I know that on a 75-degree day, a closed car can become an oven. I know that a home with an unfenced swimming pool is as dangerous as one with a loaded gun. I know how important it is to install car seats correctly, to adjust and fasten the straps regularly. When my kids were babies I always put them to sleep on their backs, though they hated it. I treated small, chokeable objects like arsenic, put up gates on all our stairways (not the tension-rod kind that can be pushed over, but the kind you bolt into the wall). I immunized them against everything immunizable, sliced their hotdogs lengthwise and removed the casing, made sure their plates and cups were BPA free, limited their screen time, slathered them in sunscreen on sunny days. When my more carefree friends say things like, “What’s the worst that could happen?” I usually have an answer. Sometimes I fantasized about moving with my family to a sun-drenched island in the Mediterranean where my children could spend their days frolicking freely on the beach without worry of speeding cars or communicable diseases, but I never confuse this fantasy with the reality we live in, the reality of risk and danger, the reality that terrible things happen to good, well-meaning people every second of every day.
My friends and I sometimes play this game, the did-our-parents-really-let-us-do-that game. We recall bike ramps, model rockets, videotaping ourselves setting toys on fire. Many remember taking off on bikes alone, playing in the woods for hours without adult supervision, crawling through storm drains to follow creek beds, latchkey afternoons, monkey bars installed over slabs of concrete. My husband recalls forts built in the trunk of the station wagon on long road trips. I remember standing up in the back of my father’s LeBaron convertible while he cruised around the neighborhood, or spending an hour lying low on the seat of our station wagon, feet against the window, daydreaming or reading in crowded parking lots while my mother got groceries or ran other boring errands. One friend tells me how, from 7-Elevens, to Kroger, to various banks, schools and offices, he was left alone in the front passenger seat of a convertible Mustang for a good portion of his childhood, primarily because he was shy and wanted to not have to meet new people. For people of our generation, living a suburban childhood, the car was central to our lives, not simply a mode of transportation but in many ways, an extension of our home.
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As a mother who has often felt as though my kids are in constant danger, I wasn’t sure what to expect of her, if I was going to end up talking to a fringe “expert” who would tell me to forgo seat belts and bike helmets and vaccines to help my kids toughen up. Instead, Skenazy comes across as calm, direct and adamant in her ideas.
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When I first began to process what had happened, I worried that, wrong or right, guilty or innocent, what I’d done, what I’d let happen, would seem abhorrent to anyone I told, that it was the moral equivalent of driving drunk, not evil, maybe, but reckless and stupid. Unfortunately, I’d never been much good at keeping secrets, particularly during periods of stress (my husband once asked if I’d ever kept anything from anyone). And so, as the months passed, I told people, and mostly, I was relieved and surprised by how supportive my friends and family were.
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Of all the difficult parts of parenting, the hardest for me (and for many people, I think) is not the fatigue or time drain or chaos of family life, but the inability to ensure that nothing terrible will ever happen to my children. This desire to prevent suffering in one’s kids is stronger than the desire to breathe, stronger than my most basic human instincts. And yet, no matter how strong the desire, none of us can do it. We just can’t.
I never leave my kids in a car now when I run into a store, and so I know nothing bad will ever happen to them in a non-moving vehicle. I suppose every little peace of mind helps. Still, I worry. I worry that when my husband and I decide our kids are old enough to walk alone to school, be that in two years or in five, some good samaritan will disapprove and call the police. I worry what the other parents will think if I hang back on the bench while my kids are playing at the park, reading a book instead of hovering over them. I worry that if I let my son play in the alley with the other kids and don’t follow him down because there are already eight responsible adults standing around, I’ll be thought of as the slacker mom who’s not pulling her own. And so I accompany when I probably don’t need to. I supervise and hover and interfere. And at least half of the other parents are probably doing it for exactly the same reason. This is America and parenting is now a competitive sport, just like everything else.