Week 32: Stop creating bogeypeople

Beautiful capture of emerging science or grisly pace of progress? |  Science Museum, London

Beautiful capture of emerging science or grisly pace of progress? | Science Museum, London

Back in Week 26, we talked about how good researchers identify their givens, those deeply-held but rarely questioned beliefs. When these beliefs are individual, like the right method for burping a baby, they can be relatively easy to change (even then, a lot of us are still unnecessarily pounding away at our babies). But when our givens are shared by many others, they’re nearly impossible to see, let alone change.

One of the unspoken givens of many American parents today is that parenting is a choice. There’s nothing wrong with viewing parenting as a choice, of course. The whole parenting blog industry is built around the concept of parenting as something you choose to do and hope to do well.

But as New Yorker cartoonist Emily Flake writes at the start of Mama Tried, that very notion of choice--choosing when and with whom to have a child, choosing the best baby items for a registry, choosing a medical practitioner who aligns with your preferred birth practices--is both historically new and narrowly offered to those with money. For those who can afford to make these choices, Flake writes, “childbearing becomes another step in a curated life that you've let yourself think is important.”

Perhaps because we view parenthood as a choice, we tend to make enemies of those we assume to disagree with our choice.

There’s the amorphous “they,” whom we discussed in Week 16. “They” is the convenient foil for everything we’re nervous or intimidated about during pregnancy. To “they” I’ll add three more groups of bogeypeople feared by new parents.

The grandparent

One of our cultural givens is that modern parents are reasonable and careful and older parents are insane.

They let their kids walk to school alone, or at least to the bus stop, unsupervised. They let their kids play outside, unsupervised. They let their kids use the stove, unsupervised. They let their babies sleep in rooms apart from them without monitors, unsupervised.

This perception about the carelessness with which parents used to treat their babies has led to articles labeling them as at best unpracticed and at worst criminally neglectful. The Today Show, for example, flunked grandparents on baby safety before advising parents how to explain and defend new childcare practices.

What’s funny about the old parent is that s/he is frequently held out as an example of the error of anecdotal inference we talked about in Week 29. “I did X and you turned out fine” is not convincing to new parents who think their parents are a danger to their grandchildren. Here it’s probably worth thinking not in terms of anecdotes, but of cohorts. It’s not just that you, the product of your parents, turned out fine. It’s that you and most of your age cohort did as well, even before Back to Sleep, even before Baby-Led Weaning, even before internet-connected baby monitors.

The non-parent

Another of our current cultural givens is that new parents are constantly abused by the culture at large. Many parenting and pregnancy websites feature lists of things never to say to new moms. Don’t comment on the size of the baby or the size of its mother. Don’t advise parents to sleep when the baby sleeps. Don’t passive-aggressively ask about breastfeeding, daycares, future reproductive plans, or why the baby isn’t wearing socks. Under no circumstances should you advise new parents to “Enjoy every moment.”

There’s a whole separate list of things non-parents should never say to parents, with special emphasis on complaining of exhaustion, comparing babies and puppies, and describing what they would never do once they become parents.

It’s not clear how exactly these articles will reach their intended audiences of been-there or haven’t-yet parents, because they tend to appear on websites like Scary Mommy or Romper.

The real audience, of course, is new parents or parents-to-be, because these articles reinforce many of our cultural givens surrounding pregnancy and parenting. We are the winners of the sleep-deprivation contest. We are the most accomplished multi-taskers. We’ve found a higher purpose that gives our lives meaning. Yes, we are plagued by poor family medical leave, a national day care system, and a host of other problems that make it difficult for parents—especially mothers—to succeed in our culture. But parents are also the majority group.

Non-parents aren’t out to get you. Stop worrying about unintended offenses, and don’t be smug.

The stranger

So, barring a case-specific reason not to trust your kids with his or her grandparents, or a non-parent who is actively trying to ruin your life, you can probably stop panicking about these groups of fictionalized villains.

But be ever-alert for strangers, who may abduct your baby.

Well, they’re probably not going to abduct your baby. Every time you read breathless articles about “near” abductions from toy stores or gas stations or UPS parking lots, remind yourself that another way of saying “near adduction” is “not abducted.” Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids and writer at LetGrow suggests that parents should be more afraid of the news reports of these near abductions than of abduction itself. Stranger abductions are incredibly rare. The “Stranger Danger” many of us grew up believing was debunked by Pulitzer Prize winning reporting in the Denver Post in 1985, which found that 95% of  missing children were runaways, not abductees.

Strangers are probably not going to abduct your baby. But they might call the police on you, as Kim Brooks learned when she left her near-tantruming preschooler in the car while she retrieved an item from Target. You can read her full account of the experience in her book Small Animals. One of the most fascinating lessons from that book is this conversation between Brooks and her “outraged father”:

“Last I checked, kidnapping is a crime. Someone could break into my house and shoot me in the head, but the police aren’t showing up to arrest me if I forget to lock my door.”

“I don’t think they see it the same way when kids are involved,” I told him.

“The same way,” he said. “You mean rationally?”

This conversation, which also appears in an excerpt Brooks published in the New York Times, showcases how we are likely to blame parents when their children are the victims—or in Brooks’ case, possible victims—of crimes. No one can be rational about kids. We irrationally assume that our parents’ parenting isn’t good enough for their grandbabies. We assume that irrationally assume that non-parents are unfairly attacking us. We’re irrationally terrified of strangers who don’t exist.

Maybe we can’t help but be terrified. The beautiful wax sculpture at the top of this post is “inexorably linked with death,” because it, or at least artworks that preceded it, had to be cast from a corpse. We know that death is part of the human condition, but we’d rather it come much much later, long after our own deaths. And so we assume that parenting requires constantly averting death, of watching for careless caretakers and strangers in dark vans. Good research skills are a way of turning the lights on, of showing us that the bogeypeople we think we see aren’t there.