On Saturday, a 4-year-old boy climbed into the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo. In an effort to save the boy, zoo officials shot the gorilla. The gorilla was named Harambe, and in the wake of his death, currently more than 371,000 people have signed a Change.org petition to have the parents of the boy investigated by child protection services for neglect.
The response online has been even more vicious with people accusing the parents of murder and claiming that the gorilla would have been a better parent. The attacks on the parents are brutal and relentless and often racially charged. According to People magazine, a woman who identified herself as the mother of the child posted on Facebook defending herself, writing, "God protected my child until the authorities were able to get to him. My son is safe and was able to walk away with a concussion and a few scrapes ... no broken bones or internal injuries."
We are all one eye blink from our own kids in a gorilla pit.
The post was later deleted and authorities have not confirmed the identity of the mother. In the few days since the tragedy, many people have written to defend the mother or criticize her. Or to defend the gorilla's gentle nature, or criticize him. Yet, every article misses the larger point of how our society treats parents. Internet-generated flash mobs that come down on parents for freak accidents or catastrophes treat children as little more than an inconvenience that ought to be controlled better or an extension of their parents (read: the mother). They are nothing more than our own attempt to separate ourselves from the realities of the tragedy. We seek for meaning and lessons where there are none, clinging to them like talismans instead of realizing that we are all one eye blink from our own kids in a gorilla pit.
American parenting is tragedy-based and reactionary. We teach children about stranger danger and make them afraid of kidnappings, but do little to talk to them about the even more real threat of being raped or molested by someone they know. Last fall, my children spent a whole week at school on safety, talking about tornadoes, kidnappings and how to call the police. Never once did those discussions address the fact that it's the authority figures they are supposed to go to for help who are most likely to hurt them.
When parents take their baby home from the hospital, nurses put together packets of folders and pamphlets about SIDs. Yet, SIDs accounts for around 3,500 infant deaths in any given year, of which 31 percent does not have a known cause. It's easy to believe that the parents who are struck by such such senseless tragedy were somehow at fault. Maybe they used baby bumpers, maybe they didn't use the right swaddle. I was recently a participant in a Facebook discussion about the proper safety gear to use when taking a baby swimming. I suggested a cheap novelty floatie that has worked well for my kids and I was immediately inundated with comments like, "I would never trust the safety of my child to a novelty item."
There is a whole industry of baby gadgets that prey on our fears—video monitors, tracking devices, storage gates and locks. We cling to these purchases like talismans. If we have enough, we will be safe and our children will be safe. Enough baby gates and we will be exempt from tragedy. We parse through the actions of the parents behind every tragedy, pointing to what they could have done differently and hoping to point out how we would be different.
And it's the same with this Internet mob that is glomming onto this tragedy to find a villain. Mothers always make the perfect villains after all. It's easier to blame a parent than to come to some sort of understanding of the brinkmanship of childhood.
Childhood is dangerous. It is only fairly recent that a plurality of children even survive childhood. Graveyards of early American settlers mark the resting place of infants, not even given a name because why name them when the chances of survival were so low? Some early graveyards don't even mark infant graves, not for lack of mourning, but for the sheer overwhelming numbers of them.
Even the kids of the best parents make dumb-ass decisions.
It's easier instead to paint childhood in nostalgic colors as all beauty and light, any danger therefore, must be artificially introduced by neglectful adults. But even with modern medicine, it's a miracle that children survive the tumbles and falls that they inflict on themselves even under the careful eyes of their parents.
When I was 8, I once snuck outside and climbed onto the roof of the house. I fell off into a bunch of holly bushes. I was fine and managed to sneak back inside with only a few cuts as evidence of my escapade. My mom thought I was in my room the whole time resting. That's not even my best story. I have a friend whose child is regularly leashed to his mother, and he escaped the leash one day at the mall and was found after a frantic one-hour search hiding in a rack of clothes.
I have hundreds of these stories just from my own life as a very protected child and as the mother of two, not very rambunctious children. I imagine there will be more to come. I don't mean to be fatalistic. We shouldn't just accept the inevitability of death and ban car seats. There are reasonable protections to make. But many parents make them and still face tragedy. Many parents don't do anything to watch their kids and still never see their kid in the bottom of a gorilla pit. The value of child's life is not equatable to attention a parent provides or fails to provide.
And the actions of my children don't draw a direct line of responsibility from me to them. Even the kids of the best parents make dumb-ass decisions. The lesson isn't that parents need to be more careful, nor is the lesson that we should stop judging parents, although, I wish we would. Sometimes the lesson of tragedy is that there is no lesson at all. To be a parent is to engage in a daily dance with mortality. Holding my firstborn in those first few weeks after her birth, I'd often imagine tripping, falling and killing her. And then one day I did and she didn't die.
I still see my children's deaths everyday as I teach them to ride bikes, make sandwiches and walk the few yards to their friends house to play. It's awful and I will do my best to avoid it, but the scariest things about these stories isn't the death; it's how they can happen to any of us. And when they come, may we all be fortunate enough not to have it captured on camera.