Kim Brooks recently wrote about the day she left her 4-year-old son in the car and the legal aftermath she faced for "contributing to the delinquency of a minor." The charge seems ridiculous -- she didn't take her son to a bar for a round of shots. Instead, she left him alone without incident for about five minutes in a locked, alarmed car during mild weather because he insisted on playing with his iPad while she ran into a store to buy one item.
In her article, Brooks discusses overprotective attitudes toward children and one of their major causes -- irrational fears about our children's safety. However, parental anxiety isn't just about our children's safety these days; it's about our children's everything. The catalyst of Brooks' story is emblematic of this (though she doesn't make the point herself); her initial plan was to leave her son home with his grandmother, but her son insisted he wanted to come along. The decision to bring him along to the store may have been driven by parental anxiety and a lack of confidence in her role as the authority figure.
As Brooks' friend, Julia Fierro, states in the article: "I think all that info, all the conflicting extreme philosophies of parenting (attachment parenting vs. cry-it-out and few moderate philosophies being promoted) makes us not trust ourselves." Not trusting ourselves as parents is a huge part of our current parenting zeitgeist. (For more information, I highly recommend All Joy And No Fun by Jennifer Senior.) I've worked with many suburban, middle-class parents over the past eight years, first as a therapist intern and then as a head of school. In this time, I have worked with countless adults who are terrified of adversely affecting their children's attachment, self-esteem, and general happiness. I've had parents tell me how they hate it when their children hit them or consistently disrespect and defy them. Yet their parental fear and anxiety make implementing appropriate boundaries and saying "no" very difficult. They feel helpless, or in Brooks' words, "spineless." In many families, children scream to get their way, and parents don't trust their own instincts to handle the situation for fear of traumatizing their children, or at least quashing their sense of self (both of which are actually much harder to do than we think).
Exacerbating our parental anxiety is the judgment we receive from others. Brooks' article is drawing a slew of cruel commenters who are attacking her for a variety of parenting sins. Instead of labeling Brooks as the worst mom in America, we need to look at how today's parenting culture played a role in both the cause and legal consequences of this incident, and use it as an opportunity for civil discussion. Maybe we should start encouraging one another to trust ourselves again instead of promoting fear-based ideas about development and safety. And maybe, just maybe, we need to show one another a little bit of empathy.
However tempting it may be to cast judgment and express contempt from behind a computer screen, it would be more helpful to re-examine our parenting zeitgeist and to work to empower parents to be the adults and authoritative figures their children need. Ironically, it is appropriate boundaries and limits that will make our children feel the safest.