On a recent, sweltering evening I was watching my son’s baseball game at a vast community park when my daughter, 7, asked–nay whined–to know if she and some other little sisters could leave the area to go to the playground. She was the oldest of the group, and the rest of the three girls were aged five or six. I said “no.” The playground was fairly far away and completely out of our sight. I didn’t trust that the girls would stay together–the temptation to wander off would be too strong. I wanted to stay and see the rest of the close game and didn’t want to leave to supervise. (And leaving would have meant missing out on cheering on my son, who was pitching). That time, it was a No. Was that overprotective? Was I being a”helicopter parent?” (Noun informal: a parent who takes an overprotective or excessive interest in the life of their child or children.) Notice that you qualify if you are too protective OR too interested.
In 1991, a little boy named Michael Dunahee disappeared from a local park in Victoria and has never been found. The four-year-old was not far from his parents, who have still never given up on finding out what happened to him. It is certainly a case no parent here can ever forget. I can also remember going to the corner store, alone, when I was seven–my daughter’s age. I know this for sure, because that was the year we lived in Sydney, Australia, so there is no mistaking the time. I have not let my daughter wandered alone like this yet–or her brother.
This is like one long game of Candyland with toddlers. You really can’t win. There’s a systemic problem of kids being overweight and inactive, safe but inside with “screens”– so parents are urged to let kids roam and try some more adventurous old-school play. At the same time, trampolines (for example) are frowned upon by the major pediatric societies. My kids are out there jumping on one right now. Let kids be kids–they say–but IT’S ON YOU IF SOMETHING GOES WRONG. Similarly, we’re told that we’re not washing our towels enough to fend off microbes, we need to disinfect to prevent flus and colds, but if your child has asthma it could be because YOUR HOUSE IS TOO CLEAN. See what I mean? We face these same dilemmas with so many other decisions for our kids–how much to insist on healthy food, how much to curb their sugar–like the Freezie both my kids had at the end of that evening baseball game. I guess what blows my mind–and would have amazed my own mother–is how much these issues are obsessed over and how willing we are to lay blame on parents for keeping their kids too safe, or not safe enough. For feeding kids too much sugar–or for giving them food issues by denying them sugar. These are the debates that put the “free” in the term “child-free.”
I have entered this parenting fray before, and suffered the bruises of thousands of people trampling on me in rush to judgment. In order to be a careful parent, I have considered heeding the Canadian Pediatric Society and ditching our trampoline (which is walled and big enough to land a helicopter), but the kids love it and spending hours bouncing, hucking soft balls at each other, or getting wet with the sprinkler set up underneath. The house trampoline rules are only two kids at a time and no flips. So far I am the only one who has sustained a trampoline injury (I disembarked it with a lack of grace).
I’ve been thinking about these issues again since the current novel I am working on involves a group of children being taken captive at an all-inclusive resort. It would be our worst fear as parents realized–having our children harmed or taken from us. The line between caution, common sense, and being overprotective may be one that’s hard to see sometimes–but at least the tension makes for good material.