Saturday, September 17, 2011

Josef Stalin and Parenting

The following is a continuation of a comment that I made on the Free Range Kids blog yesterday. Here is the link to the original post on FRK: My comment is toward the end under the name "gap.runner." It's the second comment that I made to that post.

What does Josef Stalin have to do with parenting? At first glance, it would seem that the two are opposites. Josef Stalin was an evil dictator who was responsible for the death of about 20 million of his fellow Soviet citizens. It doesn't get more evil than saying, "One death is a tragedy, one million a statistic" in reference to the number of people who died during Stalin's reign in Soviet prison camps and of starvation in the Ukraine during forced collectivization. Parents are generally viewed as nurturing people who want the best for their children (though their children can sometimes view them as dictators), which is the opposite of how Stalin was.

A couple of days ago Lenore Skenazy, the author of the Free Range Kids (FRK) site, posted a story about the perception that people in the States have that children are constantly being abducted by strangers. In fact, very few kids are kidnapped and murdered by strangers (see the link above). The vast majority of abducted kids are taken by parents in custody disputes or by others that the child knows. Even though stranger abduction is very rare, it gets a lot of airplay in the media because it's such a rare event. These news stories also play to every parent's worst fear and make them afraid to let their children do things that they did as kids, such as walk or cycle to school alone.

There is a climate of fear in the States with parenting that would make Comrade Stalin very proud. Sometimes I think that the media has taken a page out of Stalin's playbook to reinforce the fears that parents have. Very rare events like stranger abduction, choking on button batteries, poisoned Halloween candy, and pedophiles in public bathrooms are played up in the news media. Mundane events, such as kids walking to school or taking a bus in town by themselves and arriving at their destinations safe and sound, are not broadcast at all. The perception is that the world is a dangerous place and children should never be without a parent in sight. I think if Comrade Stalin were alive today, the current media would expand on his quote that I cited above. It would go something like this, "One abducted child’s death is a tragedy that needs to be exploited for all it’s worth in order to instill fear and reinforce helicopter parenting; one million children walking, cycling, or taking public transportation by themselves without any incidents is a statistic that must be ignored or downplayed because it goes against the prevailing societal norms.”

Just as Soviets in Stalin's time feared a midnight knock on the door from the KGB, parents now live in fear whether they are helicopter parents or more free-range. Helicopter parents see pedophiles and kidnappers on every street corner and behind every bush. They are afraid to let their kids out of their sight because if they did, their children would be abducted and vanish without a trace in the blink of an eye. These are the parents who accompany their children everywhere and don't even let their children do sleepovers because the host parents could be pedophiles. Parents who are free-range (not negligent, but those who give their kids developmentally-appropriate independence) also have fears. Back in Stalin's time, there was a system of informants who denounced their friends, co-workers, neighbors, and even family members to the authorities. Free-range parents have been turned in to the police or Child Protective Services (CPS) for letting their kids walk to the store alone or leaving them in the car alone for a short time. Several free-rangers who are regulars on the FRK site say that they have either run into busybodies who turned them in to CPS or the police because their kids were unaccompanied by an adult while playing with other kids in their neighborhoods!

When Stalin ran the USSR, those who didn't follow the prevailing social norms were sent off to Siberian or northern Russian prison camps. While free-range parents don't get shipped off to the Soviet gulag, there have been many cases of parents and kids being detained or threatened by the police for innocent activities. For example, Ms. Skenazy wrote about an incident where her son took a commuter train by himself at age 10 to visit a friend and was detained by the police at his destination for riding alone. This was part of  a post about a 10-year-old Tennessee girl whose mother was threatened with child neglect for the heinous crime of letting the daughter ride her bike to school alone. Here is the link:

There is another parenting fear: the fear of their child being left behind his peers. This fear starts very early. Toy makers and the media feed into this fear and tell parents that if they don't buy a certain toy, their child is destined to be the night janitor at McDonald's. And parents buy into it. They believe that their child must be fluent in Mandarin, be able to compose a symphony, and be able to read St. Augustine in the original Latin by age 3. If their child is "retarded" and doesn't do all of those things, forget about Harvard or Yale. Parents really need to trust themselves and let their children develop on their own timetables. In many cases, doing something early is not always better. Kids in the States are pushed to read at an early age. Finnish kids start school at age 7 and don't learn their alphabet or how to read until they're in first grade. One would think that the kids in Finland are miles behind the rest of the world. Au contraire. On international reading tests given to kids in industrial nations, Finland is one of the top-ranked countries. The US is way below Finland, despite its emphasis pushing kids to achieve at an early age.

It would be great if the media would devote less airtime to rare, yet sensational, events and spend more time talking about how safe it really is for kids to walk, ride their bikes, or take public transportation by themselves to wherever they're going. We all did those things when we were kids and are still alive. I imagine newscasts that say, "The 972 kids in Springfield who walked or rode their bikes to school today without a parent all made it there and back home again without any incidents," would be very boring. But I believe that parents need to hear more stories like that in order to realize that the world really is a safe place for their kids. Until that day comes, the best pieces of parenting advice are: turn off the TV, let your child develop at his own pace, and lose the fear and trust your instincts and about what is appropriate for your particular children.

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