Book Notes: Paranoid Parenting by Frank Furedi (Part 2)

I’m mostly writing notes to evaluate Furedi’s arguments and add my own thoughts. If you’re interested, you can check out my introductory comments here.

Chapter 2:The Myth of the Vulnerable Child
Furedi argues that today’s children are regarded as uniquely vulnerable to outside forces (almost all of which are considered risks) and NOT resilient to manage such outside forces. As a result, parents seek to minimize all risks, not considering any potential benefits of risk. Furedi points to the modern playground as an example of the outerworking of this fear of exposing children to risk.

“It is easy to overlook the fact that the concept of children at risk is a relatively recent invention. As I argue elswewhere, this way of imagining childhood involves a redefinition both of risk and of childhood. Until recently, risks were not interpreted by definition as bad things. We used to talk about good, worthwhile risks as well as bad, foolish ones. Risks were seen as a challenging aspect of children’s lives. Today, we are so afraid of risk that we have invented the concept of children at risk. A child that is at risk requires constant vigilance and adult supervision.”

But the myth of childhood vulnerability is not limited to physical vulnerability to danger. Today’s parenting culture considers children to be emotionally and developmentally at risk, subject to what one psychologist calls “infant determinism”. Without just the right childhood circumstances, a child could be scarred for life – destined to be a psychopath or mentally ill. Yet this concept, while popular, is largely ungrounded in empirical evidence. Yes, infants in third world orphanages who are never touched or held are more likely to experience psychological difficulties – but these extreme examples do not prove that children in general are at risk of developmental and psychological issues if they are not held or watched every moment. Children are much more resilient, both physically and psychologically, than current parenting culture wants to admit.

Furedi’s playground argument hits home with me. The modern playground is so far removed from the playground of my childhood that I reflected to my husband (and to Facebook) that the modern playground seems designed to eliminate all risks, including the risk of gross motor development.

While we were dating, Daniel and I took my niece to one of the old playgrounds in my parent’s neighborhood. She was maybe 18 months and I stood a step behind her, terrified, as I let her climb the slide’s steps all by herself. I was fully aware of the risks, of the rails that were simply something for her to grab to help her climb, not something that would keep her from falling 10 or more feet to the ground if she slipped. I was aware that, if the weather were warmer, the metal of the slide could get hot and burn her. My heart was in my chest. But I value learning and independence. I think that’s important. I took the precaution of being a step behind her so she was within hands reach if she faltered. But I let her climb by herself.

Last year, a whole group of our family went to another of my parents’ old playgrounds (they have three old playgrounds within walking distance!) My sister Anna got on the merry-go-round (yes, it actually has one of those) with the Little Miss (who was now two and half) and Daniel pushed them. He went faster and faster and faster while I bit my fingernails watching them turn. I felt sure that Anna was about to throw up and feared that the Little Miss would emerge from the experience terrified of her uncle Daniel. Anna cried uncle and Daniel stopped them. They stepped off the merry-go-round and the Little Miss slowly reoriented to the world. When she found her bearings, she turned towards Daniel and demanded “Again.”

Children are resilient. Yes, risks exist – but so do opportunities that can’t be obtained without risk.

A child broke her arm after falling out of a tree. Her father contemplated banning tree-climbing. I broke my collar bone at age 2 falling out of bed. Perhaps we should also ban bed-sleeping. I say it ironically, but take a look at parenting literature and you’ll read of the advantages of toddler beds set close to the floor, maybe even with a soft mat alongside to break a child’s fall. You can add a mesh rail to your child’s bed to prevent falling entirely, but you must be careful lest your child get stuck between the bed and the rail – another risk.

All of us have stories of risks we took as children. We have stories of risky behavior that didn’t result in damage and risky behavior that did actually hurt us. Most of not only survived but thrived despite (or even because of) these experiences.

But it doesn’t stop with physical risks. We have emotionally “traumatic” experiences in our memories too. I slept in my closet on a pile of dirty clothes for weeks at a time because I got tired of having my sister tickle me in the bed we shared. One of my siblings grabbed a knife from the kitchen and threatened me with it. A drunk man got too close for comfort when I was waiting for my mom after ballet class when I was nine or ten. I experienced fear and anger as a child – but I also experienced love and safety and comradery. Today, I laugh at those “traumatic” stories and have great relationships with my siblings.

Ironically, the “traumatic” experience from my childhood that still has the power to excite me to anger is of an overprotective cop who got angry with my mother for leaving six of her children (with their eleven year old sister- me) in their wrecked van by the side of the highway while she called for help from the car of a Good Samaritan who stopped a hundred feet or less ahead of us. I still become angry when I think of someone daring to disapprove of my mom’s sensible action in the face of our accident.

So there you have it. Kids are resilient – physically and emotionally. Risks exists, but are not always bad. Parents need not be paralyzed with fear of risk – instead, they should consider which risks are truly problematic and how to wisely manage risk while maximizing childhood.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.