You want to know how much energy a toddler has? I took my daughter to the park the other day, where she chased a chihuahua until it threw up. That’s right. My daughter Brontë broke a bouncing, happy dog by running it to the point of puking exhaustion.
Given that kind of lunatic energy, she needs to be regularly taken out and ran around before she starts chewing the couches. As she becomes increasingly pent up, her hands turn into little shaking fists and she slowly becomes more and more manic until she is running across the furniture and accidentally slamming into walls. Since I’m handicapped by being about to pop with her baby sister, I am regularly letting Brontë loose at local parks. My goal, each time, is for her to pass out in her carseat on the ride home. Seeing her comatose in the back seat makes me feel like a good parent who has done her job.
My daughter is a natural thrill-seeker. Since she could barely walk, she has run up to the biggest spiral slide on the playground and thrown herself down it while giggling maniacally. She will scramble up the nearest fence to get as high as she can before tumbling off, jumping up, and running back up the fence as though she didn’t just face-plant off of it five seconds earlier. As a first-time mom, this behavior was driving me insane. You are naturally very protective over your child, after all, and you come to learn that your child is not only very fragile, but has remarkably poor judgment.
You end up, as a parent, having to make a call between constantly rescuing your child or allowing them to suffer a scraped knee in order to learn that the ground is hard, so to speak… While you don’t want them to be really hurt, obviously, it’s probably not a good idea to be so protective that they never learn proper risk assessment. These days, I find myself quickly calculating the dangers of whatever Brontë is doing before deciding whether or not to stop her. If she does fall, I suppress the urge to freak out unless she starts crying (I figure she might be okay but will panic if her mom is scared). Usually, she just dusts herself off and goes back to having fun.
Brontë, so far, has only been significantly hurt once, when grandpa was babysitting her. My husband and I were returning from a date night to pick her up when my dad says, nonchalantly, “Oh yeah, she fell and cut her head.”
I glance over toward my daughter and see what appears to be A GOLF-BALL-SIZED CUT BETWEEN HER EYEBROWS. Seriously, it looks like a giant, sideways bloody eyeball.
Suppressing every urge to completely freak out (and throw up), I gently ask: “How did that happen, dad?”
‘I dunno,” he said, shrugging, “I think she tripped on the asphalt and smacked her face.”
“Mmm hmm. Maybe she, umm, needs to go to the hospital to get stitches?”
“Well, I didn’t have a carseat,” he says, as though that were a perfectly reasonable explanation.
“Okay,” I replied, “Well… if something like this happens in the future, please feel free to call John and I. We can always come get her.”
At the Kaiser emergency room, the doctor uses a bunch of medical jargon to explain how he plans to push my daughter’s skin together and superglue it shut. Alrighty then. One of the nurses quips, “I guess her modeling career is over.”
Really now, what was the point of that statement? Was she shaming us for ruining our daughter’s virtual future modeling career, informing us that she would have a disfiguring line on her forehead, or just trying to be funny? Brontë screams in terror as she is held down to have her wound cleaned and glued shut, but is otherwise fine and seems to shake off the incident.
After we pay a lot of money for superglue, my father calls to check how Brontë is doing. He seems worried and contrite. I reassure him that she will be fine, that she falls over all the time and that it could happen to anyone. He apologizes anyway.
I know my dad loves his granddaughter to pieces and would never intentionally let anything terrible happen to her. What we are dealing with here is not a case of supervisory neglect, but rather the clash between 1970’s parenting and parenting in the millennial age.
My parents came of age in the 1970’s, when parental norms were extremely different than they are now. Hell, even pregnancy standards weren’t the same: they were even stricter about not gaining too much weight, but you could totally smoke and drink. I’m not saying they encouraged smoking while pregnant, but that not smoking was more of an ideal, like eating five servings of fruits and vegetables, than an expectation.
When I think back to the way my cousins and I grew up, it blows my mind (and makes me feel a little old). There were no carseats. You didn’t even have to use your seatbelt. In fact, I remember my cousin and I climbing up into the back window of our grandparents’ gold Chevy Malibu and log-rolling onto the floorboards all the way to church. Riding in the back of a pick-up truck was no problem. It was just considered a good time.
Childhood in the 1970’s was largely unsupervised. We were allowed to wander down the street and through the neighborhood as long as we were back by dark. My cousin Vanessa and i used to play in my grandpa’s garage, packed with solvents and power tools, and we figured out how to oil our scooters and loosen the bolts to make them go REALLY FAST. We used to climb the neighbor’s fence and swim in their pool, alone. In fact, grandpa used to burn leaves in a big metal barrel and my cousin and I would run around the yard with FLAMING STICKS. No one thought to stop us–I mean, we were just kids literally playing with fire…
When my parents were going to college, we lived in subsidized housing, and I was allowed to wander around the neighborhood alone, knocking on random doors. I was about four years old. There were a lot of foreign students living in the neighborhood, so I made a lot of friends from all over the world. My parents would just go from house to house until they found me. One time, I was at the house of a student from Kenya who was showing me photos of African kids from his country playing games. Another time, I was hanging out with a Mexican family, coloring with their kids. It was a different world.
Parents are arrested these days for doing stuff that would totally fly in the 1970’s. Like these guys. Or these. Nowadays, people believe you should never allow your children any means to possibly hurt their bodies or self-esteem. We childproof doorhandles, drawers, and toilets. We pad the playground floor. We frown on yelling. We definitely believe children should be supervised at all times.
Given today’s mindset, it’s hard to believe my cousins and I made it through our childhoods without major injury, yet we did. How did our attitudes about proper parenting change so drastically in thirty years, and is it a good thing? Was the world less dangerous in those days, so it wasn’t such a big deal to let your kids run around alone, or are we just too paranoid now? How many more kids were injured back then, and is it worth the loss of childhood freedoms and increased parental stress to be so much more careful?
Growing up in the 70’s and 80’s meant the occasional tetanus shot, but I also built some killer forts. Now, many parents fear social disapproval if they are not vigilant enough… I’ve had other moms question my use of cinnamon in baby food, for example, and encountered a torrent of raised eyebrows at my daughter’s scratched knee. We have the rise of what some are calling, “Helicopter Parenting,” the tendency of parents to hover over their child’s every move. Some experts have warned that these attitudes are harming our kids’ development of independence and coping skills: in short, that we are raising a nation of frightened wimps.
But how involved is over involved? I don’t want my toddler to run around the neighborhood unsupervised or play around power tools, yet feel that cushioning her every fall might not be the best way to prepare her for adulthood. Were we better off then or now? Is there a happy place in-between? What do you think?