In an age where tragic stories are available for commentary essentially the moment they happen, how do we navigate discussing these events in a productive and compassionate way?
In the last couple of months, I’ve seen multiple sharings of an upsetting news story of a young family which lost a two-year-old child during an accident involving an alligator at one of Disney’s beach lagoon hangouts. Discussion around an event like this tends to be civil, at least, because the death of a child is such a sensitive topic which is painful for so many people.
When I first read the article, I was initially pissed that five gators had been euthanized throughout the course of the search for the missing child. While I’m still upset about that, my thinking has shifted to the lack of information and education made available to parents regarding the dangers of not only water itself, but also of playing in water known to house dangerous bacteria and territorial reptiles.
Just as native Floridians might visit up north during winter and have no clue how to safely drive in the snow, people visiting from out-of-state might not understand the inherent dangers associated with bodies of water in a subtropical climate. Where these folks were from (I think it was Nevada?) they can probably safely watch their children play in some shallow water with little worry about an accident. Folks can’t be expected to just automatically shift their thinking depending upon where we are – we’re not automatons!
This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be adaptable or aware of our surroundings – quite the opposite. But we need to realize that no one is perfectly adaptable or immediately aware of everything going on around them, like some kind of cyborg.
But the more I think about accidents like this – children being left in scalding cars for hours, children drowning, children falling into exhibits at the zoo – the more compassion I feel for the parents. As someone who has no children, but has been around them extensively, I know that these little suckers are sneaky and can slip through your fingers like they’ve been dipped in oil.
Even for a seasoned parent, keeping an eye on multiple tiny humans at once is a huge daunting feat, especially if those tiny humans have recently gained use of their unwieldy, chubby legs. They tend to move with the stealth of a tiger and the clumsiness of a slapstick comedian, and if you’ve spent any time at all around young children, you know that both your brain and body get exhausted really, really quickly.
I recently read a great post on Scary Mommy (yes, I’m not a mom and I still read Scary Mommy. Some of the posts are freaking hilarious) about how for even the most responsible parent, exhaustion combined with changes in routine can spell disaster for things like leaving your child in a hot car, or accidents like the one at Disney World. It seems that when humans are accustomed to routine, accidents are less likely to happen than when we have experienced a schedule change, a shift in location, or a profound lack of proper rest.
I think my point is that instead of attacking parents for these genuine accidents, our focus needs to be on preventing further accidents in the future. It does take a village to raise a child, and when everyone offers kind and nonjudgmental advice, working together to solve these problems is infinitely more effective than telling someone they’re a horrible mother (I feel like moms get the brunt of hate when these accidents occur). For example, the aforementioned post lists several really great ideas for making sure your child isn’t left in the car when you are having a hectic day, running on no sleep, etc. These range from setting alarms on your phone to making a plan with day care workers to chattering with your little one on the way to school/work/wherever. Instead of judging and admonishing (something no parent needs!) she actually offers help and advice.
This is what we need, guys. If we really have the best interests of kids and their families at heart (and I think most of us do!) then we’ll move away from the parent shaming.
But here’s my question I: Where is the line between parent shaming and problem solving?
It’s a very thin line, to be sure. Any parent who is sensitive and vulnerable may see even innocent questioning as an attack, and respond with the canonical “Don’t tell me how to raise my child!” I think human beings, including parents, can’t get too arrogant. We can’t assume that we know what we’re doing all of the time, and we need to be able to look at our behavior and choices when prompted by friends who care.
For example, a parent who allows their small child to do something dangerous, like play unattended in the small blow-up pool outside, or play in the literal middle of the street, should be talked to by people who care. Use your judgment. That means if you see something obviously dangerous – or even if you have a gut feeling – happening with a child, you should say something, propriety be damned. And if you’re the parent of the child in a dangerous situation, try to understand that the person is not trying to make you feel bad (usually – we all know those folks are out there), but they are trying to prevent a tragedy. Never be so sure of yourself as a parent, teacher, etc. that you can’t listen to someone’s perspective and actively examine your own behavior as a result. It doesn’t make you spineless; it makes you self-reflective: one of the best things you can be as someone who is molding young lives.
Or really, doing anything. Self-reflection is a virtue.
So the line, really, between parent shaming and problem solving is self-reflection. If you see a problem, don’t be afraid to speak up – but do it in a way that isn’t confrontational, because people tend to get pretty defensive about their parenting choices. Likewise, if you’re the parent, don’t be afraid to examine your choices and parenting style, and the reasoning behind them. These are two sides of a very valuable coin, and both parties need to be self-reflective if we really want to keep kids alive and healthy.
With all of that said and done… I am most definitely not a mom and won’t be for quite a long time (I want to get a PhD and all that first!), so I’m not speaking from the perspective of a parent. However, I do love kids of all ages and admire all of the parents I know who are doing a wonderful job raising their little ones. So this post comes from a place of love and respect for parents. 🙂