A few months ago, my grandson and I attended the grand opening of a new playground. It was his third birthday, and he was thrilled about all the festivities, especially that there were police officers attending. All in all, it was pretty great event, until I became the latest target of parenting (and grandparenting) in the Age of Fear.
Judgment of a parent’s skill set is nothing new, and we all fall prey to the urge once in a while. Sometimes, its even necessary. But over-reaching has gotten out of control in the past decade or so, resulting in parents being cited for such things as letting their children walk home alone from the park or play outside unattended.
In my case, I was just being gossiped about, although I suppose someone could have grabbed one of the cops standing around and complained that Sebastian* was a victim of neglect.
Here’s how it went down: Sebastian and I had been playing on all the equipment for about 30 minutes when he asked if he could use what everyone at parks refer to as the baby swings “one last time.”
Those swings, which look like a bucket with leg holes, are age-rated from infant to 3 years, so Sebastian’s birthday truly was the last day he should use them. I agreed it would be a good moment to say goodbye to babyhood and hoisted him up into one. I commenced pushing him and we counted to 10 in English and then 10 in Spanish.
I noticed Sebastian was getting a little pink, which happens when he’s thirsty, so I slowed his swing to a crawl and told him I was going to get his water bottle. The water was exactly 17 steps away, under a Ramada. (How, you might ask, do I know the exact steps? I have a frequent – and odd – habit of mentally counting steps when I’m walking alone.)
I jogged the 17 steps, grabbed the water bottle, and turned to see Sebastian grinning at me from his little bucket. This sequence took all of 10 seconds. Then, I started walking back and about 12 steps in, overheard a woman my age say to a woman I assumed was her daughter, “Can you believe this? Someone left him unattended!” She was gesturing toward Sebastian.
Two steps later I was in her line of sight and she realized I’d overheard her. “Oh!,” she cried enthusiastically, her face coloring in what I hoped was embarrassment but may have been heat stroke, “There’s she is! She was here all along!”
Indeed, I was. The other grandma was probably thinking Sebastian’s mom was off checking her Facebook feed and was tsk-tsking aloud her worry that a child would waste away in the swing. I can’t blame her. I have been at parks where parents are blissfully unaware that little Suzy just learned to walk and is headed toward the jungle gym. I’ve scooped up a toddler who was walking unawares in front of a swinging 6-year-old when the toddler’s mom was distracted by one of her other kids. I’ve also been the beneficiary of an eagle-eyed elementary school girl who caught then 2-year-old Sebastian racing to a slide that was way too high for him as I was focused on opening his string cheese.
Playgrounds are nothing if not a disaster waiting to happen, and it is great if parents and grandparents look out for each other – the whole “takes a village thing.” But you can help out without staring with eyes of judgment, hand on phone, ready to dial 9-1-1.
I gave Sebastian his water bottle, which he sucked it dry, and then started pushing him again. This time, we counted to 10 in French, and I smiled at woman who’d been gossiping about me. (Can your grandkid count to 10 in three languages, lady? I didn’t think so.)
At my age, I couldn’t care less what anyone thinks of me in the realm of parenting, because I’ve got four amazing adult children as evidence of my mad Momma skills. But this pressure to over-protect and over-parent is one of the reasons young parents are so stressed out and kids are growing up unable to solve the simplest of problems by themselves.
I work at a university as a career counselor/internship coordinator. And over the past eight years, I’ve noticed – as have staff and faculty at universities across the nation – a dangerous trend: Students lacking basic critical thinking and petrified of life after college. Article after article decries this trend and yet things don’t change. And they can’t as long as we fear-monger parents into bubble-wrapping their children.
Yes, there are real and present dangers to all children: fast food, lack of exercise, improperly installed car seats, time with screens, social media, plastics, domestic violence, walking at night without reflectors and a flashlight, not getting vaccinated, not knowing their neighbors, having ear buds in (and eyes down) when on public transportation, running in the street after balls, and the big one – climate change.
But you know what isn’t a danger to most children and, in fact, will build resilience and help the child “adult” in his or her early 20s instead of mid-30s? Learning to play without mom or dad entertaining them. Making friends in the neighborhood. Walking or riding a bike to school. Dealing with bullies. Getting lost and finding their way home. Suffering through bad grades. Getting bored. Having chores. Having an allowance. Volunteering. Getting jobs in middle school like babysitting or yard work. Understanding that the world is much safer today for kids than it was 30 years ago. Developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills by tackling plumbing issues at home under the supervision of parents.
To grow up happy, children need to develop competency, which only happens through trial and error and the slow, hard growth of the “I can do it!” gene. That hard work can’t happen with fear-based, logic-challenged parenting.
Luckily, there’s been some push-back recently, with some states even passing laws that allow so-called Free Range Parenting. But it may be a slow turn around. So, in the meantime, if you see a 3-year-old in a bucket swing at a park, keep an eye on him for a second, will you? I ran to get his water.
(*not his real name)