Two weeks ago as I was driving home, I saw something seemingly innocuous but in reality very disturbing that has stuck with me since. I wasn’t going to write about it but I can’t get it out of my mind and I think it highlights something important in what we’re teaching our kids. Let me first describe what I saw and then I’ll tell you why it so disturbs and even angers me.
I live about a quarter mile from an elementary school. Driving home as parents were picking up their children, I saw two kids, at most maybe five years old, one boy and one girl playing on what passes for monkey bars these days. An anxious father was there holding his arms out under the girl in case she should fall. That’s all and I can’t stop thinking about it.
He’s teaching his daughter to limit her world, to be afraid. He’s teaching her that she can’t get hurt and get up again and conquer. He’s teaching her to not be bold or curious or adventurous, not to push herself to her limits and beyond. He’s teaching her that she needs a man to rely upon in scary situations, that she can’t problem solve, and he’s teaching that boy that the girl is so much more important, that he is expendable in relation to his sister (and if you don’t think that message has a part to play in man on woman violence, think again).
Years ago I read a psych article that posited that by age five a child has learned whether the world is a good place, or whether it is a scary and dangerous place and that whatever message they have internalized is almost impossible to fully unlearn later. The message the father was sending his children is clear and I understand a parent wanting to protect a child from hurt but as hard as it is sometimes those children need to be allowed to fall.
It is not a gift to a child to teach them that their world needs to be limited by fear, that they cannot cope, that stumbling or hurt or injury is the end of the world, a catastrophe from which they cannot possibly hope to have the internal resources to overcome. We do them no favors by instilling not just caution (which would be sensible) but anxiety, fear, and dependence.
Fear should not be what defines a girl or a woman. Fear should not be what defines any human being.
The past two months, I’ve read at least half a dozen articles of parents who had child protective services called because they let their children play unsupervised in their own back yards, let them walk home alone from a local park close to their home, and so on and so forth. Barely a week goes by where I don’t read something similar, parents harassed because they are raising independent children.
The result of this helicopter parenting? We have children who need trigger warnings whenever they encounter an idea with which they disagree. We’re harming our children by stifling and over-protecting them. We’re raising children who lack emotional resiliency (sooner or later we all fail, we all get hurt, we are all confronted by ideas that offend us, we all have to learn to pick up the pieces and get on with things without being utterly crushed when life doesn’t go our way). We’re raising children who can’t handle differing opinions and ideas sanely. We’re raising children who lack the baseline ability to thrive in a diverse and often divisive world. We’re raising children who will be crushed by life. That’s what I fear the most: that in wanting to protect our kids from everything that might ever hurt them (I get that. I don’t have kids but I have a god daughter whom I love dearly, and a pacel of nieces and nephews and I would give my right arm to spare them pain, but when I pray for them, I pray that they be given only the amount of suffering needed to make them capable and compassionate human beings) we are in reality crippling them.