Time to Stop Judging Other Mothers and Ourselves

Happy Mother's Day!

Oh, I know the burnt toast and dandelion bouquet won't come till May 10. But lately, every day is Mother's Day, thanks to our relentless focus on moms (and to a lesser extent dads) and the way they parent. (Story continued below...)

Parenting has become a spectator sport. We set the bar extremely high for what is "good" parenting and start judging the moment we hear someone did something that could be considered one drop dangerous.

I should know. I'm the mom who let her 9-year-old ride the New York City subway by himself. Just about a year ago I made national news when my husband andI decided to take our son someplace he hadn't been before and let him try to find his way home by himself on public transportation. (By day, not very far from home, with money and a map and quarters for a phone call.) The very thing he'd been begging us to let him do for months. He made it home fine, btw, but millions of folks weighed in, often critically, on my parenting.

Now I feel a little like Miss America, passing my "Bad Mom" crown and scepter to Madlyn Primoff, the Scarsdale, N.Y., lawyer who was arrested for endangering the welfare of a child a few weeks back after she left her two daughters, ages 10 and 12, in a shopping area of a New York City suburb because they were bickering in the car. (Both the girls got home safely, though one did wind up waiting for her parents at the local police station.)
Primoff can have the crown, but I'm keeping the scepter for self-defense. All moms could use one. It was only when complete strangers started saying I was lazy/crazy/cable-TV-fodder-in-the-making that I began to understand that a lot of us Americans are raising our kids in an utter state of panic. We are convinced that every day, in every way, our children are in terrible peril. We are obsessed with other parents' child-rearing decisions—and our own—because we're being told each one is of life and death importance.

And it's not just about stranger danger. It begins even before birth, with the pregnancy diet books (a whole new genre!) telling us "each bite" is going to determine if our kids are golden—or duds. Same goes for every other parenting decision we make: are you having natural childbirth? If not, you're traumatizing the baby! Are you breastfeeding? If not, your kid's going to be a dummy! With allergies! And extra-chunky thighs! Are you feeding your kid nonorganic baby food? Did you wait too long to sign her up for music lessons? Shouldn't you get that toy that teaches multiplication? But the biggest decision of all, of course, is: can I ever leave my kids to their own devices? To climb a tree or walk to school? And lately the answer is: no. Not until their hair goes gray and they start liking bran flakes.The prevailing belief is that even one unscheduled, unsupervised childhood episode (like the car-ejection) is dangerous to the point of criminal. That kids could never possibly buck up and ask someone for help, or figure out how to use a public phone, or ask directions to the police station.

But that Scarsdale lawyer's kids were not preschoolers. At age 10 or 12 in other eras, those kids would have been apprenticed already. Or working as servants in someone else's house, or picking coffee beans. Actually, in other countries, some children that age are still picking coffee beans. Why do we assume that today's American kids are the dumbest, most vulnerable, least competent generation ever—and that we are doing them a favor by treating them almost as if they are disabled? ("Let me open the car door for you, honey!") Because that's what our culture tells us to do. It tells us that kids need extra classes, extra padding and extra supervision just to make it through another day. It tells us we should always plan for the worst-case scenario. And it warns us that they are in physical danger from a crime-crazed world, even though, nationally, our crime rate is back to what it was in 1970. Yes, if you grew up in the '70s or '80s, times are safer now than when you were a kid. That's according to U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics. We Americans have a very hard time believing that good news because good news is not what we are soaking in. Mostly we are soaking in 24-hour cable, bringing us the worst stories—especially child abductions—from all corners of the globe. (Aruba, anyone? Portugal?) When we flip to TV police dramas like "CSI," we see maggots and autopsies and the freakiest, saddest scenarios Hollywood can dream up, usually involving duct tape. These stories, so graphically told, sear themselves on our brains. Pick up a parenting magazine instead, and we find article after article, "Is your child's crib safe?" "Is your child's food safe?" "Is your child's [fill in the blank with something that seems extremely safe, like a pillow] safe?" If that magazine can't convince us that it has some lifesaving info that we really must read to keep our kids alive, we won't buy it. So it's in the same biz as TV News: It simply has to scare us.

In short: we are being brainwashed with fear and it makes us worry that everything we do as parents may be putting our kids in danger. That's why we judge other parents so harshly, and why we keep our kids cloistered like Rapunzel. Don't get me wrong. As founder of the Free-Range Kids movement—a group of people who believe in giving kids more freedom and responsibility—my philosophy is not to throw kids out of the car (sorely tempting though that may be at times). But Free-Range parents do believe that kids are more capable and competent than we give them credit for. And that, after teaching them basic safety, they need some freedom to develop as smart, happy, responsible humans. Not crazy freedom. Just the kind of freedom we had, back when parenting decisions were not the stuff of national news.