September 1, 2010
In the past few days, Amelia turned 5 and started kindergarten. I’ll spare you the declarations of love and the sobbing about my baby growing up. All I will say is that, until you have a child, you cannot know how much a child will enrich your life. (Or how much your child will drive you nuts.)
What I’m thinking about lately is how best to parent my daughter as she takes her first steps into being an older and more independent person. It was an odd experience waiting in the school lobby with a bunch of other parents, not allowed to even walk to my child’s classroom until the bell rang. Even then, they kept us in the hall and ushered the children out. I realized that she now has her own sphere — and it’s one to which I have only partial access. I must trust that she will be OK in there.
But trust seems to be what’s missing from our modern, fear-based parenting style — built on the belief that the parent’s job is to protect the child from a cruel world full of peril and invisible pitfalls. If my child is not snatched by a stranger, she could be scarred for life by any number of choices I make: giving her food with pesticides or artificial ingredients, letting her climb to the top of the old metal slide at the playground, sending her to school with the wrong kinds of kids. Children are delicate flowers whose potential will never be realized without proper supervision and encouragement, faultless teachers and well-selected extracurricular activities. As fear-based parents, it’s our job to look for the danger or imperfection in every situation and try to avoid it. We fear that our children will be hurt or killed, and also that they will be failures.
I aspire to see the world more the way my child does. In the insulated middle-class world she inhabits, life is mostly the equivalent of bouncing on a cloud of cotton candy. She goes to children’s museums, swimming pools and parks. She has scads of toys, gets nutritious food handed to her and sleeps on a two-foot-thick mattress covered in butterfly sheets and stuffed animals. She wakes up every morning thinking about her next opportunity to have fun.
Yes, bad things might happen to her, things that she can’t even conceive of now. But I cannot protect her from everything, no matter how hard I try. Remember that family that was standing on an overlook in Acadia National Park when a 30-foot rogue wave rose up and swept away their 7-year-old daughter? If you need proof that we’re not in charge, there it is.
As my child sets out, I want to teach her that people are innately good. I want her to believe that most people don’t want to snatch or murder her. I want her to trust that she can thrive and learn, even without perfect circumstances. I want her to see that she is resilient and will likely survive her childhood. I want her to know that she doesn’t have to race to be the best, that it’s enough to be where and who she is. I want to send her into the world, not try to protect her from it.
I will do what I can to keep her safe. But the truth is, we’re all headed to the same place. So we might as well enjoy it while we’re here.