April 2, 2007 issue - Four 11- and 12-year-old girls stood in front of my open pantry, mouths gaping wide. "Look! Fruit Roll-Ups!" "Oh, my God! Chocolate-chip cookies!" "You have regular potato chips? We only get the soy kind!"
After 14 years and four kids, I thought I'd feel comfortable as a mother. Instead, I'm increasingly aware of a prickly new sensation: that I'm some kind of renegade. Who knew that buying potato chips would become a radical act? Or that letting my daughters walk home from school alone would require administration approval? How did I, a middle-of-the-road mom, become a social deviant?
Fear is the new fuel of the American mom. If it's not fear of her child becoming obese, it's the fear of falling behind, missing out on a sports scholarship or winding up with a thin college-rejection envelope.
Apparently I'm not nervous enough. Last summer while I was loafing in front of the TV with my kids, the most benign things morphed into menaces. For example, the sun: long-sleeved, UV-protective swimsuits were all the rage at my neighborhood pool, while I could barely remember to bring the year-old sunscreen. The water wasn't safe either: at the beach I saw tots dressed in flotation belts and water wings—for shelling along the shore. And goodbye, cotton candy and hot dogs! At a major-league game I saw moms and dads nix the stuff as if they'd never eaten the occasional ballpark treat. As if their children would balloon into juvenile-diabetes statistics if a single swig of sugary soda passed their lips.
Half my kids' friends—who already make A's and B's—had summer tutors in order to "keep it fresh." I thought vacation was for relaxing and recharging. What would our pioneer foremoms think? (You want something to worry about, let me show you frostbite, typhoid and bears!) Heck, what must our own mothers think? (Snap out of it! Go worry about something truly scary, like how you're going to pay for retirement!)
I thought that once the kids were back in school, things would calm down. Instead, a fresh seasonal crop of anxiety sprouted, this time over corruptive candy fund-raisers and insufficient use of hand sanitizer. I know one mom who wants to change her son's schedule because he doesn't know anyone in his classes; she's worried he'll be "socially traumatized" all year. Another is afraid of a learning disability she just read about, though her child seems bright and charming to me.
And then there's playground panic. I had to laugh when an Australian study recently found that playground injuries continue to rise despite safety improvements. One of the suspected reasons: the safe new play structures are so boring that kids are taking more risks in order to have fun.
The fears are as irrational as they are rampant. Recently my children's elementary school failed to meet adequate yearly progress goals for a particular minority's reading progress under the No Child Left Behind Act and was placed on a warning list. This meant parents might gain the right to transfer their children to another school in the district. Never mind that this very same school sent more kids to the district's gifted program than any other, or that this entire district has the highest SAT scores in the state. The day the news broke, six different moms (none in the affected minority) asked me if I was planning to transfer my kids. From neighborhood pride and joy to threat to child's future overnight.
It's not that I think parents shouldn't worry about anything. I'm personally petrified of SUV drivers on cell phones. I fret as much as the next mom about how to pay for college. I pray my kids won't wander onto MySpace and post something dumb.
But you can't go around afraid of everything. It's too exhausting! No matter how careful you are, bad stuff happens (diaper rash, stitches, all your friends assigned to another class). And it's seldom the end of the world.
Watching my daughter's friends ogle my pantry, I realized there's one big, legitimate fear that I haven't heard anybody mention: what's the effect of our collective paranoia on the kids? Yes, these very kids we want to be so self-sufficient, responsible, confident, happy and creative (not to mention not food-obsessed). They're growing up thinking these weirdly weenie views are healthy and normal.
Walking out my front door that day, each girl happily clutched a plastic baggie stuffed with the exotic kid snacks that my daughter had doled out in pity. I may be a rebel mom, but at least I'm not afraid of a chocolate-chip cookie.
Spencer lives in Chapel Hill, N. C.
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