It’s easy to get sucked into your kids’ lives so much that your own life resembles little more than that of a shepherd. This isn’t meant to disparage shepherds (thanks for all the hard work, shepherds!), but to point out that parents ought to be shepherding their children toward independence, not away from it.
Our local science museum has an interesting water feature. A large granite orb sits upon a thin layer of water. This orb would weigh far too much to be manipulated were it simply sitting on the ground, or even upon its pedestal without that water. But with the water flowing beneath it, one can, with some exertion, cause it to spin in any direction. It’s a neat demonstration of both inertia and some of water’s cooler properties. During our latest visit there, a light rain happened to be falling, making the water feature, well, wetter. Now that I’ve invested you fully in this description of a big ball in some water, I’m going to leave this here for a moment to talk about a bubble boy now.
Actually, I don’t remember for certain, but it may have been a bubble girl. Not a bubble girl in the strict quarantine sense of the term. Rather, this was a girl (or a boy; I really can’t remember) being pushed in a stroller which had a clear plastic shell which could be zipped up around the rider like a cocoon. Given that water was lightly falling from the sky, this girl’s mother did the only reasonable thing — she hermetically sealed her daughter to avoid any contact with the most abundant substance on the planet. The woman also had in her entourage four other children, each a bit older than the last. Each came equipped with his or her own child-sized umbrella. At her command, they deployed their umbrellas to avoid the perils and pains which we all know accompany getting slightly damp. With her progeny amply shielded from the relentless onslaught of nature’s fury (read: drizzle), she led them toward her (you guessed it) mini-van. Along the way, she passed the aforementioned water feature.
One of her kids absolutely HAD to play with it. Like, his whole life had led to this singular moment, the culmination of his boyhood dreams and hopes and the pinnacle of his whole experience on the globe. Recognizing the futility of resisting the clarion call this water feature had on her child and other children, she helplessly called out, I kid you not, “Don’t get too wet!”
According to the unassailable and irrefutable Wikipedia, aquaphobia may affect as much as 1.8% of the general Icelandic population. This, is, frankly, an astonishingly large percentage of a country whose name, if not reality, implies the presence of quite a bit of water. Also, it’s an island, so there’s that. Now, I don’t know if this woman was Icelandic or not, though I can at least make a guess that the Science Museum of Virginia is not the biggest tourist attraction for your average Icelander family. The more likely scenario is that this mother is among those actively paving the road to hell with good intentions — the helicopter parents.
It’s one thing with infants. Their very nature draws them toward calamity with alarming regularity, the sort of regularity meant to cull the weakest and dumbest from our number in Darwinian fashion. You’re being a sucktastic parent if you’re not keeping an eye on them all the time that they’re not carefully tucked away into their playpens or cribs. But once they’re well and truly ambulatory, you’re doing them a disservice if you don’t let them explore their world a bit. Experiential learning is huge. I’m not saying that playing in traffic is the best way to learn about the need for crosswalks, but I think we can at least posit that sealing up a child (who was decidedly not an infant given her size) to keep her from any exposure to the world is a bit over-protective. I could understand it more if the kids were on their way to a formal function and appropriately attired, but a t-shirt and some Dora the Explorer Crocs* don’t exactly scream Bat Mitzvah to me.
Of course kids need some protections. The world is chockablock with dangers and dangerous people, and only the most foolhardy and cavalier parents would allow their young children unfettered contact with all of them at once. But surely we can draw some distinctions between covering the corner of a table near your toddler and trying to keep your kids from getting wet in the rain.
I’ve been compiling a mental list of some of these precautions as I’ve observed them over the last few years. None of these is made up; I witnessed each one in person and I’m not exaggerating a thing. Here we go:
- I saw a mother in the park using some sanitary wipes on some playground equipment before allowing her kid to play on it;
- I saw another mother cutting up her kid’s french fries for him (if he’s old enough to be eating french fries, I’d assume he’s old enough to know how to eat them without killing himself);
- I saw a mother pick up her kid, carry the kid down some stairs, and then put the kid back on the ground to continue walking;
- Another mother** brought her own foam play mat to the park so her kids could play on that, rather than the grass. I thought this might have just been for a picnic, but she brought no food that I saw, and she twice reminded her kids to stay off the grass. (Why are you at the park?!)
I’m not entirely innocent here. If I’m walking with my kids and I see a dog, I will move myself to be between them and the dog because to my mind, all dogs are half-wild hyenas starved to the point of desperation. And in this, I think I grasp some of the problem. Upon our children we impose our own insecurities and fears. Me, I’m terrified of dogs. Big ones, small ones, it doesn’t matter. You see cuddly, loving, goofy fur balls, and I see hungry teeth that can outrun me. I try not to let it affect or influence how I model behavior for my kids when we’re around dogs, but kids are smarter than they look***. At some point, they’ll notice my subtle changes around dogs. My muscles tense, I grip their hands tighter, I cross the street if possible, or I say things like, “Don’t ever trust a dog; they’ll kill you for the fun of it.”
So maybe those other parents have their own fears, too — germs or choking, falling or… um… the outdoors (seriously, why are you at the park?). But just as I want my kids to grow into functioning, autonomous adults, I want them to be an improved version of the functioning, autonomous (read: unemployed) adult that I am, free of my faults and insecurities. Or at least free to develop faults and insecurities of their own. Of course I want to keep them safe, but, like bones, sometimes we’re stronger after a break than we were before it. This, at the end of the day, is why I allow my children the risk of getting wet when it rains.****
*There is no limit to the depth of my loathing for these plastic abominations passing themselves off as footwear. You’re basically wearing slippers in public. What the hell is wrong with you?
**I don’t think this phenomenon is limited to mothers, but my statistically small sample consists entirely of them. Make of that what you will.
***For what it’s worth, I wrote that sentence while my youngest tried to shove a beach ball nearly his size into his mouth.
****That and I usually forget to pack an umbrella.