Almost Fearless

Why it Must Suck to be a Parent in the US

"Be careful, you could die!"
“Be careful, you could die!”

What’s up with the parent-shaming in the US?

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I stayed with my friend for a week in Houston and she’s doing a fantastic job raising her son and daughter in a blended family with her new husband. I suspect she’s a little ambivalent about her new life in the ‘burbs in so much as she’s traveled the world, lived a dozen crazy lives before the one she’s living now, and is not only super intelligent but I’d say, a little rebellious too. It’s conflicting right? I think all parents wrestle with this kind of thing, and for this post, I am not talking about you.

In fact, I’m not talking about anyone who makes different parenting choices than me. It’s this specific group of people who not only feel like there’s a certain way to be a parent, but have also assigned themselves deputy-know-it-alls when it comes to other people’s kids.

So we’re traveling across the US after living in Mexico for nearly a year and half, on our way to Europe. We’re fairly isolated in Houston, staying in the plush comfort of my friend’s home, but when we drive to New Orleans it starts.

Suddenly I am a bad parent.

That’s the feeling I get, and I have this urge, something I only vaguely remember from being home years ago, of wanting to put on the “I’m a good parent show”.

“Cole! Don’t touch that!” I say, trying to sound very authoritative. Cole shoots me a look like, huh, I do this all the time, what’s your deal, woman? 

I try to smile and send him secret messages like, “Just go with it, kid, your mom is getting the stink eye from the security lady.”

I admit, I am a permissive parent. My basic rules are this: it has to be safe and it can’t infringe on other people.

My idea of safety is probably different from yours. I also embrace “conditional rules” which means in certain situations life gets more strict if the environment we’re in requires it… for example to be polite to our guests, our hosts or to blend in at a museum.

In short, my children are feral beasties but if required they can sit nicely and say “Please and Thank You” (or at least I try to get them to do that).

But I’m an American, so I have strong opinions about the idea that I have the RED WHITE AND BLUE, PATRIOTIC RIGHT to raise my children however I see fit, whether that’s homeschooling them and teaching them to speak in Klingon or letting them climb trees and juggle knives. Back off.

So during this short US trip, I started to get really annoyed. Here are three stories on why I seriously question what is going on in my home country.

1. My Kids Almost Died

I drop my bags in the hotel room, get the kids sorted with some cartoons and I take off my pants.

Ahhhhhhh.

Am I the only one that does this? Get into the hotel room, and BAM off comes the pants.

Anyway, gloriously pants-free I curl up in bed with a book and Drew heads out to find some food. I’m exhausted. I am not watching my kids so much as vaguely listening for sounds of death or mayhem when I hear the door open.

WHAT?

I jump up and the hotel room door is open and my kids are gone. Okay crap.

Someone comes over to my door and is like – imagine a thick Louisiana drawl – “Your babies are running free!”

OMFG-Where-Are-My-Pants?

Okay so no pants on, like four people standing outside my door, all looking in, because they are staying in the room across the hall and I jump up, half-naked:

“I’m coming! I just have to find my pants!”

They don’t care—there’s clearly panic in their voices:

“Your babies!!!”

ACK! PANTSPANTSPANTS wherearetheywherearetheywherearethey?

They are knocking on my door frame, yelling to me, it’s like my kids are on fire, but instead of being on fire, they are just in the hallway of a motel without their mother and I haven’t made the panicked decision to run half naked out of the room to rescue them from the dangers of bad carpeting.

Pants. I pull them on. I run out.

My children… are… fine.

They are standing in the middle of a hallway with a half unraveled roll of toilet paper between them unable to go anywhere because of the fire doors blocking their exit and the fact that they had only a 30 second lead on their mother.

“Thank you!” I yell back to the little crowd.

This is the point where I start to get annoyed. Okay maybe they thought I was drunk or high or just plain stupid, but now I’ve got my kids, I’ve smiled, we’re walking down the hallway and they just stand there. Staring at me.

No response, no smiles, no movement. OH REALLY. Y’all gonna wait here and shame-watch me shuffle back into my room? You do realize that my children did not actually wander into traffic but simply my four-year-old discovered for the first time that he could escape the hotel room by tugging on the door handle?

“Thanks, Thanks, I just didn’t have my pants on, they are okay, okay well thanks!”

Nothing. Just them staring me down and as I walked into the room, they turned and watched me close the door.

If this is at all what it’s like to raise children in the US… then it must be exhausting.

2. There shall be no fun.

We sat down for bowls of gumbo in a little outdoor cafe that was next to a park. We weren’t on the street, so Cole was wandering (I hate the phrase “running around” which is probably what you’d call any movement a child does, but it implies misbehaving). He made a loop over to the steps, then walked down, hid behind a bush, popped out to surprise us and then would make his way over to our table. He was fine.

This woman walked over to him and yelled “boo!” into his ear.

He burst into tears. She scared the crap out of him. We ran over scooped him up and she came by to apologize, saying that when her son was little and won’t stay near her one time she did the same thing to him and he, “never left her side again.”

Oh fantastic. One time you scared the crap out of your child so badly he was literally afraid for the rest of his childhood to leave your side, and given that an obedient child (read: easy for the parents) trumps any other characteristics you might want to encourage, like for example, not being scared of the world, you decided that it was your job to pass this wisdom on to my child without running it pass his parents first?

She offered Cole $3 to buy a toy. He didn’t want to take it, but you know what? I took that money and shoved it in my son’s pocket.

3. Don’t touch anything. Actually just don’t be here. Or exist. Anywhere.

A police officer came up to us in the park and told my son not to touch the iron fence that goes around the entire park. “You never know with people around here” she said cryptically and headed off. Later, my kids were inside the hotel parking lot, waiting for us to get checked in, and they were told not to stand there, unlike the adults who had been for the last five minutes because “sometimes cars drive in here”. Yes, and if a car comes, as the mother standing literally touching my child’s hair, I would pick her up rather than stand there and get mowed down. Thanks.

I know my impression is exaggerated by the fact that I lived so long away from this atmosphere, but between the parent-shaming, the absence of children, the heightened fear and constant monitoring by, well, everyone, I don’t know how people do it. Let your kids skip a bath, climb a tree, touch something dirty, wander into the hotel hallway, stand on the sidewalk, be around adults, explore and just BE in the world. Or in other words: RELAX.

I did love New Orleans though, I am even coming back this fall. I’m just not sure I could handle raising kids here.

Christine Gilbert

I’ve been dragging my husband around the world since 2008 always with the promise that, “Yes, Drew there will definitely be hammocks there.”

THERE ARE RARELY HAMMOCKS.

http://christinegilbert.com

37 comments

  • I even battle my husband on this. He sometimes berates our girls for perfectly normal kid behavior like, say, using one’s ‘outside voice’ outside or walking on top of a log in the woods when we’re camping. His father was very stern and, I suspect, somewhat risk averse.

  • Gosh it really is a bit out of control, this parent shaming. Kids need to run free, explore and not get “boo’ed” at by strangers! Good to see your perspective from outside the US!

  • I’m raising my kids in America with the same perspective you have and it’s proven to be… difficult. You know what annoys me the most? Germaphobes, or however the hell it’s spelled. Every time a kid touches something, he’s gotta wash his hands. I imagine that’s what the police officer was implying when she told your son not to touch the fence. I dunno but I survived this long without antibacterial hand sanitizer all over the place. I think my kids will be fine.

    • Yeah the germ thing kills me… I mean okay, go ahead and do it to your kids, everyone has the right to be whatever kind of parent they want, but leave my kids alone! It’s not like kids are dying all over the place from touching handrails.

      • First, I adore this post. Second, you have just convinced me to try and find a way to move OCONUS before my kids are grown. And, third, germaphobes —- HATE them! I did a children’s health journalism fellowship when I was pregnant with my oldest child and the former head of the CDC was a speaker one day. Noticing my big pregnant belly (no worries, I get the kind of pregnant where there’s absolutely no doubt that I’m pregnant & I’m not shy) he had me stand up in front of the group and then told me that the best thing I could ever do for my baby would be to let him eat dirty stuff, lick the ground, crawl through dog hair — all the icky stuff. And then he launched into a whole lecture about how hand sanitizer is making kids sick because they aren’t developing normal immunities. BEST. PARENTING. ADVICE. EVER. I have passed it on to as many expecting parents as I can.

        • This is all true and I let my kids get dirty (and the house too, if I’m honest). On the other hand, I suspect it will be less true in a few years time when antibiotics no longer work (thanks largely to industrial farming) and simple infections can kill us.

        • That’s awesome, thanks for sharing that! That’s sort of how we looked at it… “he’s building immunities!”

  • I wonder if it was the “no pants” thing that got imaginations working overtime rather than your kids being in the hallway? 😉

    • Well thank god I’m not male, someone would have called the cops on me. We just heard of a daddy blogger we know getting separated from his son for: being male, having a beard and taking him to the swimming pool. Thankfully someone else recognized him and they LET HIM HAVE HIS SON BACK. The world is crazy.

  • I’m in Canada, not the US, so it’s not exactly the same–but not totally different either. But I live in a neighborhood with a lot of immigrants from everywhere, and I think day to day I get more shaming from people NOT native to (North) American parenting culture. Like the (I think) West Indian lady who yelled at me in the grocery store when she found out I wasn’t pinching my baby’s nose every day and pulling her arms and legs to make them grow straight, “Mama, you got to take care of your baby!”. Or the many, many people who seem to think that a two-year old dressed in anything less than a snowsuit when it’s 60 degrees outside is going to freeze to death.

    Boo-Lady is going to hell, no question. That’s not normal anywhere.

    • Ha! That’s funny, there’s a lot of parenting myths around the world… like the overdressing, that is so common, in Mexico when my daughter was born they dressed her in three days worth of clothes — everything I had brought — and this was in 80 degree weather. They were like, “Wait, these are all clothes?”

  • Oh, this post reminded me of a short documentary I saw recently called “School’s Out.” It’s about a kindergarten in Switzerland that takes place completely outdoors, regardless of the weather. They have a small lean-to with a fire in the winter, but they mostly play and learn outside. There’s an adult out there with them, but the kids aren’t within the adult’s sight all the time. It talked a lot about how the autonomy of the children led to more creativity and greater development of social skills. I wish more U.S. schools would incorporate this kind of thinking. I think you’d love the documentary if you haven’t seen it already. Short Vimeo preview is here:

  • Maybe it’s cause I’m a first-time parent to a toddler or maybe it’s because I’ve never lived outside the US but I’m one of those parents who does constantly watch my kid. Playgrounds and open spaces are one thing but I would have been that super cautious parent in the hotel parking lot because 1) my child doesn’t listen (she’s only 16 months) and 2) I just cannot trust other people to watch where they are going. Though I do imagine relaxing a bit when she’s older and being that parent that lets her explore and get dirty.

    • The key point here though is not to say you should personally parent differently — I know my parenting has changed as my child got older, as we had a second one and so on — and I totally support whatever lines you choose for your kids. I think the part that rubs me the wrong way is that people have begun to see the world as SO DANGEROUS that they have a moral right or even obligation to step-in. The bar for “neglict” has been moved so low that it’s practically meaningless… if letting my kid touch a dirty fence requires a police officer to say something, then it’s gotten out of control. You should definitely feel good about the way you’re raising your child and go with your gut. No judgements on my part!

  • I agree, most of Western Culture is completely bubble-wrapping children now. It seems their idea of parenting is to have the kid locked inside in front of a TV or iPad all day.

  • Amen, sister! And we wonder why these kids don’t want to go outside. They’re not allowed to do anything fun! Keep doing what you are doing. Kids NEED to be kids!

  • I love this article and I know exactly what you mean, even though we are Australian (but we did recently spend a month in the US). I had to smile at the ridiculousness of your walk of shame.

    I am sure people here in Australia would behave in the same way if they had American confidence – by confidence I mean that it seems normal to just talk to strangers regularly in the US which is not something nearly as common here. Instead, people don’t tend to openly comment, but they constantly shoot the you-are-the-worst-parent-in-the-world stares. It drives me crazy, and it is impossible to win. If your kid makes any inappropriate sound or movement it happens. Yet if you yell at your kids (or even worse, actually hit them), you will be condemned as well. I have much preferred travelling in South East Asia and the Dominican Republic in recent times where people just embrace our kids rather than treat them as misbehaving nuisances.

  • I have to somewhat agree with you because when I raised my son’s they were always getting dirty, eating dirt, playing outside, going for walks in the neighborhood, etc but times have changed here in the states. It is no longer safe to let a child be totally “free” because of the crazies out there. Children are kidnapped out of their front yard or walking to school. Recently someone taped razor blades to monkey bars at a park and kids hands were ripped up. Also a man in another state masterbated all over the playground equipment and fences and the kids were getting sick when they put thier hands in thier mouths. At a local water play area here in Utah a woman brought her child to play in the water and the child had hoof and mouth disease so all the other kids that were playing in the same area got hoof and mouth. As a driver I am concerned when I see children in a parking area not holding a parents hand because kids can dart out so quickly and be hit by a car. As far as “escaping” the hotel room, I personally would have been glad others were watching out for my children as well. Yeah, they did it the wrong way with the stares and such but just think how you would feel if you were asleep, the other guests did not know you were awake, and the children took off and you never saw them again. And yes, in the US and many other countries I have been to it is odd when a parent is literally half naked in front of thier children in a hotel room but it is no ones business except yours. It breaks my heart to see childrens freedoms gone now but sometimes it is for the safety of the child now a days. 🙁

      • Maybe the facts I stated or my opinion is “wrong” to you but it is not to me. I live in the US and have raised 3 children and currently work for a missing childrens agency and I do see and hear what happens every single day. I am in no way saying you are a bad parent at all becasue we all parent differently. I could only wish it was still safe in the US to raise our children with as much freedom as we were able to in the past.

  • Such a great post. I just read ‘The Four Agreements’ which is a modern take on ancient Toltec wisdom. In the intro, the author writes about the ‘domestication of humans,’ and these behaviours by people toward your kids remind me of this. The fear, the control, the imposing of one’s own learned behaviours on others – oy vey!! I think WE are the ones who could learn a thing or two (or ten) from kids, as well as from other cultures who have a slightly more ‘free range’ approach to child raising.
    I admire you for doing what you think is best for your kids and think it is such a shame that there is so much pressure on parents to ‘control’ their kids when it is actually our responsibility to love and care for all children, not judge them by our own learned agreements of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ thereby passing on the lies which were taught to us by a problematic society.

  • This is why I like getting out of the country for an extended period of time. Different perspectives help you realize what you do or don’t want in life.

  • I’ve never raised kids in the States. We’re Americans who’ve been living in Europe. Here in Italy, little old men see a child running from her mom, they step in front of the kid, make eye contact with me and laugh! Kids run freely with the cook’s kid in the restaurant. They are part of public life, and thus, learn how to *be* part of public life. Sure, they get a little disapproving about kids touching priceless artifacts, but they understand the nature of children, and give parents the room to be parents!! I am frankly, terrified to be moving back.

    • It’s similar in Mexico too– if they are worried about the kid, they step in and turn the child around or stop them them from running, but in a nice way.

      • We have just come back from a trip to Bali and It was so nice to see people in the street interacting with children they do not yet know. Not to mention feeling no judgement for taking him to do everything we did with no judgemental looks.
        Although my son is only a baby it felt like people were looking out for him and for us, waiter’s would hold him (and take him to meet the other staff) while we ate or sat and watched. Such a nice change feeling like we were more welcome because we had a baby and that we were not a hassle (we live in Sydney, Australia and this is often the case here).
        I think that because in so many places around the world people exist independently (or so they feel), the over protectiveness they often show to their children mean ‘strangers’ are afraid to interact in a playful, protective or fun way with kids and that instead they make assumptions or remarks from afar that come across and misplaced judgement.

  • Is it just me, or is Western culture extremely kid-averse these days? It just feels like kids are constantly seen/portrayed as PITAs and that to even have a child in a public place, you’re ‘imposing’ them on other people.
    Example from almost 10 years ago. I worked as a restaurant hostess for a family friendly place, though not kid-oriented. It was the weekend, so it was busy. An older woman requested a table and I let her know that we had a wait but she was welcome to take a seat in the bar, which she refused. When I showed her to her table later she sniffed, looked around, and said “don’t you have someplace without children??”. I looked her in the eye and said “You’re welcome to sit in the bar”. She gave me such a nasty look.

    I notice this attitude and I don’t even have kids.

  • I am not a parent…but I am friend of friend’s with parents. I am CONSTANTLY telling my friends to RELAX…LET THE KID BE A KID. Keep an eye on them…but don’t make them afraid of everything. Let their curiosity run wild…run with them. They remind that I don’t have children…to that I say, ” I remember being one.”
    I had a mother that tried to make me fear everything and it worked for 30 years. I have spent my last 10 years bucking it.
    Good for you!

  • The parent police drive me nuts! I can’t let my kid be kid. I live in the Houston burbs and it’s just as bad as your stories from NOLA. My kids don’t care about any of it and I try to let them learn individuality and freedom, but there is always someone to tell you you’re not doing enough. Your kids are too loud or too crazy, or that you should discipline more or taking it upon themselves to do the disciplining. I would love to spend the rest of their young years in a different sort of environment, but I haven’t found the courage or cash.

    You’re an amazing parent and your children are lucky to have you.

  • I don’t have kids yet, but frankly, this is what terrifies me about having kids in North America…the constant judgement, shaming, and comparisons from other parents, the media, etc etc. It seems like anybody who doesn’t helicopter over their children 24/7 and wrap their kids in bubblewrap are horrible parents and irresponsible human beings.

    My parents always let me try things out for myself and explore as a child, and it’s definitely served me well. I thank them for letting me BE, because I’m sure it’s what has helped me become the independent, self-sufficient, and curious person I am today.

    It sounds like you’re doing an amazing job – the opportunities you are giving your children will benefit them for the rest of their lives. The best attitude is probably, haters gonna hate 🙂

  • Your spot on with this post! Especially the germ thing, heck I even think the more germs you come into contact when young, the better! You gotta build up a strong immune system and it’s not going to happen if you live in a bubble!

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