Safe child syndrome 

Behold the most controlling, anxiety-ridden, over-involved generation of parents ever.

click to enlarge In the past, parenting experts like Dr. Benjamin Spock - encouraged parents to let their children explore their - independence. - Todays parents tend to keep their kids under extreme - supervision. - DAVE FICK
  • Dave Fick
  • In the past, parenting experts like Dr. Benjamin Spock encouraged parents to let their children explore their independence. Todays parents tend to keep their kids under extreme supervision.

At the park the other day, I happened to glance up just as a dad and daughter walked past, clutching walkie-talkies. Not the toy kind, but grown-up walkie-talkies so neatly engineered that the child's fit cozily in her palm. The girl, who appeared to be about 6, was dressed in a red twin set with oversized cat's-head buttons, and her blond hair was drawn into a red scrunchy. Her dad wore a pinched expression and a suede baseball cap.

What followed looked more like an assault on K2 than on the Playland-style climber that just had swallowed my own son. The father passed right by the benches flanking the climber and squeezed in behind his girl. As I watched him try to keep up with her, hunched and wheezing in his navigation of the Lilliputian maze, I realized the walkie-talkies weren't part of a game of hide-and-seek: The man was determined to stay both physically and electronically tethered to his daughter.

I can't count the number of afternoons I've spent right here at the base of Adventure Peak, the four-story star attraction of Edinborough Park Playground near Minneapolis. This is a fully enclosed Candyland: slides, moonwalks, wobbling bridges, and a hollow 30-foot fiberglass oak tree. The facility, as its Web site promises, comprises "more than 40 events to keep kids challenged and entertained for hours."

Despite what you'd think, that doesn't mean downtime for parents, and it doesn't mean a chance for the kids to run wild. In my experience, the only remarkable thing about the dad clambering toward the giant slide was his high-tech Plan B for keeping tabs on his princess. Never mind the benches, the chance to read a magazine or to finish a coffee before it gets cold; these days, a good parent clambers through the giant Habitrail, feigning delight the whole way.

It's not enough that adults are watching from the ground, or even that there are some adults up in there. It matters not that every inch of Adventure Peak is "padded, netted, and enclosed." No, my generation believes good supervision means being right there with your own child every minute, even though our parents happily would have plopped down for a good gossip.

There were plenty of other grown-ups in Adventure Peak that day. I watched a svelte brunette slip out of her Josef Seibels, set down a book on creativity in Waldorf Education and follow a boy of about 4 to a chamber sporting several colorful vinyl punching bags. There, she urged the boy to spin the orbs and examine them, instead of punching them.

A few cubicles to the left, a father in an oversized sweater directed the play of two boys who looked to be 6 or 7. He wanted them to climb down the fake tree; they ignored him in favor of a spiraling tube slide. "You're going down the yellow slide?" he asked rhetorically, scrambling to the slide's egress. "Okay." Later I saw him peering up into the tree, trying to get the boys to wave to him.

Behold the most controlling, anxiety-ridden, over-involved generation of parents ever.

After the walkie-talkie episode, I took an informal poll of parents I know. At what age or stage of development can Mom or Dad go ahead and sit down, reasonably assured their little darlings will survive a solo whirl on the jungle gym? Instead of a hard-and-fast answer, what I got was the sense that we hover for numerous and complicated reasons. We fear school buses, baby sitters and sometimes even Grandma and Grandpa, who may not know any better than to let the baby cry a little on her way to sleep. We're scared that adversity will scar our kids or, conversely, that they'll be bored -- a condition that, left untreated, might turn them into school shooters.

But we also fear their independence. We're up there in the climber because we can't afford to miss a minute of face time, you see. We believe our physical presence is the linchpin to a child's emotional well-being and, although we never say so out loud, we want it that way -- because it's central to our well-being. We're scared the kids will grow up to resent the fact that Mommy works or -- the biggest golem on the list -- they just plain won't like us. And in an age of high divorce rates and transient communities, kids who don't like us suggest the possibility that we might really end up alone.

Much as I've come to hate Adventure Peak, I used to climb, too. It was the other parents I feared. I gave up climbing after a particularly irritating visit to the park over the holidays. Near the end of our sojourn, my younger son, who is nearly three, set his mind on a drink from the vending machine and, when denied, flopped down on the rubberized floor and began wailing. And I -- gasp -- let him, prompting two women to come ask what was up. The first was easily waved away, but the second set her hands on her hips and demanded an explanation: "Should you be doing something?"

All this worry might be worthwhile if any of it actually were good for the children -- or for us. But my son needs to know that tantrums won't be rewarded, and that little girl in the red sweater needs to know her own coping skills are developing nicely. As it is, I'll bet she never would dream of ditching her father, shimmying up the fiberglass climber and imagining herself in a secret fort, high above everyone else. Dad's hovering, after all, sends the twin signals that the climber is dangerous and that she's not competent to navigate it.

I have a friend who works with people who commit awful crimes. If anyone I know hears enough horror stories to justify wanting to cloister her own children, it's her. But instead, she seems to have a sense of scale about the real roots of the bad things lurking out there, of how much has to go wrong, and for how long, for someone to end up in one of her case files.

She has a son in kindergarten. He rides the bus, but most of the other kids get driven. In his class, in fact, there are half a dozen mothers who park their cars, walk their children inside and help them shed their coats. Several of them then sit down and help the pupils get started on the day's first activity. One brings her younger kids.

My friend fantasizes about standing up for these kids. "They can do this," she wants to tell their mothers. "It's their life, not yours." But she knows what the moms would think, and maybe say: that my friend works. That she isn't even raising her own kids. And that to complain of their hovering really only suggests what's wrong with her.

click to enlarge At Adventure Peak, a deluxe playland in Minnesota, - cautious parents often follow their childrens - explorations every step of the way. - DAVE FICK
  • Dave Fick
  • At Adventure Peak, a deluxe playland in Minnesota, cautious parents often follow their childrens explorations every step of the way.

And she's probably right. Like her, most of those mothers are educated and spent years building careers before having kids. It stands to reason that we can't just shut it all off, the jockeying and positioning and thinking two steps ahead. Which makes the playground a far more competitive arena for parents than for kids, the most popular game of one-upmanship being I'm More Attuned and Attentive than You Are.

At its most basic level, this involves sacrifice for the good of the children -- anything from planning meticulously to assure that every day holds a steady stream of stimulating activities to simply giving up that job. Compare notes with enough parents and you'll run into more extreme variations. There are people who argue that strollers and baby carriers are "detachment devices," putting an unnatural, unhealthy distance between parent and child. There are advocates of "non-coercive parenting," who believe children shouldn't be made to do anything they don't want to do. There are parents who allow only wooden toys, organic food and incandescent lighting. It's as if the biggest worrywart stands to win a Parent of the Year award.

Worrying is a secular form of prayer, according to David Anderegg, a psychology professor at Bennington College in Vermont and the author of Worried All the Time: Rediscovering the Joy in Parenthood in an Age of Anxiety. Earlier generations coped with the thought that they couldn't control what happened to their offspring all the time by reasoning that once the kid walked out the door, God took over. But accidents no longer are seen as divine intervention, and the parents Anderegg now sees in his private practice often equate worrying with being devoted.

"The reason why many worriers have difficulty responding to treatment is that they are afraid to give up worrying, because worrying is seen as something good," Anderegg writes. "Worrying about a potential plane crash ahead of time might have some marginal value if those worries motivate a person to study the relative safety records of several different air carriers, but once the plane is up in the air, no amount of worrying is going to hold it up."

Anderegg's book has sold well with teachers and mental health workers, but not with parents. "Parents come to my talks and listen politely and invariably say, 'I don't need this, but I know someone who does'," he says. "With parents, it's not selling well. People don't want to hear it."

"Mom," one of my boys said to me the other day, purple with rage, "I'm so angry I could kidnap you."

The only parent I know who owns up to hovering is a commercial litigator; risk is his bread and butter. Yet he reports that the first thought he had on seeing his daughter born was, "I love you more than anything in this world." His second? "I will do anything to keep you from dying."

He laughs at himself when he recounts this. "Here she's only seconds old and I'm thinking about her death," he says. "How sick is that?"

I can't bring myself to admit to him that when my older son was a couple weeks old, I demanded that my husband put screws into our second-floor window jambs so that no one could break in. When he suggested I was being a touch irrational, I threw a hormone-juiced tantrum. I did agree that he could leave two windows unpegged; they aren't near a porch or tree, and only Spiderman could reach them.

Upon publication of his baby bible in 1946, Dr. Benjamin Spock worried that the very existence of a tome of "scientific" advice would make parents more apt to worry. "Trust yourself," urge the opening words of Baby and Child Care. "You know more than you think you do."

Spock encouraged parents to look for signs that their child was ready for more independence, and to applaud each new step away from the hearth. Overprotectiveness, he said, just makes for anxious children.

"Sometimes, the most important factor in overprotectiveness is the parent's inability to admit that she or he sometimes feels resentful or angry toward the child," he advised. "And a mother, for instance, may suppress her occasional mean thoughts and exaggerate the dangers of kidnappers or home accidents or inadequate diet. She has to stay close to the child to make sure the dangers don't strike, and her anxious expression convinces the child that her own fears are well founded."

Alas, Spock is dead. In his book, psychologist Anderegg wanted to repeat the same psychoanalytic tenet that overprotectiveness often is disowned aggression. His editor, he says, struck that passage.

Kids, of course, excel at exploring their mean feelings, and a good chunk of the parental playground hovering I've witnessed seems to be aimed at getting children to say only kind things to each other, to act selflessly and generally observe the kind of social niceties their parents observe. It must be terribly confusing to them when we're so nice in public and then go home and say snide, judgmental things about one another.

At the age of three, one of my boys found a dead pigeon in a gutter downtown. "Nyah, nyah, boo boo," he taunted the bird, jumping up and down with glee. "You ca-an't fl-y."

Late on a weekday afternoon at the indoor park, a woman in corporate garb stands outside the Moonwalk, talking on a cell phone. She hangs up when her son, who looks to be about 4, rockets out of the inflated bouncer and skitters across the floor. He scoops up a ball, throws it at a miniature basketball net, misses, and starts to cry when the ball rebounds at one of his shoulders. Next, he belly flops onto a wheeled platform and rolls across the gym. He stops twice, bursting into tears as he first stubs his toe and then nearly rolls over his own fingers. His mom is in hot pursuit, and each boo-boo earns him a rub or a kiss.

His attention span seems to be about a minute long, and at first his mother just seems long-suffering. If you watch a little longer, though, that changes: She's hovering so close that the boy can barely move, and she's keeping up a steady one-way dialogue about perils he should watch out for and her opinion of each activity he takes up.

click to enlarge Though many parents dont want to hear it, over- - worrying can cause children to grow up with confidence - and anxiety issues. - DAVE FICK
  • Dave Fick
  • Though many parents dont want to hear it, over- worrying can cause children to grow up with confidence and anxiety issues.

After about five minutes, the boy loses interest in playing. He makes his way slowly to the sidelines, where he clambers into an expensive McClaren stroller and starts to look at the ceiling. Mom produces an array of snacks and tries to get him interested. Right now this scene says more about the mother than the child, but that will change.

Generations of psychiatrists and analysts believed that young children were governed by inborn drives and unconscious fantasies. The notion that unresolved conflicts from parents' early lives got played out with their children only came to be accepted about 50 years ago.

In the 1930s a British psychiatrist named John Bowlby began collecting case studies on 44 juvenile thieves, ages 6 to 16, at the family mental health clinic where he worked. Each had a history of early deprivation and separation from his mother and displayed "a remarkable lack of warmth or feeling for anyone" -- themselves included. "Behind the mask of indifference," Bowlby wrote, "is bottomless misery and behind the apparent callousness despair."

Bowlby spent the rest of his life studying the bond, or "attachment," between parents and children. Children thrive, he concluded, when that tie is strong and loving, providing a "secure base" from which a child can explore and, as she grows up, become increasingly independent. Bowlby's work and the research others did to build on it revolutionized psychology and a number of other fields.

But as the concept began to filter into the popular vernacular, it promptly was perverted by a new generation of parenting experts. In 1993, pediatrician William Sears and his wife Martha published The Baby Book, which replaced Dr. Spock's classic and became the central canon of a movement known as attachment parenting. In the translation, Bowlby's idea that children need a consistent, loving adult had been rewritten to suggest that great harm comes to kids when their parents (the Searses prefer Mom, but offer suggestions for how Dad can play helper) aren't with them virtually all the time.

A decade later, the notion of putting a newborn in a crib panics most first-time parents, who fear that being alone will scar the tyke emotionally. And even though the number of women working outside the home continues to rise, we still spend vastly more time worrying that daycare harms children than we do trying to find ways to make sure all kids have access to high-quality care.

At a cocktail party last summer, I mentioned to a group of grandmothers how lucky I am that my parents are nearby and quick to pitch in. One of the women, whose job includes daily responsibility for the welfare of hundreds of children, told me her own grown children usually turn down her offers to baby-sit.

"I know plenty of parents who see leaving the kids with Grandma as selfish," I told her. "They think it's important their kids spend as much time with them as possible."

She gasped. "So you mean they're trying to be good parents?" Aghast, the other grandmas shook their heads.

When I was a toddler, my father's parents both were hospitalized for long periods, Grandpa for emphysema and Grandma for a heart condition that was diagnosed as the result of her trying to care for him by herself. My mother logged long hours at the local hospital, which in those days didn't allow children on the wards. She would drop me off in the waiting room and whoever was there would play with me until she came back.

I asked her recently whether she was embarrassed to admit this now. No, she said, everybody did it. Besides, it wasn't like she shopped me from one rank stranger to another. The people in the waiting room weren't friends per se, but they weren't exactly unknown quantities. They were from the neighborhood.

My generation, meanwhile, won't drop Junior off at the neighbor's for an afternoon. No, much like the squad of grown-ups policing Adventure Peak, parents these days stay for the duration of the kids' "play dates." If they permit them to occur at all, that is. This business of treating kids like hothouse flowers seems to go hand in glove with the idea that we should endeavor to keep them away from the rest of the community.

Before the Industrial Revolution, families had to produce virtually everything they needed, from bread and clothes to agricultural implements. To accomplish this, everybody worked, including children. And there were lots of children: Their survival wasn't assured and their labor was valuable, so people cranked them out. After mechanization drew people into cities and factories, the luckiest families were able to keep one adult out of the workforce: the housewife, whose job was to school and protect her little ones. Quickly, Mom's self-image entered into the picture.

"In part, the reduced birthrate was a matter of economics, as middle-class parents regarded their children not as sources of labor but as 'social capital' requiring substantial investments of time and resources," writes University of Houston professor Steven Mintz in Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood. "As a result of rapid changes in manufacturing, transport, and marketing, adults could no longer rely on passing on their farms or shops or imparting their skills to their children, who increasingly needed formal education."

Birthrates have continued to fall, and the need for education and the availability of resources to provide it to rise. In search of ever better launching pads for the brood, families have flooded out of the central cities and into suburbs over the last 50 years. In the process, however, more and more families find themselves far not just from relatives, but from other social supports.

We don't seem to realize that our response to this -- further closing ranks -- is terribly counterproductive. People had stronger attachments back when they had more of them.

"People identified strongly not only with their family or clan but with their church, their village, their guild if they belonged to one, and their social class," writes Robert Karen in Becoming Attached, his survey of Bowlby's legacy. "They did not consider themselves to be special or apart, but cut from the same cloth as their peers. Indeed, personal identity was inconceivable outside these affiliations, which were emotionally and spiritually sustaining and saturated with mutual help."

click to enlarge Author Robert Karen wrote recently about children that - everybody fares better with a little breathing room. - DAVE FICK
  • Dave Fick
  • Author Robert Karen wrote recently about children that everybody fares better with a little breathing room.

With this breathing room, everybody fared better. "In previous generations, Bowlby noted, mothers were surrounded by teenage sisters, cousins, and their own mothers, all of whom pitched in with the child care," Karen writes. "The child, meanwhile, has alternate attachment figures; and less pressure was, therefore, placed on the bond with the mother to provide him with all his needs. 'It has taken the world's richest societies,' Bowlby said, 'to ignore these basic facts.'"

Mintz recalls that his generation fought with its parents at every turn -- Vietnam, long hair, premarital sex -- and probably was stronger for it. "Our sense of ourselves and our happiness didn't [used to] depend so much on what our children thought of us," he says. "Now, with divorce and instability, people want their kids bound to them with bands of steel. Marriage is fragile, so it's a lot safer to invest in your kids.... Parents still think they're raising kids for independence, but they don't."

Last summer, 4-year-old Jenny Haffely got tangled in a rope ladder and strangled. It was a Saturday, the last afternoon in July, on a tiny playground in the housing development in Minnesota where Haffely lived. According to newspaper reports, there were several adults and at least five children present. Haffely was probably trying to clamber from the slide to the ladder when she fell, tragically during the single instant when no one was watching.

Everyone seemed to catch on at the same time. Haffely's 11-year-old brother and his friend worked together to untangle the girl. Her mother came running, hysterical. Another grown-up started CPR. Police cars and ambulances tore over speed bumps and through the complex. Haffely was taken off life support the next day. The Ramsey County Medical Examiner's preliminary findings: asphyxiation due to hanging, as an accident extremely rare.

Still, newspaper accounts seemed to search for someplace to put the blame. The company that manages the complex proved it had inspected the jungle gym and coughed up the age of the equipment. Neighbors defended Haffely's mother as ever-vigilant. The stories dutifully consulted the University of Northern Iowa's National Program for Playground Safety, noting that every year on playgrounds 200,000 young children suffer injuries severe enough to require a trip to the emergency room; between 1990 and 2000, 147 children died of playground accidents.

Stories about tragedies such as Haffely's rarely include any reassuring context, however. Those injuries are spread among the United States' 73.3 million children. And playgrounds hardly are the only places kids get hurt: According to federal statistics, there are nearly 13,000 stroller-related injuries a year, some 4 of them fatal; high chairs are involved in 10,000 injuries; and an annual average of 21,600 children 5 years old and younger were treated in hospital emergency rooms for shopping cart injuries during the years 1985 to 1996.

It reminds me of the hysteria over the daycare molestation scares of the 1980s. Following endless news stories about a single months-long high-profile trial in Los Angeles, scores of preschool teachers around the country were accused of everything from sex abuse to Satan worshipping. Most of the accusations turned out to be groundless, but they are as deeply embedded in the public consciousness as the equally rare nannies that shake babies to death, and razor blades in Halloween candy.

Given that this is the safest time in history to raise a family, I'll wager this obsession with eliminating small risks is another form of displaced anxiety. In the United States one in every six children lives in poverty, according to the Children's Defense Fund. Thirteen million live in households suffering from hunger or "food insecurity without hunger." One in eight has no health insurance. If we're so concerned with the welfare of children, how come we can't see past the ones in our own houses?

In addition to compiling safety statistics, the National Program for Playground Safety also issues report cards. While it's hard to argue against safer playgrounds, it's also true that, by design, the transparent playground offers kids no privacy. "As [playgrounds] were childproofed to improve safety, they inadvertently reduced the opportunities for the young to take part in forms of fantasy, sensory, and exploratory play, and construction activities apart from adults," writes historian Mintz. "Unstructured, unsupervised free play outside the home drastically declined for middle-class children. As more mothers joined the labor force, parents arranged more structured, supervised activities for their children. Unstructured play and outdoor activities for children 3 to 11 declined nearly 40 percent between the early 1980s and the late 1990s. Because of parental fear of criminals and bad drivers, middle-class children rarely got the freedom to investigate and master their home turf in ways that once proved a rehearsal for the real world."

So much for the roving pack of kids each block boasted during Mintz's childhood, and my own. "The empty lot has disappeared," he quips. "And we are so concerned with legal liability that if kids do find one, you'd better be sure you'll get a call from the police."

Nor does the scrutiny let up at school. In addition to unprecedented academic testing, we're all on alert for signs of school violence -- which might itself be an outgrowth of this pressure-cooker atmosphere, Mintz argues.

A year ago, Nancy and Bob Williams (not their real names) moved into their dream house, on a quiet street full of kids and adjacent to a park. On a beautiful spring afternoon a couple days after the family moved in, Nancy told her two daughters, then 7 and 5, that they could cross the street and play on the playground. She stood at the front window, watching and folding laundry.

Things went fine for a while, until Nancy noticed a woman talking to the girls. Something didn't seem right, so she walked out of the house and started for the playground. There she learned that the woman was the park director, and that she was concerned that the girls were too young to play by themselves. The two women talked amiably for a while, but in the end the only thing they agreed on was how capable Nancy's girls were.

Turns out that when the director first started questioning the kids, she had tried to get them to go into the rec center with her. The older girl had refused, saying that she didn't know the woman. The director explained that she worked at the park, but the girl wouldn't budge. "How do I know you work here?" she asked. "How do I know it's okay? I don't see a badge."

The next day, Bob tried -- and failed -- to get someone to tell him how old kids had to be to play alone. The park director admitted there was no policy, but said she didn't want his kids coming back without a parent. The next park official up the food chain called it a "gray area," while the park police said they had no idea what the policy might be.

The Williamses believe that what the park director did next was a sincere effort to help clarify things: She called Child Protective Services to ask what the county's guidelines were. The next thing the Williamses knew they were the subjects of an official investigation. Commissioners from both Parks and Rec and the county board tried to stop things, but files had been opened.

And so a CPS social worker came to the Williams house. She quickly acknowledged that the family hadn't been neglectful, but failed to offer up a solution. The guidelines the agency uses to measure neglect say kids 7 and under can't be left alone in a house, but don't say anything about when children can be unattended outside the home -- or, for that matter, about what constitutes away from home. The woman did say the kids were too young to cross the street, but only shrugged when Nancy countered that their bus stop was three blocks away because it is the policy of Minneapolis Public Schools that any children, even kindergarteners, can be required to walk a quarter-mile alone.

CPS concluded that the Williamses had not been neglectful, but it will keep the family's file open for four years. The explanation they gave Nancy: She and Bob hadn't done anything wrong, but if anything bad happened in the future, the mere fact that questions had been raised might itself suggest that the couple had a history of exercising poor judgment.

While the saga was unfolding, everyone remarked on the way the older Williams daughter stood up to the park director. Nancy finally got tired of hearing people praise the girl's street smarts and started saying this: Her daughter's assertiveness isn't something she acquired on the street. It's something Bob and Nancy deliberately taught her because they wanted her to feel capable and independent, which they had thought was the goal.

Beth Hawkins is a senior editor at City Pages in Minneapolis, where this article originally appeared.


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