Recently, the news has been filled with stories about children in dangerous situations. There was the story about the Japanese boy forced out of the parents’ car by the father in a bear infested forest as a punishment for misbehavior. Then the story about the boy who fell into the gorilla cage at the zoo. Finally, the report of the child pulled into the water by an alligator who was later found dead. In all of these stories, one way or another blame was placed on the parents, particularly in social media.
Questions raised about the parents ranged from child abuse to negligence. Unusual is the fact that fathers were involved. Perhaps that reflects changing times, since blaming mothers has a long history, dating back to the time when the job of child-care was assigned specifically to mothers. Along with mothers’ responsibility for child-rearing also came new ideas about child development. Mothers were responsible not only for the care of their children but of the way they developed.
The emergence of psychoanalytic theory and its incorporation into ideas about child rearing added still further layers of responsibility on mothers and blame for undesirable outcome. Ultimately, an industry of research and advice giving to mothers has resulted in prescriptions for child-rearing and warnings about dire outcomes. The result has been mothers’ guilt, self-blame and the blame of others.
Linda Fentiman, a professor of law at Pace University, has written a fascinating book to be published this fall showing how blaming mothers has been incorporated into the law through the interpretation of basic legal concepts. Concepts such as risk and negligence which are thought to be objective are actually subjective. Actually, unconscious psychological and social factors affect the way we see risk. The same is true of negligence which reflects judgments of behavior involving the idea of acting unreasonably and the reasonable person.
A bias against mothers can be found in the way these concepts have been applied in legal cases. A theme emerges of mothers as cause of harm to their children. An extreme example currently is the passage of laws attempting to find mothers liable for their conduct during pregnancy as harmful to the fetus. Another example is that mothers have been held responsible for harm to children from abusive partners.
Without reaching the level of legal consequences for parental behavior, most mothers have experienced the degree to which even strangers feel free to criticize or make negative comments in public places about a child’s behavior and a mother’s handling of the situation. Everyone becomes a self-proclaimed expert on the “right” way to bring up children.
The fact is there is plenty of risk in raising children in every-day living. Unless we keep our children in a cocoon, there is a potential for unforeseen accidents and events with negative consequences. I remember too well an experience of watching my little one playing in the park. I kept my eye on that red snow suit he was wearing and suddenly realized I was watching the wrong red snow suit on a different child. I went on a frantic search and caught him just a he was about to walk out of the park into the street.
The question of when to protect our children and when to stand back as they venture off on their own, is a major challenge for parents and something they deal with at many steps along the way. As children grow, part of their development involves exploration and reaching out to try new things on their own. Children fall learning to walk but we don’t keep them from trying to walk. We try to be available when that happens, comfort them if they hurt themselves and encourage them to try again.
We all do the best we can, all of us wanting the best for our children. Especially in the face of the unforeseen, parents need our support not our blame.