Kim Brooks is the author of Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear.
About a year ago, a neighbour knocked on my door and asked if I’d sign a petition in favour of installing speed bumps along our street. As a mother of two small children, children who are often crossing the street or playing on its sidewalk, I was happy to sign. Of all the dangers that keep me awake at night when it comes to my kids, the threat of moving vehicles is one of the most daunting.
I was disappointed, then, when months passed, then a year, and no speed bumps materialized. I remained hopeful until a few weeks ago, when a neighbour pointed out new signs along the block. DRIVE LIKE YOUR KIDS LIVE HERE, the signs read. Apparently, similar signs have cropped up in neighbourhoods across North America. In lieu of speed bumps and narrower streets, in lieu of more pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, in lieu of vaster and more efficient public transit, we ask drivers to make this imaginative leap as they careen through residential areas – the logic being that basic human empathy no longer extends beyond our own children. If I, as a driver, imagine it’s my own kids’ lives at stake, I will drive responsibly. If not, pedestrians beware.
“It’s really pathetic,” a friend and neighbour told me. “How about, Drive like kids live here? Or, Drive like people live here, or just, Drive less because the planet is probably doomed and cars are evil and hurt everybody?” My friend was wondering how we’d arrived at a moment when responsibility and concern for other humans should be limited to one’s own offspring, where respect and consideration are reserved for those few people with whom we share genes or real estate. I told her that I’d been wondering the same thing.
The hoary old wisdom is that parenthood is supposed to make you a better person. In some ways, this is true. Parenthood offers the opportunity to engage in a deeply intimate relationship with a human who is dependent on you for all of his or her physical and emotional needs. It demands patience, sacrifice, compassion and humility. It stretches us in ways not many experiences can. But at the same time, I’ve begun to wonder if there is something about it that makes people worse or, at least, worse to each other – worse neighbours, worse citizens, worse friends.
More and more, we seem to have embraced the idea that protecting children is an individualistic pursuit, and parenting a competitive sport rather than a communal responsibility. I, myself, have not always been immune to this way of thinking.
A few hours after my son was born, I woke to my husband telling me the nurse had taken our son to the nursery to check his lungs. All at once, I understood that my priorities would never be as they had been before. There was now a he (my son) that mattered to me more than myself. It was a new kind of love that seemed to take up all the space inside me, more formidable than any feeling I’d ever known. In the years that followed, whether the issue was child care or safety protocols, I remained fixated on making the right choice for my children, protecting them at all costs from what often seemed a dangerous and threatening world. As their mother, I viewed this as my job, a non-negotiable responsibility that left little room for much else.
And so I didn’t worry much about the quality of my city’s public schools; I worried about getting my kids into a good school. Instead of worrying about American children’s access to affordable health care (I live in Chicago) and nutritious food; I worried about feeding my own children the best food, taking them to the best pediatrician, making the soundest decisions when it came to their health and well-being. Some of this is natural. We focus most intensely on the needs of those to whom we’re most intimately connected. But what happens when our webs of connection fray and communities fragment? What happens when it seems as though every family on the block is retreating behind the fortress of their two-car garage, devoting massive and unprecedented amounts of time and resources to their own children’s future, with little energy left over to invest in the communities and social structures from which all children benefit.
Recently, after I published an essay about parenting and fear, a man (who is not a parent) wrote to me about his disturbing interactions with a group of parents in his neighbourhood. The man was middle-aged. He and his partner lived in a house a few blocks away from a local school, and often, he walked his very friendly dog around the neighbourhood. If children encountered him on the sidewalk, they were excited to pet the dog and the dog was excited to receive their pets. The man never thought anything about it until a group of parents confronted him, one of them quite belligerently, warning him to keep his distance from their kids.
“It’s the same principle,” he wrote to me, “of the parents who tried to get a huge tree removed for fear of branches falling. … In my view, this is a disservice to the children, teaching them how to be fearful. I walk with two very noticeable dogs, in an area where many people know me personally or at least by sight. I’m not hiding or skulking or anything else. Apparently, I’m supposed to try to teach my dogs how to distinguish when to be friendly. People simultaneously proclaim how much they want a walkable and friendly neighbourhood … on their own terms.” He wondered why these parents don’t teach their children how to live carefully and compassionately in the world, rather than trying to create a bubble around them to shield them from all real or imagined harm. “Popping out a child does not suddenly provide additional rights that allow you to prevent others from living freely,” he wrote.
We all have a right to be both free and safe, regardless of our age, regardless of whether or not we have children. Ironically, when parents ignore the needs and interests of strangers or those to whom they’re not connected by blood, the familial isolation that ensues may harm their own children more than any external threat. Robert Putnam noted in his book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, how studies show there is no factor more significant in predicting the successful education of children than connectedness, trust and informal social networks of the adults in their community. “Social infrastructure,” he wrote, “is far more important that anyone would have predicted in ensuring the healthy development of youth.” He goes on to say there is something about communities where adults connect to each other and are responsible for and invested in each other that allows children to thrive, shielding them both from the dangers of the wider world and from their parents’ worst moments. This fact presents us with a sad irony. In our tireless efforts to protect our own children from some ever-present, ever-shape-shifting external threat, we are depriving them of the kinds of communities that protect them most.