In the age of social media, when parenting has become a kind of performance art, it seems we’re often made to feel inadequate over all the things we don’t do.
I don’t feed my kids all organic food. I don’t cut the vegetables in their lunchboxes into magazine-worthy shapes. I don’t craft adorable homemade Valentines. I don’t prohibit SpongeBob.
But in the end, we’re probably obsessing over minutiae. That’s why there’s some- thing perversely reassuring about seeing a parent who really messes up—well, at least as long as no one is seriously hurt, that is. It’s a special brand of schadenfreude: I may be doing things wrong, but at least I’m not as bad as that mom…
That schadenfreude revved up for me this past winter when a couple was arrested for leaving their two toddlers unattended in a parked car in northwest D.C. for an hour while they went to a wine tasting at a restaurant around the corner.
The story read like a parody of clueless, entitled parents, with the father explaining to police that he was using an iPhone— an iPhone!—to monitor the kids, aged 22 months and 2 1/2. Perhaps the parents might have elicited more sympathy if they’d left the kids while, say, delivering meals to the homeless or checking on an elderly shut-in. But wine tasting? Seriously? The pair was charged with two counts of attempted second-degree cruelty to children.
No matter where you sit on the parenting spectrum, from the hovering meddlers known as helicopter parents to the hands-off “free rangers” who believe children need to exercise more independence, I think we can all safely agree that using a smartphone to babysit two toddlers in an unheated car so you can attend a wine tasting is just…not OK.
It was harder to find consensus about the case of the Meitiv family of Silver Spring, however. Last December, someone spotted their children, 10 and 6, walking alone along a busy thoroughfare and called police. Alexander Meitiv acknowledged he’d let the children walk home alone from a park about a mile away, prompting a Montgomery County Child Protective Services investigation. In March, the Meitiv parents were charged with unsubstantiated child neglect. The case has generated heated national headlines, with many saying the family was unnecessarily reprimanded.
“How have we gotten so crazy that what was just a normal childhood a generation ago is considered radical?” Danielle Meitiv asked in The Washington Post.
My own brush with this issue came last year, when I headed up to my childhood home on Long Island with my boys’ bikes in tow. Living as we do in Baltimore City, where large swaths of flat, untrafficked road are at a premium, I thought the boys could take advantage of riding up and down the sleepy suburban street where I had learned to ride almost 40 years ago.
The bikes turned out to have been an inspired idea. My younger son crossed that all-important threshold from tentative rider to fully confident one. And the sight of my two boys pedaling down my childhood street was pure magic. But then my 9-year-old son wanted to start riding his bike around the block by himself, something I am absolutely certain I did countless times the summer I was 9. The streets of Old Bethpage were certainly no more dangerous last year than they had been in 1975, which is to say not at all.
But I was suddenly frozen with uncertainty. Did people…still do that? Was I supposed to follow him in the car? Would the neighbors look askance at me, that woman who swooped in from Maryland and let her kids ride their bikes unsupervised?
I could argue that we keep a closer eye on our kids at home in Baltimore for all the obvious reasons: we live in a major metropolitan area with its share of urban troubles. But here we were, in one of the safest places in America, and I was still torn.
What really bothered me, though, was that I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that the only thing that had objectively changed was not the real risk of letting my son ride around the block, but rather parental attitudes toward that risk. I wasn’t actually worried that something untoward could happen to Ethan; I was mostly worried what people might think of me.
I was reminded of a moment a few months earlier when we were on vacation in Puerto Rico. While in the hotel lobby, we realized we’d forgotten something in our room. Ethan asked if he could go back by himself to retrieve it, a trip that involved riding an elevator and then a cable car down to a different part of the resort. My natural instinct was to say no, but I acquiesced. I held my breath, a nervous wreck until I saw him bounding back through the lobby, beaming with pride at his independence. I realized that I needed to sacrifice those five or 10 minutes of feeling uneasy, because what it brought Ethan was far more valuable than what it had cost me.
The early years of parenting are all about literally holding your children tight: nursing, swaddling, harnessing in car seats. As they grow, parenting becomes about a graceful letting go, about finding that elusive sweet spot between being reckless and being over-cautious, between satisfying your own need for control and meeting your children’s need to explore the world on their own. I’m sure I’ll make mistakes along the way. I just hope you don’t end up reading about them in the pages of a national newspaper, tut-tutting while you say, “Well, at least I’m not as bad as that mom.”
Jennifer Mendelsohn lives with her husband and their two boys in Mount Washington. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, People, Slate and USA Weekend.