Lunatic Childcare: 24/7

McArdle paranoia parentsEvery now and then I read an interesting article about parenting. While this is not a blog on parenting, I like to comment on articles that address these issues because they reflect a big part of how we think about children.

On “Seven Reasons We Hate Free-Range Parents,” Meghan McArdle wonders why America has “gone lunatic” on unattended children.

Parents hover over their kids as if every step might be their last. If they don’t hover, strangers do, calling the police to report any parent who leaves their child to run into the store for a few minutes. What’s truly strange is that the parents who are doing this were themselves left to their own devices in cars, allowed to ride their bikes and walk to the store unsupervised, and otherwise given the (limited) freedom that they are now determined to deny their own kids.

McArdle’s analysis shows just how selective parents’ memories can be. Some parents choose not to remember the freedom they had when they were children. Others argue that the world today is more dangerous. But it all seems subjective. This modern paranoia could be more about parents’ vanity (i.e., trying to fit in with the rest) than about children’s actual safety.

McArdle’s list of reasons includes well-known issues, such as exposure to broader cable news, economic insecurity, wealthier parents, and mobile phones (see article for full list). But what really caught my eye was her analysis of working mothers:

More mothers are paying others to take care of their children. It’s easy to impose severe limits on the mobility of your children when you are not personally expected to provide 24-hour supervision. When I was a kid, there were a lot of mothers at home who believed that being home with kids was important but did not actually personally enjoy playing with 4-year-olds. Those parents would have rebelled at being told that they should never let their kids out of hearing range. Those mothers are now at work, paying someone else to enjoy playing with their 4-year-old or at least convincingly fake it.

There’s a capitalist undertone in McArdle’s description of this particular issue. Busy mothers who are no longer close to their children (the “prime resource”) think about their children’s safety in different—perhaps unreal—terms. Because they don’t have to experience what it’s like to actually follow their children’s every step, these parents (fathers included!) feel perfectly comfortable demanding that others do. In this sense, we could argue that parents’ lack of experience caring for their own children inflates the value of childcare, driving it to places (24-hour supervision) that are insane.

Not to worry, says McArdle. “I’m not blaming individual parents; this is a collective insanity, not a personal foible.”

— Alexia Raynal, Zeteo Associate Editor

To read more posts in the fields of children and childhood by Alexia Raynal, visit her ZiR page here. For an exploration of children’s lives between two worlds read Alexia’s article “Children Challenging Borders: The physical and psychological journeys that the children of immigrants make for their families,” published by Zeteo last fall.


Cover image was featured in The New York Times’s article “Raising Successful Children” by Madeline Levine (August 4, 2012).

Top photograph was featured in McArdle’s article. The picture was taken by Saul Loeb (AFP/Getty Images). Footnote asked, teasingly, “Does this make you nervous?”

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