Petra is finally old enough to do things on her own at the playground. She can climb and slide and she’s aware of the edges and doesn’t step off them willy-nilly. We’ve both been enjoying that new-found freedom. Her new favorite word is “playground,” and she says it at about 5:30 every morning, and then every 10 minutes throughout the day.
I love to stand back, no longer in arm’s reach, telling her with my whole body and being that I trust her, that she is strong and capable, that, when she gets stuck, she can solve it herself. I’ve experienced, more than once, the stink-eye from other people who are there with other children, some of them much older than Petra. They follow their charge only inches away from him, lifting the child up to things he couldn’t reach for himself (my policy is that playgrounds are self-limiting by design; when you’re old enough to reach a thing, then you’re old enough to do it–and not before). I’m sure they think I’m negligent or awful, because I sit on the grass and read a book sometimes. Often, these are grandparents–yes, those same people who raised today’s parents and love to criticize us for helicoptering. I once literally heard a man say, “Don’t go in the tunnel, Jack-Jack. Grandpa’s knees can’t follow you there.” To a kid who looked like he was about five.
On our recent trip, I got a powerful reminder of how much these attitudes have changed since Grandpa with the bad knees was raising Jack-Jack’s mom or dad. Somehow, doing the kind of thing with my kids that I remember doing with my mom drove home how completely different the world is now–reshaped, not by an actual increase in violent crime, but by our caving to fear.
For example, on my way to my grandma’s house, I got quite lost not too far from where she lived. I had no cell signal up there, so I needed to stop and ask for assistance. The problem was that every stop was costly. Either the kids were sleeping, and I didn’t want to stop and wake them up to go into a gas station for five minutes, so I kept driving, hoping I’d find a place with free wifi that I could hit from the parking lot, or they were awake, but I knew a stop would take a ton of time, with unloading everyone, trying to keep them from pulling things off of shelves while I tried to remember someone’s directions (they normally behave well, but we’d been on the road for about 7 hours at that point), and then getting them back in the car. When I was met with unhelpful and unfriendly people at the few stops I tried, I became much more frustrated than I would have if I had been traveling with out my kids. Didn’t these people see that I had these clingy, whiny toddlers, and really needed to maybe just use their “only for office use, sorry that’s our policy” phone? Didn’t they know how much of a struggle each stop was?
What did my mom do? I wondered. She has a pretty bad sense of direction (maybe where I get it!), and of course, didn’t have GPS back in the 1980s. Then I remembered. She left us in the car for the five minutes it took her to run in. I would never, ever, ever do that. Not because I’m afraid some random stranger would walk by and abduct them. Not because I’m afraid the car would overheat in 5 minutes on a 65-degree day (half an hour, maybe, but not in the time it took me to figure out that the people at this gas station were no use). No, I would never leave my kids in the car because I’m afraid of losing them to some random concerned citizen who might call the police rather than just waiting for a few minutes to make sure they weren’t forgotten. I actually know someone whose family had to go through a trial and the very real possibility of losing their kids because they left two children, one of whom was a very responsible eight-year-old, alone in the car (on a day that was not hot, for less than 10 minutes).
I know things happen, and it seems like this summer has had a rash of babies left in hot cars, but that’s a rarity compared to the number of kids killed walking across a parking lot when they’re too wriggly to hold their mom’s hand and walk properly. Anything can happen–in any situation. But we all feel like we need to call 911 when we see a kid alone.
That’s right, it’s well-meaning strangers I’m concerned about, not baby-snatchers. And that fear made a hard trip even harder. Thanks, concerned citizens.
Another weird encounter with how things have changed since I was a kid happened when Pam and I took the kids to Walden Pond to swim and meet up with a friend. Walden Pond isn’t what you might imagine–Thoreau would not recognize the place, really. It was thronged with families. There’s a little beach with several lifeguards. Shortly before we left, I was trying to change Petra’s diaper on our towel on the beach. Now, I should say, I think nothing of changing a baby’s diaper, unless it is a numero dos, pretty much anywhere. I’ve changed a baby on the National Mall in the middle of a semi-political rally (and also on the Metro, which is probably a ticketable offense). I’ve done a quick diaper swap in theater lobbies and library carrels (and if anyone wants to complain about that, they can shut up and install changing tables!!). JC has been known to change a diaper on the hood of the car, in a public parking garage.
Petra was not cooperating with this diaper change. She was rolling and wiggling, and scooting off the towel so I’d have to un-sand her bottom again and again. In the midst of this octopus-putting-to-bed episode, a woman came up to me. “Ma’am,” she said. “Ma’am. Ma’am, that is not appropriate. There’s all kinds of perverts everywhere. You can’t let her run around naked. There’s perverts everywhere.”
Petra, at the mention of the word “naked,” stood up and began dancing and chanting “Nakey! Nakey! Nakey!”
“I’m working on it,” I said as I grabbed Petra.
“There’s perverts everywhere,” she said again. “You don’t want anyone looking at her like that.”
As I was finally wrestling Petra into her clothes, a lifeguard came over to me. I saw the woman standing by the lifeguard stand, watching him. Clearly, she had asked him to say something. “Uh, excuse me,” he said, “If you could please, for future reference, we ask that people change kids in the bathhouse.” He pointed up about a million steps from the beach to an unlabeled bungalow. “It’s around the back,” he said.
When it was time to change Silas out of his suit, I left Petra with Pam and took him up there. It took a long time for his short little legs to climb all those stairs, and I tried to imagine what I would have done if I didn’t have a wonderful friend with me, one whom Petra adores and didn’t mind being left with. Would it really be safer for me to carry a thirty-pound baby on my hip, and hold my toddler’s hand to keep him from slipping on the steep stairs, while hauling a bag full of towels and clothes and whatever else I didn’t feel safe leaving on the beach?
In the bathhouse itself, there was not a dry place where I could have put Petra down to change her, even if I had wanted to.
It is estimated that fewer than 5% of adult men are pedophiles. Of those, most are interested in much older children–those just on the verge of adolescence. There were probably around 100 people on the beach, nearly all women and children. Am I really supposed to devote a minute’s thought to the incredibly minuscule possibility that, somewhere in my vicinity, there might be someone who is turned on by one-year-olds, who is paying attention at the right moment to catch a glimpse of my daughter’s vulva, might get off on it, and probably wouldn’t ever actually come anywhere near us?
I don’t think people were so uptight about infant nudity when I was little. I grew up in a hippie enclave, but I think even in the normal world, lots of little kids had summers without tan lines, if you know what I mean.
And now the latest…a mother was recently arrested for letting her nine-year-old play at the park by herself while the mom was at work. NINE. I went swimming and rode my bike and went to the playground by myself for a few hours at a time when I was nine or ten, and my brother was with me–and three years younger. We had a lot of fun. We learned about the consequences of our actions, what to do when we were scared or hurt or too tired to push through riding our bikes back home. I think those summers were probably the times of my life when we were the closest.
When I was staying with Grandma, I paged through some of the books on her shelf. One (which belonged to Grandma when she was a little girl) completely surprised me. It was called Ameliaranne Keeps Shop, and it would never be written today. In the story, Ameliaranne, who is clearly not supposed to be older than 10, watches a store for the day while its owner is fetching her son from the train station in the next town or something. While she’s minding the store, she is completely competent at the job and brilliantly foils a potential robber by rolling the cash from the till into her hair as “curling papers” and telling him they’ve had a bad day. With her payment for her work, she buys boots for her little brothers and sisters, whose lack of boots was going to keep them from going to a garden romp or something (a bit off the point I’m trying to make, but when was the last time a kid’s book had the protagonist working hard for something for somebody else, unless it’s a thing where a big deal is made out of the gift and the giver, which in this case, it was not).
I mentioned to Grandma that no one would ever have a little girl manage a shop in a city by herself for an entire business day. What have we done to make society change so drastically? I understand there’s been some serious progress on child labor, and I’m certainly in favor of keeping kids from going to jobs in mines and mills every day, but the occasional stint behind the counter, experiencing responsibility, is not such a bad thing.
Grandma seemed to think it’s all about how people raise their kids these days. “Parents need to say ‘no’ more, and mean it,” she said. “People let their kids get away with all kinds of behavior.”
I’m sure that’s a contributing factor, but that can’t be all of it. I have known many young people who, at the age of 10, I would trust to manage on their own fairly well, given some instruction. Many children, by the time they hit double digits, are as level-headed as an average adult. I’m not just talking about professors’ kids, either. I actually think Carlos has been unbelievably put-together since I met him, five years ago. Our society infantilizes kids in a way that is seriously unhealthy.
Fear-based parenting is its own kind of danger. How will little Jack-Jack ever think he’s strong and brave and self-sufficient if Grandpa is always right there, just in case? Will arbitrary rules about what age is the right age for a kid to stay at home by herself get my kids taken away (FYI, although many agencies have their own guidelines, no state actually has laws defining a certain age at which a child can be left alone)? When Petra and Silas go to college, will they be surrounded by people who have never had to solve a problem for themselves?
It’s bad news, people. Let’s all commit to expecting more from the kids we see in our daily lives. They might surprise us.