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.
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
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.
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
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
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.