“America’s Worst Mom,” as Lenore Skenazy playfully admits to being called, discusses in a recent American Conservative article a pathological paranoia that seems to be gripping American parents. She points to a grossly inflated perception of some dangers our children face.
I say “some dangers” because many parents grossly underestimate some dangers. For example, parents are terrified that their children will be kidnapped, but the far greater likelihood of sexual abuse by other children may never cross their minds. Some parents quake at the thought of their kids climbing trees or wading in rivers but neglect the dangers of harmfully sedentary schooling or stress fractures from organized sports.
Yet I think it’s not primarily an inflated view of danger that drives hostility to “free-range parenting.” Rather, it’s a competitive compulsion to build up one’s self-esteem by finding fault with other parents. It’s a kind of apolitical parental virtue-signaling.
This compulsive fault-finding is symptomatic of the near-universal “just world hypothesis.” As much as many of us may profess moral relativism, deep down we all want good things to happen to good people and bad things to happen to bad ones (assuming, of course, that we are the good people). We desperately want the universe to be on our side. We want a guarantee that, if we follow all the rules, everything will be alright. We millennials are famous for struggling to conquer this mentality.
Because we want following the rules to guarantee our safety and well-being — and that of our children — we delight in pointing the finger at rule-breakers. It affirms our subconscious belief that every story has a villain, that there is always someone to blame. Jesus reportedly encountered this in John 9:2: “And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?”
If we can find out whom to blame and avoid their mistakes, then those horrible, awful child-abduction, battery-swallowing, sudden-infant-death nightmares will never come true for us.
This is why we treat pregnant women like veal calves: don’t drink wine, don’t run, don’t jump, don’t get stressed, don’t go near smokers, don’t drink coffee, don’t eat soft cheese, don’t use hair products — hundreds upon hundreds of prohibitions, most aimed at a laughably infinitesimal risk. These prohibitions have less to do with preventing harm to children than with bandaging the hemorrhagic guilt that seems to afflict every parent I know, myself included.
I’m not a card-carrying “free ranger,” but I see how destructive it is when we guilt-ridden parents lash out at “free rangers” such as Skenazy. Like a rabid mutt attacking everything that moves, we’ve forgotten how to distinguish between a genuine threat and the modicum of risk inherent in life itself.
Finally, a plea to all the Free Range fans: don’t demonize the Clorox moms, either. Many are reacting to trauma. I once inwardly judged a pregnant woman for being scared to eat much of anything, and later learned that food poisoning had triggered her recent miscarriage. As Skenazy mentions, we live at the safest time in history. So quit snapping and frothing over other people’s negligence or paranoia, and start enjoying life.