Helicopter Nation: The Rising Costs of Raising Children
At Salon, Kim Brooks wrote a piece about the fallout from having left her child in her car:
I took a deep breath. I looked at the clock. For the next four or five seconds, I did what it sometimes seems I’ve been doing every minute of every day since having children, a constant, never-ending risk-benefit analysis. I noted that it was a mild, overcast, 50-degree day. I noted how close the parking spot was to the front door, and that there were a few other cars nearby. I visualized how quickly, unencumbered by a tantrumming 4-year-old, I would be, running into the store, grabbing a pair of child headphones. And then I did something I’d never done before. I left him. I told him I’d be right back. I cracked the windows and child-locked the doors and double-clicked my keys so that the car alarm was set. And then I left him in the car for about five minutes.
He didn’t die. He wasn’t kidnapped or assaulted or forgotten or dragged across state lines by a carjacker. When I returned to the car, he was still playing his game, smiling, or more likely smirking at having gotten what he wanted from his spineless mama. I tossed the headphones onto the passenger seat and put the keys in the ignition. […]
We flew home. My husband was waiting for us beside the baggage claim with this terrible look on his face. “Call your mom,” he said.
I called her, and she was crying. When she’d arrived home from driving us to the airport, there was a police car in her driveway.
Multiple people on my Facebook timeline shared the article with a comment about never taking any chances. A part of me wonders if they even read the article, or how they might have missed the point so badly. Given the specifics of the situation, there was little or no threat from the weather, from thirst or starvation. The only threat was from the authorities themselves. The threat of a child losing his mother because of a culture that says “take no chances.”
Joseph Stromberg argues that spanking should be illegal:
Research, though, tells us that getting spanked as a child can leave a discernible mark on people: it makes people more likely to suffer from addiction, depression, and other mental health problems as adults. This is one reason why 37 countries have explicitly banned all physical punishment of children — even by parents — since 1979.
Even our own existing state laws generally define child abuse as “endangering a child’s physical or emotional health and development.” By this standard — and given what we’ve recently learned from research — any form of physical punishment violates children’s rights, whether it’s done by a teacher or parents.
Making something – like spanking, or leaving your children in a car, is not simply a matter of saying don’t do it. It doesn’t make it go away. Rather, it’s the initiation of a legal process that threatens to pull apart families. The question is not “Should parents spank their children?” but rather “Should we take children away from homes where they are spanked?” and “Should we send parents to prison who do this?” There is an extremely strong argument, in my view, that there lies the road to far more ruin than the initial offense. My answer to the above three is “no” which, in a legal framework, is inconsistent except to the extent that we believe we should allow people to do things we consider to be wrong. In a best case scenario, such laws would be enforced loosely or inconsistently. The former typically leading to the latter, which has its own problems.
Sayeth Michael Brendan Dougherty:
The novel phenomenon of American upper-middle-class helicopter-parenting, in which kids are scheduled, monitored, and supervised for their “enrichment” at all times, is now being enforced on others.
It’s an odd way to “help” a child who is unsupervised for five minutes to potentially inflict years of stress, hours of court appearances, and potential legal fees and fines on their parents. Children who experience discreet instances of suboptimal parenting aren’t always aided by threatening their parents with stiff, potentially family-jeopardizing legal penalties. The risk of five or even 10 minutes in a temperate, locked car while mom shops is still a lot better than years in group homes and foster systems.
It’s only a slippery slope to talk about such things if we’re talking about making laws that have comparatively little teeth.
Heebie-Geebie wrote on Unfogged:
I have a new theory: a contributing factor might be the rise of the horror-story-as-promotional-device. Did this happen much before, say, MADD? I’ve got it in my head that there’s been a shift from private grief and shameful let’s-never-talk-about-how-cousin-drowned-at-the-picnic to the current model, which is to channel your grief into transforming the world and making sure other parents don’t suffer through your hell. It’s basically a good thing – if your child dies due to complications from premature birth, and as part of your grieving process you become very involved in March of Dimes, then that is absolutely good and productive and so on.
But I wonder if the over-parenting vigilance isn’t partly due to the bombardment of individual stories of the child who was only out of sight for three minutes. Like Kahneman says, our brains are really terrible at statistics.
I wonder about a slightly different angle of interest to me. In What To Expect When No One’s Expecting, Jonathan Last explores the various disincentives of people to reproduce. Among them, he talks of the comparatively trivial example of car safety seats. The increased requirements of car safety seats adds a not-insignificant burden to people who want larger families. Every life saved is precious, of course, and it’s wonderful to save them, but requiring them longer and longer means more kids in them at the same time, which requires the expense not only of the seats but of bigger vehicles and more hassle. Making parenthood more expensive, more difficult and less flexible, have an effect on the number of children we choose to have.
One of the things Brooks talks about in her piece about leaving her son in the car is that in her conversations with people, a whole lot of parents admitted to having done what she did. Some suggested that all parents have. It’s certainly the case that a whole lot more parents have than have been arrested for it. Uncountably more times than a child has died or been hospitalized for it. But the instinctual response – one I have myself – when we hear about something going terribly wrong or getting arrested for it is a variation of putting your child at risk and the unacceptability of ever doing so.
As the article mentions, though, we do it every day. We just draw odd lines on where we should. When we fly, Lain gets her own seat even though one isn’t required until she is two. As a matter of safety, and sanity, we want to do that. Most parents don’t. A lot of people think that it should be legally required. Child safety, after all. But these things come at a material cost. Having to buy a third ticket can be the difference between a family going somewhere or not going somewhere. This matters. It can also be the difference between flying and the more dangerous – with or without a car seat – decision to drive.
There’s something in us that cringes when we see a child in an obvious – even if minute – danger. This is not a bad thing. If we keep it in check.
One of the other things that Last explores in his book is the increasing parental involvement over time.
From 1965 to 1985, mothers actually spent less time taking care of the kids (just 8.8 hours per week in 1975 and 9.3 hours per week in 1985) while fathers inched their numbers up a tiny bit, to 3 hours per week. After 1985, both moms and dads started doing more-lots more. By 2000, married fathersmore than doubled their time with the kids, clocking 6.5 hours a week.
Overall, American fathers have become more involved in raising their children. So much so that, as economist Bryan Caplan jokes, they could almost pass for ’60s-era mothers. But what’s really astounding is what mothers have done. By 2000, more than 60 percent of married mothers worked outside the home. In doing so, they increased their paid work hours per week from 6.0 in 1965 to 23.8. Yet even as they moved out of the house to pursue careers, they also increased the amount of time they spend with their children, cranking it up to a bracing 12.6 hours per week.
Now, on the one hand, this is a happy development. It’s a good thing to have parents taking a more active role in their kids’ lives. But on the other hand, these numbers explain why parents are so frayed and stressed these days: Because however nice it is to be spending more time with your children, it’s also a rising cost. There are only 24 hours a day and if people are spending more time on kids, those hours have to come from somewhere.
The rising expectations of parenthood go beyond money and into rising standards for pretty much everything. Babysitters are not typically required to be licensed and bonded, but I wonder if we’re not too far away from that. There is a lot of movement to make daycare more regulated, and thus more expensive. Which is a mixed bag. Setting aside statutory requirements, though, the pressure parents put on themselves and one another for the right daycare can be quite intense. It sends a message of rising expectation that says “It’s better not to have children if you can’t…” with the sentence ending with an ever-increasing list of demands. It’s a message that arguably resonates most with the greatest tendency towards being responsible, those that (albeit it’s impolite to speak in these terms) I am most interested in becoming parents if they have that inclination. The irresponsible either ignoring the demands, not particularly intending to be parents, or just not thinking that far ahead.
Increased spending on children is typically lauded. It’s more of a mixed bag when we talk about the time we devote to them, however. Almost always, though, we seem to talk about it being a good thing or a bad thing from the child’s point of view. Increased parental requirements to help kids with their homework becomes a statement about how much pressure kids are under. Helicopter parenting, when criticized, is frequently targeted on how it affects children. I used to wonder if this was a rationalization so that parents could give themselves a break. A part of me actually hopes that is the case, because that is important. But whether it’s a rationalization or whether it truly is all about them, it’s difficult to talk about it in any other way.
The cumulative effect of all of this being a level of responsibility that can be off-putting to a lot of people. People who don’t want kids shouldn’t have them, of course, but this shouldn’t be a mechanism by which we influence the decision-making process. Not at this level, anyway. Pushing the level of responsibility ever-higher, though, can have the effect of making people not want children. Putting a chasm between “parenthood” and “not parenthood” that makes the latter more attractive. Not because of car seats, in particular, or restrictions on leaving your kids in the car in even the most benign circumstances, or the increased investment parents are supposed to make, but the aggregate effect of all of these things and more.
In Michael Connelly’s A Darkness More Than Night, Terry McCaleb says that being a father is like having a gun always pointed at your head. Rationale being the knowledge that if anything happened to your child – if you could have prevented it, anyway – you wouldn’t be able to live with yourself. I feel that very keenly. I also feel, though, that driving yourself into insanity is its own problem. I don’t object to all safety laws, by any stretch of the imagination. I don’t favor needless endangerment. I do favor, though, a degree of sanity. For the kids, but also for the parents.