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perfection

Readers — I am SO SICK of our finger-pointing culture ever-ready to criminalize a normal, if tragic, parenting moment. In this case, a woman named Felicia Tucker is being charged in the drowning death of her toddler nephew Joshua because he got out of house and she didn’t realize it quickly enough. He drowned in a nearby lake. According to an article in The Courier Post Online:

Tormenting Tucker on Friday was whether Joshua had suddenly learned to open the front door or whether it had not been latched. Tucker said she and her sister had taken “every precaution” in recent weeks — such as emptying out a backyard pool and ensuring the doors to the home were latched — after a co-worker’s toddler son drowned in a Monroe pool in June.

Note to police, prosecutors, judges: This is hardly a woman who is negligent! What happened is HUMAN, NOT CRIMINAL! Quit pretending it isn’t, just to feel smug or safe or superior. You could be a wonderful, even saintly parent, and it could happen to you. How would sending this woman — a mom herself — to ten years in prison make anyone safer or rectify anything?

That’s easy — it won’t. It’ll just teach us all a lesson: Unless we are absolutely perfect, we have absolutely no business parenting. (Or even being allowed to set foot in the community.) — L.

UPDATE! Readers — Here’s a petition asking Georgia to release the mother from her “vehicular manslaughter” conviction and PUT IN A CROSSWALK! I just signed it! — L. 

Hi Readers — This case is so sickeningly sad, I don’t know where to begin. Fortunately, a blog I’d never heard of before — Transportation for America — does a PERFECT  job of summing up the whole story and why it is such an outrage. Read it right here and kudos to the author, David Goldberg.

In brief: An Atlanta mom and her three kids got off a bus stop that is across a busy highway from her home. She COULD have dragged everyone to the next light,  three tenths of a mile up the road, but it seemed to make sense to try to cross. Not only was her apartment in sight across the way, but the other passengers who disembarked were crossing the highway right there, too.

So she and her kids made it to the median, but then the 4-year-old squirmed away and got killed by a drunk driver. The driver was convicted of a hit and run.  The mom was convicted of vehicular manslaughter. Yep. But as Goldberg says:

What about the highway designers, traffic engineers, transit planners and land use regulators who allowed a bus stop to be placed so far from a signal and made no other provision for a safe crossing; who allowed – even encouraged, with wide, straight lanes – prevailing speeds of 50-plus on a road flanked by houses and apartments; who carved a fifth lane out of a wider median that could have provided more of a safe refuge for pedestrians; who designed the entire landscape to be hostile to people trying to get to work and groceries despite having no access to a car?

They are as innocent as the day is long, according to the solicitor general’s office.

Goldberg also points out that none of the jurors who convicted the mom had ever even taken a public bus in Atlanta. They all had cars. In other words:

They had never taken two buses to go grocery shopping at Wal-Mart with three kids in tow. They had never missed a transfer on the way home that caused them to wait a full hour-and-a-half with tired and hungry kids for the next bus. They had never been let off at a bus stop on a five-lane speedway, with their apartment in sight across the road, and been asked to drag those three little ones an additional half-mile-plus down the road to the nearest traffic signal and back in order to get home at last.

When we prosecute parents who are trying their hardest, who make mistakes, or who misjudge a situation, we are prosecuting them for being what parents have always been: human. Not superheroes with super strength, judgment, fortitude and foresight.

A human parent is what I am and what we all are. Let’s not make that a crime. — Lenore

Hi Readers — Here’s a really valuable column because it addresses something that had been nibbling — and biting and punching — its way into parental concern: Bullying.

No one likes bullies or bullying. But why is it suddenly so high on a radar? Why are we talking about it all the time? Is it a question of finally getting the attention it deserves? Or is it getting TOO much attention, the way so many other childhood events are getting too much attention, like the falls toddlers inevitably take? (Now addressed by a number of “safety” devices.) Or the “problem” of friendship that we were talking here a few posts ago (now addressed by the profession of “friendship coaches”)?

So Helene Guldberg writes about bullying and why it’s not always bad. Or, rather, why what we are calling “bullying” isn’t always exactly that, and why it behooves us not to inflate the problem. As Helene writes:

Stamping out bullying, saying no to bullying, zero tolerance on bullying: promises like these are the foundations of every British school’s mandatory anti-bullying policy.

They are sentiments intended to protect pupils from every unpleasant playground experience, from name-calling to physical fights, and reflect the modern obsession with shielding children from every conceivable danger.

But in reality they are robbing them of the opportunity to learn some of life’s most valuable lessons.

There are plenty of campaigners who say that children should be allowed to climb trees, at the risk of breaking a bone. But those of us who believe that children should [also] be allowed to sustain a few emotional bruises in the playground — squabbling, fighting, falling-out and, yes, even being bullied, without the interference of adults — are vilified.

And:

By insisting that bullying is everywhere and that all relationships between children are potentially problematic, it is harder for us to be vigilant about brutality and real threats to children’s long-term health and happiness.

That’s just it: When we “problemize” every imperfection in childhood, we totally lose perspective, fretting about the things we don’t have to fret about, butting in when we’d best butt out, and possibly ignoring — in the tidal wave of worry — the real things we should attend to.

And by the way: When did we decide childhood should be perfect in the first place? Nothing else on earth is. What has compelled us to think anything less than perfection is a terrible tot-hood (and those who don’t provide perfection are terrible parents)? Hmmm. — Lenore

Hi Readers! A bunch of you have forwarded this story, from livescience.com, that I’ve been mulling for days:

‘Helicopter’ Parents Have Neurotic Kids, Study Suggests

The piece is about a study of 300 college freshmen that found the students who are “dependent, neurotic and less open,” may have their over-involved, over-worried, helicopter parents to thank for crippling them. It even went on to say that  ”in non-helicoptered students who were given responsibility and not constantly monitored by their parents, so-called ‘free rangers,’ the effects were reversed.” [Boldface, mine.]

So here’s our movement, being scientifically legitimized, and even called by its rightful name — the one coined right here! So why am I not jumping up and down and shouting, “Told ya so!”? Two reasons:

First, the story includes three of the questions that were asked of the students to determine if their parents were the “helicopter” type.

Participants had to rate their level of agreement with statements such as, “My parents have contacted a school official on my behalf to solve problems for me,” “On my college move-in day, my parents stayed the night in town to make sure I was adjusted,” and “If two days go by without contact my parents would contact me.”

By those criteria, I pretty much qualify as a helicopter mom. I have spoken to my son’s school when he was having problems. (As recently as  yesterday!) And I am pretty sure that if and when, God willing, we drop our kids off at college, we will help them unpack and then stay the night in a nearby hotel before bidding them goodbye in the morning. Just like my parents did when they dropped me off at school. What’s the big deal?

As for constant contact, I’m not sure how often we’ll call back and forth, but I just can’t see that as a black and white, helicopter vs. free-range issue. In my book I do suggest leaving your cell phone at home some times, so your kids can’t call and ask you to solve all their problems or make all their decisions — e.g., “Can I have a snack before I start my homework?” But if they call from college every couple of days to say hi, is that fatal to their characters or damning of ours? I don’t think so. Which brings me to –

Point #2: Who says it is the parents and only the parents who shape a child’s entire personality and outlook on life? That’s the very same belief — parents as Michelangelo, kids as clay — that motivates helicopter parents in the first place. If you really see your child as yours and yours alone to create or destroy, naturally you are going to worry about optimizing every single moment. That’s a big burden.  Every parental choice looms large because it is seen through the lens of MAKING or BREAKING the child. One of the cardinal rules in my book is to let go of the idea we CAN control  everything about our kids. As if there’s no such thing as luck, genes, other relatives, teachers, siblings, the neighborhood, quirks and a million other influences.

A study like this — a study like so many that academia seems to churn out on a daily basis, pointing fingers and purporting to be able to boil down an entire person to how good or bad a job his parents did raising him — is so  simplistic as to be meaningless.

Which is not to say I still don’t believe wholeheartedly in the idea of giving our kids more freedom and responsibility and hovering less. I do think it is great for them — and great for us. But we are not the only influence on our children, and one of the reasons parents are being driven so CRAZY these days is because everyone seems ready to blame us for any problem our kids ever evidence or endure.

Yes, it’s nice to see Free-Range Kids endorsed in the parenting-obsessed media. It’s too bad the parenting-obsessed media is still part of the problem.   — Lenore

Hi Readers — Here’s a great comment that came in response to the blog post, Driven Crazy by Pregnancy Perfectionists. It reminds us of a truth we’ve been encouraged to forget in our “blame the parents” society: We are not in total control, ever. Not of what happens to us, and certainly not of what happens to our children.  A reader writes:

Sorry, there are no guarantees in life.  I followed the rules for the most part, though not to any extreme — probably didn’t eat enough vegetables or get enough exercise (still don’t). But I did have every prenatal test to make sure everything was fine.  It all came out normal.  I felt fine, the pregnancy progressed fine, the birth came early but was otherwise fine –and then my daughter was born with a birth defect.  One that would have killed her in an earlier age; fortunately we’re not in an earlier age, and they fixed it and she is TOTALLY fine now.

And for a while I blamed myself — what did I do??  Was it that glass of wine I had before I knew I was pregnant? Was it one too many baby back ribs from Chili’s?  Was it my shocking avoidance of pregnancy yoga?!?  Then I realized — it was nothing.  It was a misfire during the building process.  A dropped stitch.  No process is foolproof or perfect.  This was a universal truth we all understood a few generations ago.  But we’ve become so accustomed to the illusion of control that modern life gives us that we’ve become responsible for EVERYTHING that happens to us, and that’s just ridiculous.  Little of what’s going on in there is in your hands.  So you may as well relax. – Dahlia

Hi Readers! I’ve been thinking about a note I got the other day from a dad who’s trying to raise his daughter Free-Range. He wasn’t  sure he was doing it “right.”  While some folks called him crazy for taking his girl on globe-trotting, capital-A adventures, he said, the alternative appalled him: “Maybe I should join the ranks and become one of those less risky parents who lets the kids sit on the couch playing video games, feeds them fast food and pumps them full of Ritalin.”

What struck me is that…I am one of those parents! I have a kid who spends a lot of time on the couch playing video games or fiddling with his iPod. And another one who takes Ritalin. And I fed the whole family fast food chicken last week from a place so unrepentent it actually deep fries its biscuits! (Yum!) So am I the opposite of a Free-Range parent?

Please.  There’s a big range of Ranging, and the whole idea is to TRY to give our kids some freedom and responsibility. We want them to figure out who they are and what they like, and to grow up in the process. Free-Range Parents encourage their kids to play, to go outside, and to come up with their own ideas of what to do, rather than being scheduled and supervised all the time. (Or played with by us.) And we try not to freak out every time we let them do whatever it was that WE did as kids, whether that’s walking to school or spending the afternoon biking around the neighborhood.

But if you have a kid who likes fries, or Mario Brothers, or sometimes vegging out and NOT building a rocket or bird sanctuary, that doesn’t mean anyone’s a failure. It means you’re raising kids in the post-industrial age, and it’s not so easy to re-create 1975 again, or 1989, even.  They are part of this modern world, and they love their apps the same way we loved our Slinkies.

So, yes, aim to let them have adventures. Yes, let them get bored and cranky sometimes, so they have to figure out what to do next. Yes, insist on some unplugged time and open the back door as a hint, and even goose them into babysitting or taking steps toward responsibility and adulthood. I was thrilled over vacation when my kids got a cat-sitting job several subway stops away from us. Then there was a blizzard and I was a lot less thrilled. In fact, I was worried. But hey — that cat still needed to be fed! (Well, actually, this particular cat could have lived off its fat for several weeks and still doubled as a pillow, but my point is: They boys had signed up to feed her, so they braved the elements.) Afterward, I was proud and so were they! Nonetheless, post-cat there was definitely some significant  iPod time on the couch.

So don’t worry about being a perfect Free-Range Parent. Just worry about not helicoptering every single second and you’re on the way. Or so sez me. — Lenore

Hi Readers! Let us help this mama-to-be, who is being driven crazy by all the obsessive, micromanaging pregnancy advice she’s getting from all sides, especially her cyber-friends. What I try to remind folks — pregnant and not — is that if humanity required perfect on the part of its parents, there would not BE humanity.

It is only in the last generation or so that mothers-to-be have even known exactly which fingernail was being formed during which second of which trimester. Now that we do know, it’s very hard not to worry about it all, but we really don’t have to. I get so annoyed with the books that dictate what to eat, do, and buy every second from conception to delivery, as if one sub-optimal bite means we’ve ruined the kid, while nine months’ worth of  gold stars means our children will never have a bad hair day or low-paying job or obstructed view.

‘Taint so. Eat pretty well, get some sleep, and hope for the best, pregnant ladies.  It’s really not all up to you, and it’ll make you miserable if you think it is. — Lenore

Dear Lenore: How about a companion website: Free-Range Fetus? Because I had to go through medical intervention to  get pregnant (and had a doctor who provided very little help beyond the obvious), I have spent a great deal of time looking up pregnancy-related information on the internet. There, I have found that many people are obsessed with the ways in which they are endangering their children before they have even developed feet!

I am struggling to separate myself from the culture of fear that permeates every book I read and every website I visit. Why, today alone I have endangered my 15-week-old fetus by taking a warm bath, painting my nails green, eating Parmesan cheese that I’m not SURE was pasteurized, and struggling to install a new cable box (with the box balancing on my abdomen for a moment). And I will probably endanger it further in a few hours by  going to a Step class and allowing my heart rate to climb above 130!

I am terrified… if it starts now, where does it end? Is there any reassurance out there that leaving my bedroom and eating a variety of foods ISN’T going to cause catastrophic birth defects?

Yes! I’m reassuring you and I hope soon the folks who comment below will be doing the same thing! Part of Free-Ranging is accepting the fact that there is only so much control we have over our children’s lives — starting Day One. Sure, we do our best, but we realize that fate plays a hand, too.

Another key Free-Range concept is realizing that the current mania for making everything perfect is just that: a mania. There is no such thing as perfect — except some pregnancy books and “experts” who are perfectly annoying! — L