Parenting in the age of Paranoia: A Small Manifesto

We live in a contracting world, with diminishing options to travel far from your home and meet people of unfamiliar backgrounds- if you’re a child.

With increasingly regimented time, homework starting in Kindergarten and ever-constricting public space children are sent a message the world is too full of dangers for them, that the world is not for them. In short, They are told their lives are too precious to be lived. If they aren’t, it seems to be they are told they aren’t precious, and being allowed into the world devalues them.

The irony is that it’s far less dangerous than it was when I was a child. I regularly rode my bike far and wide, explored up the local creek for hours with and without friends. I explored the city I lived in, which was not only Los Angeles, but LA in the 80s. I learned to steer clear of scary people. I learned how to navigate the roads, and how to talk to people. As a teenager I hung around the mall and snuck around the beach at night. I ran around Westwood, lost my wallet a few times and had to avoid the occasional civil unrest. I saw strange things my mother never did, and sometimes I even told her about them. I nearly got locked in a mausoleum one night. I used to bring my mother a flower from nearly every trip when I was very young. In fact, I would stress out about leaving the house without at least a dollar- the price of a carnation. I got into some trouble and had to call her a few times. She came and got me, and chewed me out, but I was out there again next week, still tromping out the steps of my childhood in all the wonderful and strange environs for LA- even hours spent swimming hard in the Pacific.

My six year old daughter is the most precious and wonderful thing in the world, but she is not a Ming vase. She’s entitled to the choice and freedom I have, even if she chooses a riskier life than I have, or a less risky one. She’s entitled to make informed choices about the level of risk she assumes, armed with an understanding of how to cope with situations as they arise, and how to analyze both the world around her and her level of comfort with it. We do our child a great disservice when we protect them from all risk and harm, as great as letting them go into the world unable to read. These experiences are the things that lead to the social skills and confidence that let them find their place in the world as adults. To prevent them from talking to strangers or explore strange places is as disabling as protecting them from reading books because they might get ideas from them.

Horribly, my social group is creating a construct whereby I can’t easily give my daughter her freedom without sending her the message that I don’t care about her. This is a first attempt to strike out against that. When enough parents are saying they restrict their children’s freedom out of love and responsibility, I have to defend my desire to let my kid experience new things- it’s not indifference and negligence. It’s being the kind of parent I would want to have, and putting her as a person above my own desire for comfort.

I won’t ever teach my daughter to not talk to strangers. I will teach her that context matters, and we will work together to learn how and when it is safe, and perhaps even safer than not. I won’t be teaching her to automatically trust anyone in a uniform. I’ll be teaching her that situations where a number of strangers are gathered together make even bad actors behave, when they know they’re being watched. I will not teach her to run to abstract authority figures when she’s in trouble, I will teach her to build up goodwill and social connections in her community, and to have a number of people always in the back of her mind she knows she can turn to.

I won’t be telling her there are bad people out there- I will tell her even good people can get sick from things like drugs, depression, or anger, and do bad things. I will give her the skills I can, and teach her above all to know herself and trust what she knows, and to seek help without shame where she needs it. I will talk to her about the consequences of her choices. I will hope that a few painful turns early on will inoculate her from big unconsidered choices as a teen or adult. I will be trustworthy for her, and I will show her trust.

At the end of all this I will- yes, possibly nauseous with fear- let her go. As far as possible and reasonable I will always be a resource for her, but I accept that role will diminish with time, that it’s even far diminished now from what it once was. I will always express my interest in her life, but her life truly belongs to her, just as much at 6 as 36. For now I am the steward of abilities and knowledge she doesn’t yet have, and where I make choices for her and limit her it should always be guided by giving her the benefit of my life experience as she makes the choices she can for herself. It’s not mine to choose what she wants and is good for her, but to help her keep safe from immediate, non-theoretical dangers and to give her tools to keep safe in as wide a set of circumstances as possible.

There are no guarantees. I can’t keep her completely safe, ensure she’s happy and that nothing bad happens to her. I know her heart will be broken, and that she will face loss and death in the fulness of time. I know she’ll get hurt in all sorts of ways. I know there is always a chance I could lose the most wonderful thing in my life, and I know that she could lose me. None of this is a reason to cower in our houses. That bit of safety isn’t worth trading the adventures of the world that filled my childhood, and I hope will fill hers.

6 thoughts on “Parenting in the age of Paranoia: A Small Manifesto

  1. Lisa Kenney

    I seem to always be somehow out of sync with the people around me, but this essay has given me hope that maybe that won’t always be. I don’t recognize childhood anymore. Like many of the characters in books I remember as a kid, I lived in a world where adults were rarely more than bit players during those hours when I was out of the house. We roamed our neighborhoods from morning until the streetlights came on with no supervision. We took public transportation into Boston when we were in elementary school and we were much more street savvy than the average teenage suburbanite I see now. We played with matches, made prank phone calls, sneaked peeks at what was hidden in sock drawers and we learned to think for ourselves.

    When I listen to women my age who have children, I’m astonished at how structured their childrens’ lives are and how involved they are in the minutia of everything their children do.

    Yes, I can see how a mother who would like her daughter to learn about the world would have enormous pressures when every mother I know drives her child to school and schedules every moment of every day.

    You do my heart good.

  2. gmacginitie

    Thank you for a fine essay.

    To restrict freedom “out of love and responsibility” is not out of love, but fear, and not out of responsibility, but of the need to control. To those who say “I only want what’s best for you” I say “the road to Hell is paved with Good Intentions” and “only God knows, or only I know, what’s best for me.”

    — Gordon

  3. clarevl

    Here in the UK life has changed since the tragic disappearance of Madeleine McCann. I was always fairly liberal with my daughters desire to roam, schooling myself to let her go out of sight when I knew it was relatively safe… Now she can’t get that far before someone stops her or looks around madly for an adult responsible for this determined 3 year old. She is usually off to investigate the vegetable section of the store or the hedge outside of the fenced playground, that is a field away from a road – nothing radically challenging! I will continue to attempt a form of relaxed ‘casual’ parenting but as someone who grew up somewhere warm in the 1970s I suspect I am going to struggle in a pretty English village where our state school has league table success.

    Oh and the stranger-danger thing drives me wild too…

  4. rdaudt

    This is a beautiful piece of work and a wonderful act of love. Thank you so much for putting it together.

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