Back in the day, dad would throw the kids in the car, fire up the motor, and head down the road without a thought of seat belts or side-impact safety systems. When summer vacation arrived, sweet old mom was more likely than not to kick your bored butt out the door after breakfast, leaving her dear urchins to their own devices until the next meal.
Unbelted, we slid on slippery car seats as dad veered around curves. Unwatched, we wandered in lonely woods, climbed trees, splashed across slippery rocks in chilly creeks. Yet somehow we survived.
Parents aren’t so insouciant anymore. Modern sensibilities compel today’s moms and dads to keep a laser focus on a chaotic world’s countless perceived perils, from playground lurkers to 2-percent milk to the fabric content of their baby’s blanket.
This precautionary preoccupation does seem to be more of a mother’s thing. Is that because dads don’t care so much? Is it because moms are innately more responsible, more attuned, more protective? Or are America’s 21st century moms overreacting, and if so, why?
It’s an important question. There’s more at stake here than bumped heads and scraped shins. Parenting decisions have become a deep source of personal stress and a routine catalyst of marital tension. So sometimes we wonder, could an overprotective approach to child-rearing be driving our kids to also become too worried about life, and ultimately too timid to meet the inevitable grown-up challenges?
It could be argued that women’s protective urges are partly the nature of the beast. Humans’ once-accepted primal instincts—“women nurture, men provide”—still seem to nudge at us from beneath, despite egalitarian strides. It could also be argued that women, being more socially engaged, are also more prone to having small worries whipped into bigger ones by fellow mommies and friends, by magazines and morning talk shows.
But is the danger to their children really so high that they need to hold them so tight? Clearly, it’s an issue more complicated than some empirical risk analysis could resolve.
In a purely objective sense, divorced (to what extent that is possible) from our emotions, the evidence that it is a much safer world seems as plentiful, if not more so, as the evidence it is a more perilous one. We have safety-rated car seats, high-impact bicycle helmets, child-proofed toys and aspirin bottles so nefariously constructed that an adult struggles to end one headache before the next one kicks in.
It’s also an issue subtly complicated by a paradoxical reality of life: Sometimes a little danger can be beneficial. Early exposure to common germs can increase immunity. A dicey climb up that high tree or a punch to that bully’s nose can toughen our core, prepare us for life’s later challenges and disappointments, encourage us to accept the occasional risk-taking that’s crucial for adult success.
But how to parcel out that risk-taking for our precious kids? When should we encourage them to dare, and when should we make them take only the safest steps? It’s a timeless dilemma of existence, one we tangle with every day in our adult lives, as we try to achieve success in our jobs and our ambitions and our dreams.
The talking heads on our ever-shrinking electronic screens occasionally help us with those questions, but more often muddy the issue. Just as the media give us snippets of how we may be overreacting to life’s danger-quotient, they work double-time to drive home the message that danger lurks (for ultimately, danger equals ratings, and ratings equal profit).
Yet it’s also true that when the media warn of the dangers, their exaggerations are often mitigated by glimmers of truth. In many sobering ways, it is a more dangerous world. Predators burrow into our profiles, our pictures, our data. With minimal effort, they know our location and learn about our vacations. Cars crash, shooting sprees recur, and in the age of immediate information dissemination, it all piles on our consciousness—men and women alike.
Maybe the issue is not whether it’s a safer or less safe world, or whether mommies are too strict or too smothering. Maybe we need to ask a bigger question: Whether we are becoming a less content society, a more stressed society, and clearly a society that is more prone to believing (and reacting to) every Facebook-fueled dribble of alarm.
I wonder sometimes where that process is leading us, and whether our unrelenting worries are feeding a darker sense of growing unhappiness, a feeling that we no longer have control of or even understand our world.
So maybe moms are crazy these days, but in a broader sense, maybe we are all a little crazier. Maybe that’s what should have us worried.