering alone outside. I am not arguing that you abandon them in the woods.
What I am saying is this: it did not take courage for my parents to allow me to play outside, because in their day no one thought of the risks. Today, I ask you to take courage in your child rearing. Understand the risks, and look for opportunities for your children to learn independence.
At every age there will be an opportunity. For the youngest ones, that might be allowing them to play in the other room, unsupervised. Let a child pour, and then carry a full glass, knowing full well they may spill some. When they do, let them clean up the mess on their own with just a little guidance as necessary. As they get older, there may be some dishes they can safely prepare while you are outside the kitchen. And yes, when they are older, consider letting them play outside by themselves. The world is much safer than it was, and much safer than presented by our fear-driven news cycle.
Once again a mad violence has swept its gaze across the most vulnerable among us. Once again the innocent young bear the brunt of a raging terror. Our inability to protect them rends our hearts, leaving it hard to breathe, hard to forgive ourselves. We must protect our children, and it is so painful when we cannot.
The horror at Sandy Hook Elementary may have resulted from an earlier failure to help Adam Lanza, a sick little boy who grew up to be a madman. We can pity the child he was, while making no excuses for the monster he became.
According to the FBI, in the US alone, every year, thousands of children are victims of violent crime. Globally, UNICEF estimates the number to be in the millions. Everyone agrees we must keep our children safe, and we wring our hands about how best to do just this.
Gun control is the topic of the day, and though it is a discussion worth having it is at once both complex and hardly a sufficient response. Proponents argue, correctly, that certain weapons might cause more harm, more rapidly, leaving less time to intercede and stop a horrifying event. Those against gun control note that in Britain and Australia, where legislation made obtaining a firearm legally quite difficult, violence and mass killings have not decreased much as we would like. And should we get rid of all guns, it is worth noting that recently British doctors have been calling for a
But we cannot – must not – be happy in a world where success is measured by children stabbed rather than shot.
Because there have always been tragedies, it is difficult to know whether this particular one was inevitable. But the facts around the incident are striking. Adam Lanza was by many accounts a genius, but apparently no one was surprised when he was identified as the killer. His behavior had been disturbing since he was a very small child, yet no one acted to ensure that he was kept both safe and prevented from hurting others.
And this is the tragedy-within-a-tragedy. None of us can say whether Adam Lanza was destined to become a brutal murderer of small children. But it should be clear to all of us that for many years he was a person who needed help, and received none. A straight line may be drawn from the tragedy of his neglect to the larger tragedy of Sandy Hook Elementary.
In many places around the world, social norms are dissolving, perhaps nowhere faster than in both the US and China. Communities, where once each neighbor watched over the other, are now simply collections of houses. The best neighbors quietly mind their own business.
In another time, Adam Lanza and his family might have received the support they needed to avoid the Newtown tragedy, or failing that, a concerned member of the community might have noticed and acted to protect the innocent. It is remarkable that while his neighbors knew him just well enough to see that he was “troubled”, in the weeks since the Sandy Hook massacre we have heard of no one who stepped up and took action. Even as a teenager, when Lanza perhaps could have most benefited from treatment and support, those who knew him saw a problem – and did nothing.
In the coming months our political leaders will almost certainly put forward proposals making it harder to obtain certain types of firearms and making it easier to treat and possibly hospitalize persons with mental illness. Perhaps these steps are good and necessary. But it is clear that they are not enough. We must each act to protect the innocent, and it begins by understanding and acknowledging those around us who need help.
This, to me, is the final coda of the Newtown massacre. It is not about weapons, and it is not about legislation. It is about a sick little boy and a society that forgot about him. And it is about the very real cost to our own children if we do not act.
- Parenting Without Fear
- Reflections on Newtown
- Time enough for childhood
- Freedom, Discipline and Responsibility
- Some Montessori Myths
- Mistakes and Freedom
- Grades, Success and Tiger Mothers
- “Where the children work for themselves…”
- “Often those adults who work tirelessly to encourage the habit of truth in the child…”
- “Often what we call naughtiness on the part of the individual child is rebellion against our own mistakes in educating him…”