Post Newtown, Is Coddling Okay?

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about the newish trend of driving children to school. I was a bit flummoxed as to why the parents in my mother’s neighborhood were taking their children one block to the school, why I so often see quarter-mile long lines of parents idling in their cars, waiting to pick up their kids. I advocated for letting children walk–for exercise, for mental acuity, for the environment.

I’d been mainly looking at this issue from one angle: I assumed that it mostly had to do with parents coddling their children and making everything as easy as possible for them. And some of that I still think is true, after reading parent feedback in the comments and emails. Parents also wrote to me about stranger danger, though statistically the world is as safe as, if not safer than, it was when I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s.

Of all the reasons parents gave me for taking their child to school, spending sacred moments with the child on the way to school and smiling one last time before they walked through the door was the one that resonated with me the most.

I drive my own kindergartner to school. We live a half mile from the elementary school; definitely within walking distance, but we are separated from the school by a 4-lane road with a speed limit of 30 that drivers consistently ignore by 15 mph. And the sidewalk is right next to the road with no grassy boulevard to cushion the blow should you trip and fall the wrong way. My son could walk a bit out of the way and for the most part avoid the road, except where he would have to cross it, but there are no other children on our block who walk to school and he’s too young to walk alone.

I have the luxury of not needing to make the decision whether to let him walk or not.

So most mornings, I park and walk my son right up to the elementary school door and stand with him in line like the other parents, waiting for the doors to open. The few times I’ve had to drop him off from the car line, watching him walk up to the school alone, I’ve had a pang in my stomach seeing my little one march off by himself.

My father and I talked about my post later that day. I told him I thought we parents of young ones know too much now–every kidnapping, death, illness, injury is there for us to discover moments after it happened everywhere around the world. While the world is safer than it used to be, it sure seems a hell of a lot more dangerous.

Then my dad said, “It’s like you young parents are shell-shocked.”

He was referring to the general barrage of everyday, albeit horrible, events in the news, but I realized: in a sense, we are. We are shell-shocked. And what did it for me was Newtown.

9/11 set a new level of stress, an event so horrible it need only be referenced by the date. It was the first time in my life, at the age of 25, I could look out my living room window and visualize the possibility of a foreign nation marching down our streets, ordering us out of our homes. Just that awareness was startling to me.

So the baseline was already raised, and there have been many events that have continued to heighten our collective alertness. But what really did it for me was Newtown.

Now, every time I walk my son up to the school, I notice which doors are left open as children enter and for how long. I notice my son’s classroom has an extra door to the outside and I think simultaneously, “Thank God, an extra exit” and “Does that make it easier for a shooter to get in?” I notice that the buzzer at the front door is worthless in the morning because everyone holds the door open for the people streaming in behind them and I think, “All a deranged person has to do is come at 8:xx a.m. Then he wouldn’t have to shoot his way in, he could just walk right through.” Inevitably, even if just in a flash, I see the image of 20 six- and seven-year-olds crouching in a classroom as they’re riddled with bullets.

One of those thoughts goes through my head 90% of the mornings I take my son to school. Those thoughts sometimes come to mind when I take my children to the library or the grocery store. And if it’s in my mind, it’s no doubt in the minds of many parents.

That’s a lot to worry about, a lot of stressed heaped on top of the regular, everyday stress of loving and caring for children.

So I don’t know. If parents need to take their children to school and see them through the doors to help them cope, maybe that’s okay. If they want to coddle the hell out of their kids, I certainly can’t blame them.

Though if I’m right, then we have to figure out a way to get through this. Because I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to raise a child whose hand needs to be held through every trial. I don’t want to raise a child who is startled by every possible danger, who sees the world as a frightening place. And if we make the world too safe for them, they will inevitably be debilitated by the awful that does happen within the wonderful. And, if debilitated, how will they lead?

Maybe we were a bit debilitated. And our response has been to shield our children–from bullets, from planes, from the heaped-on knowledge that feels so crushing. Our response has been to make laws, increase governmental power, add security, add fences, add screening, take off shoes.

I don’t know the answer. I’m overwhelmed just writing this. But it seems the more we shield ourselves and our children–the more security we pile on–the more burdened we feel. And doesn’t that make us weaker instead of stronger? Won’t that make our children weaker instead of stronger?

Photo: Star Tribune Sept. 2, 2013.  Minneapolis police officer Anna Hansen said good morning to students who entered South High School at the start of the school day last Friday.

Photo: Star Tribune Sept. 2, 2013. Minneapolis police officer Anna Hansen said good morning to students who entered South High School at the start of the school day.


13 thoughts on “Post Newtown, Is Coddling Okay?

  1. Wow! What a thought provoking piece. My girls often walk to school on their own but I do admit to feeling a bit of panic on the days they do. I agree whole-heartedly with your father. I think our baseline level of anxiety is so high as parents today. I too look at doors, examine exits, work of the possibilities in my head endlessly. This is a new challenge for our generation of parents and I wonder what the effects will be on our little ones…

  2. We are also seeing increased incidents of anxiety and depressive disorders among our children…a raised baseline increases the paranoia of parents and leads to over protected children which can increase their anxiety. We now have a name for parents who hover over college kids “helicopter parents.” The baseline has been raised but it was also raised in my generation from my parents generation….we were the first generation to see our peers on TV getting killed in Vietnam in a war most of us were against and I could go on and on…..Kennedy, Martin Luther King Bobby Kennedy. It seems unfortunate that the bar does get raised with every generation but we can’t let it destroy us and make us weaker instead of stronger. Raising children is one of the most difficult jobs any parent will do so it is best not to complicate this difficult job by heaping tons and tons of worries on it when in the end we can’t control it all. Be careful yes, be paranoid and anxious, no. Excellent blog!

  3. I remember talking to my Grandma after 9/11 and discussing how terrible it was. She looked at me and said, “this is the first really big thing you’ve lived through isn’t it?” She just had her 96th birthday earlier this month. Thinking back at everything that’s happened since she’s been on this earth, we really have had it pretty easy! I try not to let the crazy insane stuff that has happened worry me. I don’t see a point in worrying about things that I can not control. I do my part to keep an eye out for things that don’t look right (the stranger walking up and down the block or the misplaced car) and teach my kids stranger danger and how there are bad people in this world. I hope to have the courage to let both of my boys walk to school alone next year. Granted it will only be one day a week and I’ll probably be watching them while hiding in the bushes but I need to train myself to teach them independence.

  4. Such a tough topic and one I’m often thinking about.

    I don’t think I commented on your other piece on driving to school, but I will always try to walk my kids if there is not someone trustworthy to walk with them. My younger brother was cruelly bullied during the year he walked himself the 4 short neighborhood blocks to school. Since he was diagnosed with dyslexia, it was thought he would get better services at the public school than at the private school attended by his other siblings. During that year his bike was broken, his hands were smashed and scraped into a brick wall multiple times, he was called a wide assortment of horrible names relating to special education, and more. He was a quiet child and told my mother all sorts of lies to explain the physical evidence such as him falling off his bike to break it, trips and falls to explain the hand injuries and of course no mention of the name calling or taunting. When the bullying was discovered, my mom advocated for him to leave the public school and receive special education services from a tutor at the private school. The bullying went away and all the siblings walked safely together to the private school a block and a half in the opposite direction.

    Things like that or the carjacking turned kidnapping of last week or the creepy incident with the suspected pedophile in downtown Arlington Heights a few weeks ago are not nearly as scary as Newtown or 9/11, but their frequent appearance in our own neighborhoods does make me feel similarly anxious and nervous about letting my children go off on their own. My hope is to hand hold and teach at the same time – to try and make my children feel in control of their safety rather than acting in fear. It seems different to me than coddling, but maybe it is the same. I think small changes like enlisting a friend for a 5am jog instead of going alone or verifying emergency exits at a movie theater upon entrance are worth the extra hassle. Obviously it’s a difficult thing to jump though from taking note of those things based on fear to doing them habitually without raising some type of anxiety, so I’m working on that.

    • Yes, I think presence of bullying would play the biggest role in any decision, for sure.
      It’s interesting, what you bring up about the scary incidents around our town. I agree to an extent, but I think it’s also an example of sort of knowing too much. If we’re referring to the same suspected pedophile incident–didn’t it turn out to be just a man who, while socially ignorant, just needed help unloading something from his pickup truck? I read all was fine re: that incident. And the carjacking thing–it would scare the absolute hell out of me, don’t get me wrong, but he clearly was not looking to kidnap a child. This was an expensive car left running in the driveway. You know?

  5. Because of the internet and instant TV coverage we are perhaps too informed, and what we are learning is scaring us needlessly. Social media sites are to blame as well.
    When my children were young, I learned a hard lesson — we can’t protect our children from everything. We want to, but we simply can’t.
    Enjoy those rides to and from school with your little one.

  6. I think your dad is right– we are shell shocked. I have to FORCE myself not to worry. My kids are at a Jewish school, which feels like an extra target for different reasons. And the security is not great there.

  7. As you know, I don’t have children — and I chose not to use my English teaching certification (high school), opting for the communications/writing route instead. Like you, I think about those classrooms — the ones I’d have inhabited as an educator, and how different things are now than they were when we were young. As a parent, I’d have the same concerns as you. I’d also be really worried about the long-term impact of the helicopter-parenting model (which I’d probably be a part of, would lament, and would try to strike a non-fear balance). Like you, I don’t have the answers, but I do commiserate and empathize with you. My hat is off to ALL parents … indeed, the toughest job in the world.

    • And it’s only getting harder, which is scary. I’m glad, in that way, I was raised by parents who nowadays would be considered negligent by some parents; remembering their guidance helps me level out.

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