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My Kids Are Your Problem

Last winter, at an indoor play place in the mall, two mothers positioned themselves by the entrance. They smiled as they scooted over to let me and my kids in. "We're the self-appointed bouncers," one mom joked. "Our kids run away so much, we aren't letting anyone out."

I thanked them and I meant it. My baby is also a runner and I am all too familiar with the throat-grip of panic when I am unable to locate him at a park or a mall. Their vigilance let me help my older child on the play structure, without having to constantly monitor the baby. And he did try to escape, over and over. Each time, he was caught by one of those vigilant moms, lightly reprimanded, "No, buddy, stay with your mommy." And returned to me.

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Contrast this to a few weeks ago, when at the children's museum, I turned away for one minute to answer a question from my friend. And when I turned back, I saw a mom holding the gate of the play area open for her child, casually watching as my kid escaped. "Hey," I yelled, "stop that baby!"

The mom looked at me blankly, then walked away with her son. I had to rush out and grab my baby from the teeming crowd of children in the hall. I hate it when the village goes on vacation.

At the park, I've thanked mothers who have reminded my baby not to throw sand and who have told my daughter not to climb the slide while another kid is sliding down. In turn, I've also found myself guiding small kids out of the way of swings and reminding kids not to throw sand, wood chips or sticks.

I realize, ultimately, I am the one responsible for my children's behavior. But as the mother of two kids—a 4-year-old exploring her independence and another a 20-month-old who likes to "Wun! Wun! Wun!"—I appreciate any help from the collective community I can get. In return, I try to help other mothers whenever I can.

But this community approach to parenting, especially in the United States, is rare. I frequently find myself chasing my child in the library as other people just watch from the sidelines. A friend recently shared how her 7-year-old tripped on the sidewalk while walking to the bus stop. My friend, who was watching from her yard, rushed to her child while other parents stood and stared at the little girl weeping with bloody knees.

It took a move to another country to make me realize how thoroughly I had accepted my nation's creed of every family for itself.

In the essay "Somebody's Baby," Barbara Kingsolver recalls taking her 4-year-old daughter to Spain. There, waiters entertained her child while they waited for food and other parents helped her at the park. Kingsolver writes, "In the U.S.A., where it's said that anyone can grow up to be president, we parents are left pretty much on our own when it comes to the presidents in training. Our social programs for children are hands-down the worst in the industrialized world, but apparently that is just what we want as a nation. It took a move to another country to make me realize how thoroughly I had accepted my nation's creed of every family for itself."

Recently on the STFU Parents Facebook page, a raging debate ensued over whether parents should take their kids to visit Auschwitz. Some commenters insisted that parents keep their kids home or with a sitter. Others argued that kids shouldn't be allowed to "violate" the sacred nature of the place. Parents were deemed selfish for wanting to bring their children with them. As someone who has been told, "Can you make that kid be quiet?" while I was comforting a child who had clearly been injured, I wasn't too surprised that the prevailing attitude is that a child who makes noise ought to be locked away with a sitter. And yet, those same critics also hail children of other countries as exemplary. Of course, those other countries don't treat kids as skeletons that ought to be kept in the closet.

American parents are supposed to raise kind, generous, thoughtful members of the community. Yet, we are supposed to do this in a community that routinely shuns and reviles these children. Why are American children so selfish? Gee, I wonder.

There are numerous examples of animal species working together to ensure the care and safety of children. Female meerkats who do not have children often wet nurse the children of other females. Childless magpies bring back food for the hungry children of others. It reminds me of my friend who has older children and often asks me if she can pick up milk for me on her way home from work. Or the older woman who babysat my daughter for free on several occasions just so I could get my hair cut.

Nine percent of the 10,000 species of birds and approximately 3 percent of mammals practice a community model of parenting called alloparenting. While it seems antithetical to an evolutionary model to care for someone else's young, scientist argue that in animals where the young remain helpless for a long time, alloparenting ensures the survival of the species.

A feature in Natural History Magazine on alloparenting notes, "Mothers able to confidently entrust helpless offspring to groupmates' care conserve energy, stay better nourished and remain safer from predators and other hazards, leading longer lives with greater reproductive success. Because mammal mothers that have aid also wean babies sooner, many reproduce again sooner, and so give birth to a greater number of young over their lifetimes." In sum, collective help ensures collective survival.

If you insist that my kids are my problem and my problem only, then years from now, you better not be asking them to care for you or advocate for you as you age and your needs increase.

It's easy enough to insist that parents take responsibility for their own children. After all, they are the ones who made the decision to have them. But such logic is short-sighted and ignores the fact that these children, who you are stepping over on the sidewalk, are the future tax base. My kids are not just my safety net, but they are yours as well. It's easy to cling to the myth of overpopulation. However, the U.S. is currently in a crisis moment—declining fertility rates and increasing life expectancy mean that you might not have a social security net when you retire. This crisis doesn't just affect social security but also health care and agriculture. If you insist that my kids are my problem and my problem only, then years from now, you better not be asking them to care for you or advocate for you as you age and your needs increase.

The onus for creating a world of generous, kind and thoughtful people doesn't just fall on the shoulders of parents. It's the responsibility of everyone who wants to live in a world of kind, generous and thoughtful people.

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In his State of the Union address, President Obama called the problem of child care not just a women's issue but a national priority. I believe this on a policy level and a personal level. It's the reason I'll pick your kid up if I see him fall. It's the reason I don't mind if you scold my child for throwing sand. It's because, I believe, parent or child-free, we are all in the business of making this place exactly how we need it to be.

And while I am doing my best to teach my children to respect those around them, I know that the best lessons are taught through example. That is why, the next time we go to the mall, I'll be the one at the entrance, making sure your baby doesn't run away.

Image via Twenty20/aavecma

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