We Live in an Age of Irrational Parenting

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An active lifestyle --- Image by Paul Barton/Corbis
Photo: Paul Barton/Corbis

If you fancy yourself a normalish, reasonably rational parent, you probably read, with equal parts horror and fascination, about the recent travails of a Maryland couple that tried to allow their children to walk the one mile from a local park to their home in Silver Spring. They were charged by child protective services with “unsubstantiated” child neglect —  itself a near-oxymoronic and self-canceling term —  which means their case will be held on file for five years. There are many things wrong with this action, not least what it says about the excesses of parenting culture (more on this in a bit), but among the most egregious is that it runs completely contrary to the trends in child safety that have emerged in the past couple of decades. Bluntly put: It’s hard to think of a safer time and a better place than the United States of 2015 to raise children — but we act as though the opposite were true.

A quick scan of the data, provided by the meticulous researcher David Finkelhor, the director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire: The physical abuse of children declined by 55 percent between 1992 and 2011, while sexual abuse declined 64 percent; between 1997 and 2012, abductions by strangers also went down by 51 percent. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, motor vehicle deaths among kids 12 and under declined by 43 percent in the last decade.

It is possible that our anxiety and overcaution is itself responsible, to some degree, for these falling statistics. But I’d point out that kidnappings by family members — who presumably children do see even if they aren’t outside very much — fell at an even greater rate between 1997 and 2012 than stranger abductions, by 55 percent. In general, these trends are of a piece with what we already know: National crime rates have been falling since the early ‘90s. It’s something we adults, unlike kids, have been taking full advantage of for years, walking unaccompanied late at night in places our own parents would never have dared to tread.

Finkelhor cautions against extrapolating too much from the Maryland case: One slap on the wrist from one state to one unlucky couple does not a trend make. Fair enough. But it’s emblematic of a culture disproportionately and irrationally obsessed.

Between 1969 and 2009, the number of elementary- and middle-school students who walked or biked to school dropped from 48 percent to 13, according to the Department of Transportation. (I am here reminded of one of my favorite lines from Phineas and Ferb, in which Candace time-travels to a dystopian future and discovers that swing-sets were remade into hospital beds, and “eventually children themselves were child-proofed and stored away until adulthood.”) When I was doing research for my book on parenthood, I was struck by how reluctant the parents I interviewed — it didn’t matter where they lived — were to send their children beyond their front lawns. The excesses of tabloid television were responsible for some of it: Inflamed by reports they’d seen of kidnappings on cable news (or, worse, suburban legends born of these reports) they inscribed small, Green-zone perimeters around their homes. The transparency of sex offender registries, which in some states are online, accounted for some mothers’ and fathers’ anxiety, too, because these compendia made tangible what was once theoretical: the addresses (generally nearby) of the predators among us. And some of it, I’m guessing, probably had to do with ambivalence about women in the workplace, though no one ever said so explicitly, because fewer eyes are on the street. It can’t entirely be an accident that fears about child safety have risen in tandem with women’s workforce participation.

But I think what really underlies this generation’s fears has to do with a much greater force than tabloid journalism or government transparency or even Bureau of Labor Statistics. Rather, it’s the principle of economic scarcity. We’ve deferred having children for so long — college-educated woman today have their first child at 30.3 years old — and we have so many fewer children than we once did (an average of two per family, as opposed to five in 1850) that we assign them a far higher value and therefore fret far more about their physical well-being.

And that’s just fine. Kids ought to be valued; their lives ought to be deemed precious. Ever since we banned child labor in the United States we have come to view children as “economically worthless but emotionally priceless,” in the words of one of my favorite sociologists, Viviana Zelizer. But extending equal protection to kids and assigning them the value they deserve is one thing; swaddling them in bubble wrap is quite another. It has led not just to a culture of irrationality around safety issues, but of moral high-handedness and gratuitous censure among parents themselves. 

The reason those children were apprehended in Maryland, after all, was not because they’d been involved in some kind of accident or were in any kind of imminent danger. They were apprehended because another parent had phoned the cops.

Canvass a modest-size group of parents, and you’ll hear that all of them, at some point or another, have been rebuked for making judgment calls that were theirs alone to make. Leaving a child unattended in a locked car for five minutes, because that’s what their mothers used to do. Strapping a child into the back of a taxi or car without a car seat.

Back in the 1980s, the psychologist Jerome Kagan presciently noticed that something was happening to American parents: Absent having any other conspicuous way to prove moral worth — by taking care of their own parents, say, or heading up local civic organizations — we instead try to show our virtue through parenting. It’s become our new plumage, how we parent, peacockishly displayed on Facebook and in playgrounds and at birthday parties; the result is a culture of surveillance and judgment rather than compassion and collaboration, and frankly, it’s exhausting — nor is it doing anyone one lick of good.