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Sour Grapes of Risk
Recently, we’ve heard nonstop about Abby Sunderland and her solo sailing attempt across the world, and everyone’s opinion on it: either the condemning of her parents, or the praise of Abby. The whole situation touched on what Adam and I have been discussing between the two of us for a little while now: what is the right level of shelter for our child? Where do we draw the line between adequate parental protection and outright smothering? Too little protection will lead to a lack of growth at best, and injury or death at worst. However, smothering from us will also breed lack of growth, rebellion, and the potential for mental and emotional disorders such as excessive anxiety. Adam and I also feel many recent generations, including our own, have been coddled too much. Years ago, I read an article whose title summed it up beautifully: “The Pussification of the American…” It makes me think of the Grandpa cliché, “When I was your age, I had to walk 10 miles to school…in the snow…barefoot…uphill...” etc. Most of us rolled our eyes and thought, “Whatever, Grandpa.” While the story might be embellished, the moral is true. They had it rougher than we did, and I get it. Technological and social advances have made our lives easier in every way, and when we grow up knowing nothing else we take these things for granted. Grandpa was only trying to teach us to appreciate what we have. My grandparents were heartier than I am at my age, and I think admitting that is the first step towards gaining their wisdom and strength.
Adam is strongly opinionated on the subject of how much to shelter a child (quite opposed), while I am often more conflicted. I always like to error on the side of caution, and evaluate risks to the nth degree. Sometimes I can be too careful. But I also strongly believe in the old adage, “Everything in moderation.” This is the dynamic of our marriage: our opposites attract and we balance each other quite well. Once such discussion came about when Adam learned the suggested age/weight/height for the different stages of the car seat we chose (it’s a convertible seat—newborn through booster). Adam’s first response was, “What the hell is a booster seat?” After I explained, and he learned that Minnesota law requires a child to be in a booster seat up to 7 years old (that’s a second grader, mind you), 80 lbs, or 4’9” tall, he exploded in a rant about how outrageous the law is, and proceeded to passionately remind me how he didn’t start wearing a seatbelt until he was eight years old because Missouri law changed to require it. Sound familiar? “Whatever Grandpa…”
Many regulations and guidelines have come about in response to an ever-evolving society with new dangers and concerns, as well as in response to more accurate, advanced science (i.e. changes/additions to seatbelt laws). These are legitimate needs for change if we are to improve and survive. But then there is also the gradual dumbing down of social and parental guidelines over the years as the result of ignorance and laziness on the part of the lowest common denominator, and our culture’s inherent need to place blame. Yes, we as a society have a certain responsibility to look out for our fellow man and the right to protect ourselves from him, but where do we draw the line? In a culture of excess like ours, we simply don’t know when to say “that’s enough.” At what point do we say, “This is no longer government sanction territory. This is now individual parental responsibility?”
The other night, I heard a tragic news report about a local four year old who choked on a whole grape at her daycare. The broadcaster ended the report by saying investigators were looking into “where the child got the grape.” …???...?!?!...”Where the child got the grape?” I thought, “What average four year old can’t handle chewing a whole grape (barring accidents like these)?! Shouldn’t the investigation be asking, ‘Was the child unsupervised? Was the staff of the daycare first aid certified in CPR and the Heimlich maneuver? If no, why not?” In the article, it mentions “‘The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) lists whole grapes as a choking hazard for young children. ‘Although children under age 4 are most at risk for choking on food and small objects, youngsters in their middle years can choke too,’ the AAP says on its website.” So can anyone else! I can choke on a small object, but that doesn’t mean I’m not mature enough to chew it. Accidents happen, and we should be responsible enough to educate ourselves on how to respond appropriately—like first aid techniques, especially if you’re looking after another person’s well-being. Furthermore, kids make mistakes, and sometimes do stupid things like cram their mouth full of food despite their parents/guardians teaching them otherwise. The article goes on to say, “The AAP urges parents and other caregivers to cut food for infants and small children into pieces no larger than a half-inch and then instruct the child to chew food thoroughly.” For the record, a half-inch is about the size of an average grape. Also, what parent doesn’t say, “Chew your food?” In discussing this with one of my co-workers, his response was, “Does that mean it was Perkins [Restaurant’s] fault when I choked on a piece of bacon when I was a kid? No. I was fat and scarfed my food too fast.”
Anyone who knows me knows I don’t see eye to eye with my dad on many things. But I am reminded of something he used to do when I was little, and I think it’s really smart. My dad hated shopping. Like most men, if he went to a store he had a purpose for being there. He was in, and out. Through virtue of this, he walked very fast—with purpose. Sometimes my little youngster legs had trouble keeping up, and sometimes my youngster attention span would steer me off course, resulting in me getting lost often. But I wasn’t lost to my dad. He would purposely let me get “lost” all the while standing off in a corner somewhere out of sight, watching me. Every time this happened I would get scared, then compose myself, find the front desk, tell them I was lost and ask them to page my dad. They would, and he’d then step out from the corner, revealing to me he’d been there the whole time. I learned at a very early age to take care of myself by being proactive, while he was still there in case something terrible happened. Kudos Dad.
How is it good parenting to try to protect our kids from every bad experience they might ever face in fear of the worst scenario? Isn’t it better to teach them morals, give them guidelines and boundaries, and be there to kiss the booboos? Furthermore: to let the booboos happen. To give them the space to ride by themselves, comfort them when they fall and skin their knee, but still be right there in case they fall off the deep end and need some real rescuing? Isn’t it our responsibility as caregivers to know the life-saving techniques of CPR and the Heimlich maneuver and to act immediately in an emergency rather than say four year olds aren’t developed enough to chew their food out of fear of an accident? Sometimes, we all have to learn the hard way. Some of us had to burn our hand on the stove because we were too stubborn to listen to our mother say, “Don’t touch that. It’s hot and will burn you.” If we protect our kids too much, they will never learn from their mistakes: be they embarrassing, painful, or scary. I believe it’s our responsibility, and pleasure, as parents to be the lighthouse, the band-aid, the emergency responder, the cleanup crew, and the safe house. How else are they supposed to learn to survive on their own, and become responsible adults?
Another less life-threatening example, although no less life-changing, is the argument of sex education in school. Regardless of one’s personal opinions and beliefs, the school should not be the only place our children learn about sex. Much in the same way school should not be the only place our children learn to read and speak. I am a big proponent of parents being involved in their child’s life. So, I am supportive of the parent who goes to PTA meetings, and voices their opinions about what the school should teach regarding sex and other subjects. If we do not voice our opinions, they will never have the chance to come to fruition. Schools have parent groups like PTA because they want us to contribute to the curriculum. But what if your values are in the minority of a majority vote? It is not a public school’s responsibility, much like it not being a government’s responsibility, to instill your family’s values in your child. That’s your family’s responsibility—AKA the parent’s responsibility. The parent who forfeits the opportunity to teach their child something—be it the alphabet or sex ed, regardless of whether or not the child learned about it in school, does so out of laziness and fear. How irresponsible of us!
All in all, I think the right answer is there is no right answer, for we are a melting pot of values and cultures. None of us fit into the cookie-cutter world of government regulations perfectly. These laws and guidelines are there to help us decide what’s best for our individual child. We should follow the laws and use the guidelines to educate ourselves toward a more informed decision that best fits our family, as well as keep a level head when it comes to whether or not to sanction every bad possible circumstance brought to the table because we’re afraid. Restricting our kids from doing things that involve risk instead of educating ourselves and our families on how to handle such risks will inevitably hold our children back. Coming back to Abby and her sailing adventure, Adam brought home a great article touching on this very thing. I think it’s a wonderful read for all parents: http://www.startribune.com/local/96344934.html?elr=KArksLckD8EQDUoaEyqyP4O:DW3ckUiD3aPc:_Yyc:aUnciaec8O7EyUsl
p.s. Amber's edit: Aymee... love this post... you know I am and i have crazy irrational fears... ie. If my kid sleeps past 8:15, hes probably dead... if he walks into the parking lot, he will most definitely get hit by a car... and if your standing at the top of a flight of stairs... someone is bound to fall down... im a panic'd anxious mess at any given time of any given day... thanks childhood/teen years PTSD is great. Anyways - most people having these fears go into freak out mode when confronted with "scary" situations... but not me... im so damn worried about being OVER protective because i'm crazy that Im the opposite... i may be panic'd on the inside... but on the outside im cool & collected (most the time) for example... yesterday we went swimming... me - and two toddler boys (that can't swim... imagine me, panic'd mess alone with two boys...) and its a tough task, but its worth it getting them out daily for some fun in the sun...USUALLY both have arm floaties... but zave's had a hole in it... shit so I couldn't let him "swim" I carried him around and let him sit on my raft... I can't count how many times he tried to jump off the raft and into the water. I was getting so frustrated... finally I said one last calm & collected time... Zavery, if you jump off that raft your going to go under water (he hates that) Sure enough, he leaped off the raft. I let him go... he sunk like a rock and i swooped him back up... helped him catch his breath... said, ok... are you alright? (Yah, snort, whining, boo hoo) Are you gunna listen to me? (Yah, snort, whining, boo hoo) Are you gunna jump in the water again without your floaties? (No....) and he didn't. problem solved. I could have spent that whole damn pool trip fighting to keep him from jumping... sometimes they just gotta figure it out themselves.