a monthly column
by A.C.E. Bauer
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
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
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.
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.