When people ask me what has been the biggest change in parenting in the last generation or two, I could say:
Travel soccer for 9-year-olds.
Or the incredible spike in allergies or the way parents are expected to look at their kids’ grades online every day or all the really gross Halloween decorations out there. Some front lawns look like the morgue. But really, this one story a mom told me a few years back seems to sum it up. Here’s the deal:
The mom was at her local library with her 5-year-old daughter in Rochester, New York. They go there every week. That’s where this Terrible Parenting Moment occurred.
The two had only a few minutes before they had to leave to pick up Daughter No. 2 from day care, giving the mom just enough time to run upstairs from the children’s room to the adult room to check out her book.
(The mom was telling this story at a talk I gave—a talk about worrying a little less about our kids all the time. It was like a public confession. Her voice was shaky.)
“So I asked my daughter, ‘Do you want to come with me or wait here for a few minutes?’ And she said, ‘Wait.’ So I told the librarian, ‘I’ll be right back.’ And the librarian said, ‘Well ... OK. But I must warn you: The same dangers that are out on the street are here in the library.’”
Which, in a nutshell, explains why it is so hard for parents to trust their instincts these days. Here’s a mom who is going to leave her child for all of three minutes, in a familiar place, where there’s an adult nearby—and, by the way, nobody else! The place is empty!—and it’s still a Big Deal. Which means that parents today have a choice: They can do something that makes sense and clocks in at about .00001 on the danger scale. Or they can kowtow to the fear-mongering busybodies and watch their kids the way the guards watch the inmates in a maximum-security prison. Every. Single. Second.
How could the librarian feel that the children’s room, with her there, is so unsafe she has to warn the mother about it? I know a librarian is not a babysitter. I know her job is not to watch the kid while mom sashays over to the check-out desk (the book-reading hussy!). But still. The librarian is there. Why couldn’t she say, “No problem!” instead of, “Watch out, lady!”?
While I’m sure some obnoxious parents foist their kids upon clerks and librarians and use them as free child care, what ever happened to the idea of community? Community grows when we lend a hand. It shrivels when a friendly “Could you help a sec?” is met with icy warnings about far-fetched dangers—Someone could come in! I might not see him! He could be dangerous! He might snatch little girls!—and zero assistance.
The librarian probably felt she’d done the right thing: warned a cavalier mom. But that’s only the right thing in an age when we’re encouraged to dream up the very worst case scenarios—in 3D—and warn frazzled parents that doom awaits the child out of mom’s sightlines for a nanosecond. That is redefining parenthood as Velcro-hood and redefining neighborhood as a haunted house of horror—like those Halloween decorations.
The REAL right thing? Smile. Shoo the mom along. And give the kid a book.