This week in Florida saw one of the worst tragedies a parent can possibly imagine. While on a dream family vacation to Florida, the Graves family of Nebraska were sitting next to a body of water at the Disney Grand Floridian Hotel and Spa. While attentively watching as their two-year-old son Lane splashed in ankle-deep water, reports indicate an alligator quickly made its way out of the water and snatched the young boy, even as his father Matt tried to wrestle his son to safety.
Again, the Internet went into overdrive judging the parents of the victim, calling into question their decision-making and supervision. While the Internet Rage Machine was less fierce in this case than it had been against the mother of a toddler who wriggled into a gorilla enclosure in Cincinnati recently, it still took aim at parents who were shaken by the most terrifying moments of their lives.
Unfortunately, the parents of Lane Groves, unlike those of the child in Cincinnati, are too busy arranging funeral arrangements for their beloved son to pay much attention to what the comments section has to say about their parenting. Because the perpetrator of this terror was less cute than a gorilla, and successful in taking the life of its child-victim, the vitriol has been less severe this time around. Who is at fault? Once again, it’s not the parents. But in this instance there are lessons to be learned from what happened in this Disney resort, and how our culture might have helped contribute to this tragedy.
We’re Warned Way Too Much
At my local park, there are several “no sledding” signs around, despite some perfect hills. There’s no real clear reason. The hills aren’t particularly treacherous, they don’t lead onto a road—they were basically made by God and put in this park for sledding. Parents head to the park to sled anyway, ignoring the signs. My best guess is that, along with the “Coffee is too hot” warning on your coffee cup, they were placed at the behest of lawyers to provide some cover in the event of a lawsuit.
While most residents of Gulf states are familiar with gators’ pervasiveness and viciousness, most of us Yankees view them as giant lizards and slow-moving residents of the swamps. I’ve heard many familiar with the area exclaim “How could they not suspect a gator was in the water?” Like most non-residents of the area, myself included, the Groveses likely believed Disney was doing its due diligence to prevent a lawsuit and injury to its guests by removing any resident gators in the waters they own.
The Graves family might not have even known how dangerous gators were. I didn’t until this story hit the wires. The signs around the area warned against swimming, not about the possibility of a gator lurking. Disney has an image to uphold: a feel-good safe place to enjoy with your family, and “Warning: Alligators may be present” signs might not jive with the “Happiest Place on Earth” theme Disney works hard to cultivate.
Thanks to our overly-paranoid society and its litigious nature, vague “No swimming” signs aren’t enough anymore. In a world where kids aren’t allowed to mow their lawns to make a few extra bucks without igniting a debate on the neighborhood listserv, we’ve lost our ability to evaluate danger. When everything under the sun is deemed dangerous, nothing is. Every day we are greeted with ridiculous headlines warning about the cancer danger of everything we encounter, from cell phones to “hot drinks” (yes, seriously). It’s no wonder we are unable to parse through the headlines to make an accurate risk assessment.
Tragedies Happen Constantly
Even if signs warning of alligators had been present, the Graveses might have still allowed Lane to splash a bit in the water. Never having seen how quickly and deftly a gator can move, they might have underestimated the danger present. That’s okay. Parents make bad decisions, big and small, every day. Almost none result in death. Most of these decisions are not made out of negligence, but borne out of the nature of parenting. When we have 1,000 judgment calls to make a day, sometimes we won’t make the right one.
Several news stories I’ve read about the incident discussed the possibility of criminal charges against the parents. After spending 16 hours wondering if their son was in the belly of a gator and then being forced to arrange for his little body to be put in the underbelly of an aircraft instead so it could be brought home for burial, criminal charges are the least of their worries.
Thankfully, it seems local authorities have viewed this the situation accurately, as a freak tragedy. It’s always nice to have someone or something to blame in the case of a tragic death, especially when it’s a child, but sometimes, freak accidents happen. Alligators are vicious creatures who show up in the most improbable places in Florida: toilets, swimming pools, and yes, even Disney resorts. We can’t plan for every possible contingency, but instead pray we might never know the grief the Groveses are feeling this week, which was supposed to be a dream summer family vacation.
A fellow parent made an insightful comment to me: “Parenting is a series of near misses.” My friend, the father of twins, is constantly running in two directions, chasing his adorable and mischievous sons. Even the most devoted parent knows it takes just a minute for anything to happen: For a child to color on the walls, run into the street, wriggle into a gorilla pit, or disappear into a lake in the mouth of an alligator.
Parents can only do the best they can, but they need to be armed with the most information possible to make on-the-fly risk assessments. When tragedy does strike, parents should be given some grace instead of vitriol, because if we’re honest with ourselves and the nature of parenting we know that but by the grace of God there go I.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the Ohio city of the zoo incident with the gorilla.