The other day I was at the grocery store with all three kids (so fun!) just picking up a few things for dinner that night. Coming out of the store after our shopping was done, my youngest was in the front seat of the cart, the older two were walking, and I loaded them all in the car, then loaded the groceries in the car, then was stuck with this cart. Oh and it was pouring rain.
I usually make a point to park close to the cart corral thing, but this time the store was busy and I realized I wasn’t anywhere near it. There were cars in all the spots close to me, and I didn’t want to leave it in the lot so other cars might get dinged by it, and the store was too far away to just run it back inside, so I quickly ran it over to the closest cart corral while the kids were in the car. But I was nervous, glancing around the whole time, hoping no one was watching.
Who was I afraid was watching? Not a stranger looking to abduct my kids, the doors were locked, the windows were down enough for them to have air for the 15-30 seconds it took me to dash to the cart corrall and back, no…I wasn’t worried about them getting snatched. I was worried about another parent, another mom, judging me for “leaving” the kids in the car while I turned my back for a few seconds. I was worried someone would call the cops, saying I left my kids in the car unattended, something that is illegal. I was worried, and unsure, if I was actually breaking the law. It sounds crazy, but it isn’t. And the thought that stuck out most in my mind was, when did we turn on each other as parents?
I miss that village of mothers that I’ve never had. The one we traded for homes that, despite being a stone’s throw, feel miles apart from each other. The one we traded for locked front doors, blinking devices and afternoons alone on the floor playing one-on-one with our little ones.
It stuck with me, because I miss it too. When I first became a parent nearly 8 years ago now, I expected it to be like getting admission into this new sisterhood, one full of support and commiseration, one where people would swap stories and tips, would watch your kid while you ran to the store, one where you could trust the other moms to look out for them, to look out for you. And in a lot of ways, that has happened for me. I have a great group of friends that are non-judgmental and supportive even though we have differing parenting styles. We all know that we have our children’s best interests at heart. I have some great neighbors where our kids can meet anywhere in between our two adjoining yards and play until they are called in for dinner with minimal supervision. I can make a rushed phone call to that same neighbor to ask if she can get my kids off the bus because I’m a few minutes behind, and vice versa. We watch each other’s children as if they were our own, making sure they aren’t running into the street, or helping them get back on their feet if they fall. And that is how it should be. But it isn’t for everyone, and it isn’t always the case. I’ve had other moms judge me for what I feed my kids, judge me for working outside the home. Sometimes I wonder if the overwhelming sentiment about being a mom hasn’t been about sisterhood, but about judgment.
The problem is, with parenting, a lot of it is winging it, and with very few basic exceptions, there is really no “right” way to do it. On top of that, instead of one manual on “how to parent”, there are a thousand. Go to any bookstore and check out the parenting section. There amongst the baby name books and baby food cookbooks you’ll find dozens of books telling you how to raise kids, how to discipline them, how to potty train them, how to sleep train them, how to make them the “happiest kid on the block”. Search the internet even for the briefest moments and you’ll find sites (like mine) giving you tips and hints on how to do it all. How to eat, how to play, how to learn, how to do everything. And that’s great, I love that advice is given and shared, but we need to also bolster up the idea that parents, and kids, need to find their own way to (safely, of course) do things, and they need the freedom to do so. And we also need to point out, again and again, just because someone is doing it differently, doesn’t mean they are doing it wrong, and it especially doesn’t mean that it gives you the right to pass judgment on them.
The bottom line is, it comes down to your comfort level, and it comes down to what you feel is right. I have friends who can’t believe I never used a baby monitor with my youngest, even though I obsessively checked the video monitor like a madwoman with my first. I have friends who are sit and chat moms at the playground, leaving kids to their own devices, and friends who like to hover, making sure no one is cutting in line and no one is about to fall off the jungle gym. Maybe I’m comfortable with my kids potentially falling off the monkey bars and not being there to catch them, maybe you’re not, but either way, don’t pass judgment on my parenting skills or how much I take care of my kids based on that.
When should you get involved? When my child is in REAL danger. Choking, running into the street, about to fall off something tall. That’s danger. Not falling off the end of the slide onto their butt, not being left in the locked car for 15 seconds while I push a cart back to where it belongs, not when I let my totally competent child ride their bike down the block.
I worry about a lot of things, trust me. I worry about what I feed my kids and what kind of sunscreen to use. I worry about whether they are reading enough or playing X-Box too much. Parents worry, parents are concerned. What I don’t need to worry about, however, is whether or not someone is going to report me because I let my child play in the backyard alone, or let them go into the post office by themselves at age 7 to buy me a stamp, or because I left them in the car while I put my shopping cart back.
The fact is, the danger that we all perceive, specifically that our children will be abducted by a stranger, is overblown, to say the least. As I said in a recent facebook discussion about the mom who was arrested for letting her child go to the park alone while she had to work, of the roughly 69,000 kidnappings that occurred in 1999, only 115 of them were abductions by strangers (aka “Stereotypical Kidnappings”), and in 2000, 255 children died of the flu or pnuemonia. A child is 2 and a half times more likely to get hit by lightening than to get taken by a stranger. Two and a half times MORE LIKELY to get hit by lightning than to be abducted. Let that sink in.
Real abuse, real neglect, is horrible, and should not be tolerated by any means. But this perceived “neglect” like letting your kids go to the park when they are old enough, is robbing us of our common sense as parents. It is robbing our kids of independence, and it is robbing us of our village. The one that is supposed to look out for the kids, to look out for the families, to look out for each other. This grey area of “Is it actual abuse?” is causing us to retreat, to rethink what we would normally feel confident doing, it’s causing us to keep our kids from forging out on their own, not because we think they can’t, but because we feel like we will be judged if we let them.
If you don’t feel comfortable letting your 9 year old ride their bike alone on a quiet street? That’s fine. But maybe I do feel comfortable. Maybe I am okay with it, maybe my 9 year old is learning how to be independent and capable. Things they NEED to learn. There is so much to consider on a case by case basis per child, maybe the 9 year old in question is super independent and super confident and can handle situations well, maybe I’m not far away and you don’t see me, maybe I am okay with them taking whatever “risks” you perceive to be present. Calling the cops for neglect, that would NOT be appropriate, but that’s what it’s coming to lately. Are we going to call the cops for “neglect” now if we see a mom giving an infant a bottle of baby formula because you think they should be feeding them breastmilk? Are we going to call the cops if our kids are waiting at the bus stop out of our line of vision? Where does it stop?
I guess what I really want to say is, be part of the village. Help out. If you see a child that is in danger, by all means, help them, help keep them safe. But if you see a child in a situation that is NOT dangerous, it just might not be the way YOU would handle it, then don’t pass judgment right away that they are being neglected by their parents or caregivers. Don’t pass judgment that they aren’t being parented the “right” way. Parents need to be empowered, kids need to be empowered, and we all need to support each other, especially in tough times, like the mom who let her 9 year old go to the park alone while she worked. Instead of a compassionate mom or dad reaching out to her to offer help, she was arrested, her child was taken away, and she was fired. Is that better? I don’t think I even need to answer that.
I don’t want to add fear of other moms to my list of things I’m worried about already as a parent. I don’t want to worry that my age appropriate lessons in independence will be misjudged as neglect. I don’t want to worry that my kids will grow up in an environment where I don’t feel comfortable letting them go out on their own because of how I will be judged. Instead I will attempt to build a community, a village, by way of my own actions, and will strive toward being supportive, understanding, and open minded of all moms, and all parenting styles, and appreciative and encouraging of that same kind of support.