Anna Tambour presents 


The virtuous medlar circle
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a monthly column by A.C.E. Bauer

April 2006

I have a friend in the child protection field who calls them “child protection Nazis”.  I prefer the term zealots.  You have probably met the type:  men and women, frequently parents of young children, who decide that a certain behavior is dangerous to their children, and by extension to every other child in the world, and who will do their damnedest to voice their opprobrium to those who do not follow their received wisdom.

These otherwise rational human beings will launch into tirades about the unfitness of certain parents because of something they did that is probably not the absolute best for their child:  their child went out in the cold without wearing a hat and or mittens; they fed sugar-water to their child; they smoked; they let their children watch television shows with a lot of violence; they drove their children without car seats; they allowed their child to ride a bicycle without a helmet; they placed their infant on her tummy when she took a nap — the list is endless.  No one will argue that these are the healthiest choices.  Nor will anyone argue that parents shouldn’t pay attention to their child’s safety.  On the other hand, the reaction by these zealots is so virulent, so over the top, you begin to wonder if they have any common sense.

“A parent who smokes in the same house as a child is a child abuser.”  Excuse me?

“Did you see that kid in the stroller with no hat.  I bet she doesn’t have any sunscreen on either.”  Is this your business?

“They should arrest so-and-so.  He let his child ride in the front seat of his car.”  Call the Marines!

The reactions lack perspective.  Foremost is the assumption that someone should be judged by one kind of action.  It doesn’t matter what the level of care and attention a parent gives a child, if s/he breaks rule X, s/he is a Bad Parent.  One need look no further.

The thing is, except for the rare exceptions, parents love their children.  Parents have a biological and societal vested interest in keeping their children alive and well.  It’s hard-wired. Over hundreds of thousands of years we have evolved so that our childhoods are protected and formed by our parents and our extended family — but primarily our parents.  The advent of more information about health and nutrition has not changed the evolutionary premise:  parents are the best caretakers for their children.  And parents, over this same period of evolution, have found that to properly care for their children, they must survive, and to do that sometimes children cannot be the number one priority for their actions.

In modern history, however, something changed in our society’s perception of itself.  Instead of being part of a whole family, equal in importance for survival, children were placed on a pedestal.  “They’re our future!”  we are told.  They must be protected, given every opportunity, and come first, always.


Children are not our future.  They are our present.  They represent a minority of our population — one that requires care and education.  But so does the rest of the population.

Somehow private feelings and public duties have been confused.  A child may be central to a parent’s care — as I said before, it’s hard-wired — that doesn’t mean they should be society’s central concern.  I’m not saying children aren’t important:  they deserve equal consideration in our priorities.  And we should encourage an environment where children can succeed.  But the prime way this should occur is by encouraging an environment where parents can succeed so that they can bring along their children, give them the care, nurturing and education that they need.

But, says the child protection zealot, I am able to live my life without doing X — smoking, putting a child in a car without a car seat, feeding my infant formula rather than breast milk, whatever. And since I am an average person, anyone can lead their life without doing X.  Ergo the fact that someone is doing X means that s/he is a negligent/abusive/uncaring parent. 

The assumptions made in this kind of argument are staggering.  But most important to my point is the fact that someone doesn’t do X — smoke, put a child in a car without a car seat, feed their baby infant formula rather than breast milk — doesn’t mean that that person is laudable.  One good deed does not a good person make.  Conversely, one bad deed does not make someone bad.

But, we are told, that Bad Parents do X repeatedly

So?  Those parents care for their child.  It’s hard-wired, remember?  They care for their child in thousands of ways — emotionally, physically, day in and day out.  If they have committed an act that increases the health risk of the child, it’s their right.  The fact that the child walks down a street is a health risk.  Living in a suburb or city rather than a rural town is a health risk.  Driving in a car, no matter what child restraint you use is a health risk.  Swimming, bicycling, playing organized sports, all pose health risks.  Life is a constant weighing of risks.  How each of us weighs one risk or another is for each of us to decide.   To help us, we provide public education campaigns and get doctors’ advice.   But ultimately, parents are responsible for their children, and most of the time, they get the risks right.

And if they get it wrong?  It’s still none of our business.  Every parent makes mistakes, all of the time.  We all do.  And children manage to grow up, regardless.

I fully expect a screed here from someone who will tell me that there are child abusers in this world, pedophiles, parents who murder their children, parents who, by no standard, are fit to care for a child.  No argument here.  We should ferret them out.  Get their children somewhere safe.  Put these parents behind bars, if their actions deserve it.  But I’d like to remind whoever decides to write that screed that those are a small minority in our society.  And what these parents do, or are unable to do, bears no relation to secondhand smoke, car seats and sunscreen.

Remember that friend I mentioned, the one in the child protection field?  See, I spent years in a legal services office.  And people in the social service fields talk to each other, spend time in courts, visit homes.  Sometimes we see things that, in a just world, no one should.  I know about the kid who must get adult-sized, velcro-closure shoes because no one bothered to teach him how to tie shoelaces, and he no longer has the dexterity with which to learn how — he has many other problems, but one example should do.  I know about the child who cannot form any emotional trust for her adoptive parents because her babyhood had zero love, zero attachments.  I know of the child who never grew because he was never fed.

None of these cases have anything to do with whatever bugaboo zealots are convinced requires our full attention, please, right now.  I wonder whether these folks understand that they are engaged in busybody micro-management of other people's lives and, in doing so, are interfering with love, basic attachment and the innumerable small deeds of care parents engage in every minute, every day.  Because those are what count, not perfect parenting under some set of ever-changing rules.

Each time I hear someone’s self-righteous outrage about this person not sending in lunch money, or that person serving sugared drinks, I wonder what would happen if all that misplaced energy was put into something constructive.  What if we kept our noses to our business, and our care to those near us, and tried to improve society by doing something positive in it?  Now that would be something to talk about.


A.C.E. Bauer has been telling and writing stories since childhood. She took a short break to write dreadful poetry in college, and then a longer one while she worked as an attorney, writing legal briefs and telling stories about her clients. She has returned to fiction, and now writes children's books and short stories for all ages. She was a finalist for the Tassy Walden Award: New Voices in Children's Literature in both 2001 and 2002.

One of her stories has appeared in Ladybug magazine, and a middle-grade, magical-realism novel is scheduled for publication in autumn 2007. Born and raised in Montreal, she spends most of the year in New England with her family, and much of the summer on a lake in Quebec.

In the Rabbit Hole began in December 2005
A love story
Breathing water and pine
"It's just a children's book"
Reconciling to the Impossible
Write to A.C.E. Bauer at
acebauer at gmail dot com

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"Zealots" copyright © April 2006 by A.C.E. Bauer.
This essay appears here with thanks to A.C.E. Bauer, whose payment was less than a brass razoo.
This is part of a series of invited pieces by people I find deliciously inspiring, always a hoot, and who write like a bletted medlar tastes. A.T.
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