Joanna Schroeder examines why we, as parents, are so eager to call other moms and dads “bad”.
I was compulsive about BPA in bottles when my kids were babies. And lead paint, phthalates, sulfates, pesticides and flame retardants.
I researched the heck out of vaccinations, too. We ended up giving our boys all of the vaccines recommended by our doctor, but I was the parent who requested the version with the least amount of aluminum and whatnot. I don’t even know if that aluminum theory is still around.
But living in West Los Angeles and vaccinating my kids, I was criticized by parents who were anti-vax. And I criticized them back. Had they read the studies about what happens when the “healthy herd” is no longer healthy? Didn’t they know that Dr Wakefield’s study had been debunked so hard that all of his co-authors disassociated themselves with the results? I will admit, I judge non-vax’ers probably the same way they judge me.
The past few weeks, there has been a ton of news about “bad parents”. First, in a horrifically tragic moment, a mother at the Pittsburgh Zoo lost her grip on her 2 year-old son near the wild dogs enclosure. The child was killed as the mother and other families watched.
In a well-researched piece, Bethany Bateman wrote about how statistically, the parents whose children are harmed in freak accidents like that one are exactly like you and me. I’ve held my kids up to see over the railing of an enclosure. Haven’t you? I probably wouldn’t do it now, if I had a 2 year-old, but I was just like her when my boys were small.
Last week, after an armed gunman broke into a Newtown, CT elementary school and killed 28 people, 20 of them children, we looked to his mother, also allegedly slain by her own firearms. How could she raise such a monster? How could she own a rifle that, outfitted with that clip, was designed solely to kill lots of people at once?
We judge her. But do we look at our little children and think, “what crimes will you commit in your lifetime?” No, we look at our kids and picture their weddings, their future careers, their sports highlights. But be assured that your kids will commit crimes. They’ll speed, blow through stop signs, maybe drive drunk or high, do some insider trading, or even rape or kill someone. It’s ghastly to imagine, isn’t it? But these crimes are all committed by somebody’s baby. Certainly the worse the crime is, the more likely it is that the person grew up in an unstable home. But sometimes a good kid misses a stop sign and kills someone. It’s tragic.
We do our best to protect our kids and make them into good people. We keep BPA out of their sippy cups, we teach them to use “gentle touch” and kind words with their friends, not to squash snails just to hear the “crunch”, and that there is always room for another friend while playing a game.
Those things are important and we need to do more of them.
But we all fail. We just don’t always have the horrific ramifications of our failures. My oldest son, the dreamer, followed a Monarch butterfly through the San Diego Wild Animal Park, ten feet ahead of me in a crowd for hundreds of meters. When he realized that he couldn’t see us, he zipped faster and faster through the throngs of people until I couldn’t keep up, even while shoving people aside.
Luckily, he found a family and showed them where I had written my cell number on his arm that morning. The dad was dialing my number when I finally reached him.
These stories could have gone any other way, but they didn’t. Some would say, “but by the grace of God they did not.” Maybe it’s God, maybe it’s luck. Some of it is preparation, we had rehearsed that he should find a nice family to help him and show them my number if he ever wandered off, but let’s all be clear about how close most of us are to being called bad parents.
The big news in fatherhood today is the photo of super-awesome skateboarder Tony Hawk twirling his daughter in the air at the top of a ramp in a skate park. The haterade is over the fact that his daughter isn’t wearing a helmet.
Should she be wearing a helmet? Yes, obviously, they’re an important safety tool, especially for kids. It’d be a good example for others. But her dad is arguably the best skateboarder in the world, and the likelihood of her falling, as he says, is less than you tripping on the sidewalk while carrying your kid. Even if he did fall, the man would know how to keep her safe. Does he deserve to be attacked and called a bad dad for this?
Why do we do this?
Our Editor-in-Chief Noah Brand explains it like this, “I can’t help but feel it’s related to the psychology of victim-blaming. Victim-blaming is based in the Just World Fallacy, the idea that if something bad happens to you, it’s because you deserve it. It’s a way for the blamer to reassure themself that THEY’RE still safe, because they’re careful and smart and virtuous. Similarly, going off on parents who let their kids take public transit or take them skateboarding is a way of reassuring yourself that YOUR children are safe. That parent is BAD, but you are GOOD, so nothing can happen to your children. And then when something happens to your children anyway, everyone else will start looking for reasons why you’re a bad parent.”
If we look at Tony Hawk and say, “Bad Dad!” we feel a little bit better about ourselves as we strap them into their helmet. We feel our little ones are somehow truly safe. And we’re right, childhood concussions are incredibly dangerous. But if we learned anything from the Newtown shooting, it’s that devastatingly awful things happen to good people who do not deserve it.
And if helmets aren’t the area where you fail, there is something else. I promise you, there is.
As you can see in my bio, I’m a skateboarding mama. My husband and I both skate, and we ride as a family. Our kids aren’t into boards, so most often they ride bikes, and they are firmly buckled into good helmets. But Ivan and I skate alongside them without helmets… I know, it’s terrible. We started riding when we were kids and literally nobody we knew wore helmets. We’ve both fallen enough to know that on sidewalk, we’re way more likely to break our arms or tailbones than hit our heads… We do wear helmets when we snowboard or ski, however. It’s not entirely logical.
It’s a bit of cognitive dissonance. We think, I know I should wear a helmet to set a good example, but I just don’t want to!
So I’ll be the first to say it: I’m a sh** parent like Tony Hawk.
Here’s how I fail most often: I don’t wear a helmet when I’m skating, my son ran away at the San Diego Wild Animal Park, and sometimes I don’t make my kids eat vegetables or fruit for an entire day. My 5 year-old just drank Diet Coke. Sometimes I forget to look up from my laptop for two hours while my kids play right in front of me. A few times, I have found my boys staring up, glazed-eyed, at a strange piece of nude art at LACMA and ushered them away (after taking a photograph). Once I discovered that my 7 year-old was wearing 3 pairs of underpants because instead of changing them everyday, he was just putting clean ones over the dirty ones. I hadn’t even noticed!
So how about you? How have you failed?
In what ways do you succeed?
And how can we talk about how to keep our kids safe without victim-blaming or calling out other parents?