I told myself not to write this yesterday.
I knew anything I wrote would be too angry.
I think we can agree that the death of an endangered animal in a zoo was a tragedy.
What I don’t understand, what makes me angry, is how the mother of a four year old boy is now public enemy number one.
I don’t want to argue specifics. Other people have done that. There are plenty of places and articles dissecting the events at Cincinnati Zoo. Some are even managing to do so without hysteria.
And maybe this mother is a shit mum. Maybe she is completely selfish, thinking the world revolves around her and her children. Maybe she is lazy. Maybe she is incompetent. Maybe. But I don’t think we can know this from one moment of inattention. Maybe she is guilty of nothing more than assuming there was no way her child would be able to climb into a gorilla enclosure at a large, well-known zoo.
Since when did one mistake make you criminally negligent?
The fact that seems to have been forgotten is that parents are not in control of their children 100% of the time. Fact. We can’t be. We won’t be. Parents never have been. It’s just that ten, twenty years ago, nobody had camera phones to capture the moment. Children are autonomous beings, with their own desires and impulses, with an ability to move independently.
Yes, it is a parent’s job to teach their children to control some of their impulses, to guide them to act in a way harmonious with their society. But this takes, years. More than four.
When our children are little the potential for disaster is always only a moment away. Just last weekend my son scooted ahead on a crossing, towards the oncoming cars, one of which hadn’t yet stopped. Just last week my daughter shoved a perfectly round stone in her mouth. Just a month ago my daughter crawled off to join her brother in the bedroom while I cooked, I could hear them laughing and thought they were fine, until I looked only a minute, maybe two, to find my son had tied a collar round her neck. One like a choke collar. He was pretending she was his dog.
A few months ago we visited Copenhagen. Standing at a tram station, trying to calculate our ticket purchase, we suddenly looked down to see our son wasn’t there. Just as a tram pulled out of the station. There was a moment of sheer panic, imagining him alone on a tram, watching it drive away from us while we yelled his name, only for him to poke his head perplexedly around a barrier. I hope that all the people saying she should having been holding on, he should have been on a leash, never learn what it feels like to look for your child and not see them. I hope that when they do, it all ends as uneventfully as it did for us.
If things hadn’t ended well, would it make me a bad parent? One awful moment. One catastrophe. A never ending stream of newspaper headlines announcing my failure to the world.
This sort of judgement doesn’t just effect people when something goes badly wrong. It is an extension of the same attitude that judges parents every time their child misbehaves in public. This idea that we should always be in control, able to stop a tantrum with what, firmness? By which people mean, our children should be so frightened of us that they stop a normal expression of frustration and anger with just a look, or a word.
Should parents brains always be on high alert for the potential to misbehave, or have accidents? Should we hover over our child, protecting them from the world, the world from them? Will you then judge us for being helicopter parents? This doesn’t sound healthy for anyone. Sometimes parenting involves giving your child space and hoping the mistakes they make don’t lead to catastrophe.
It isn’t enough to tell parents to avoid the internet, the source of all that is toxic. You should not make the mistake of thinking that this is confined to the internet. Avoiding it means not listening, not making eye contact. And I do not think that is any sort of solution.
The only solution is respect, support, kindness, compassion. No-one wants to live in isolated bubbles. So stop pretending you have the right to one where ever and when ever you choose. Stop pretending you are perfect and never make mistakes.
Stop judging, and grant children the same freedoms and guidance and love you were once granted.