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I've just been in the emergency room for two and a half hours," Sarah announced, pushing on as we passed on the street, "and I've got to see my daughter." I had seen Sarah, the daughter of a neighbor, grow up, a few years ahead of my two children, and nowadays run into her only when she comes to visit her parents with her own family. Her right foot was freshly cradled in the clunky contraption doctors call a walking boot but is more accurately a limping boot.
"How old is your daughter now?" I asked.
"Almost four," she said. "And," she added, her voice suddenly shaky with panic, "I've never been separated from her this long before. And she's never been away from me."
There was a time when two and a half hours away from one's four-year-old would not have been seen as a separation. It would have been sought after and thought of as a respite, a reprieve, a welcome break for both mother and child. It would have been seen as a small but necessary step on the long march toward independence, toward a child's adaptation to a world composed of people who are not biologically devoted to satisfying her every wish and making her happy. And it would have been seen as a chance for a parent to reconnect, however briefly, with interests in the world at large.
But this is 2008 and the childrenor at least many of themare never safe enough, never happy enough, unless they are directly in the laser sights of Mommy, and sometimes Daddy. The perpetual presence of Mom is supported by a burgeoning belief that only she is competent enough, that no one can provide care for the children or meet their needs as well as she can, that depriving the child of her direct attention in the first few years could, in fact, cause psychological damage for life. For this, a growing number of successful women are giving up significant careers to stay at home with the little ones, demographers report. It seems that to justify such application of their skills and education, they have to elevate child rearing to a challenge worthy of their time.
Parental hyperconcern about safety and well-being turns a two-and-a-half-hour interlude of what once, in calmer days, may have been looked on as a break from the kids into a window of intense worry. Hyperattendance to children falsely breeds a sense of control and erroneously endows every action of the child with an importance it does not have. It also violates a cardinal rule of development: attentive and responsive care to an infant is absolutely necessary, but there comes a point when it is oppressive, robbing children of the very thing they need for continued growth. In small doses at first, and larger ones later, separation is essential to activate the system the infant will call on for exploring the world and mastering inner and outer life. Buried in overattachment and overinvolvement is an assumption of fragility, the belief that by not having some nuance of need met, the child will be irrevocably harmed. The paradox of parenting is that the pressure to make it perfect can undermine the outcome.
Parents, nevertheless, will not have to relinquish scrutiny of their children to others, even trained professionals, when the kids enter school. Many live in a school district that maintains a Web site just for parents and runs a computer program that allows them to keep an obsessive eye on their kids throughout the school day, from the minute they enter kindergarten to the day they graduate from twelfth grade. Zangle is one such program favored by a number of midwestern school districts. Parents in affluent areas like Bloomfield Hills and Birmingham, Michigan, where up to 70 percent of the highly educated mothers may be stay-at-home moms, are so tickled by the remote control it provides them that they spend hours "zangling" their kids--and comparing the results with other parents passing their days the same way. With a secret password, they log on and check whether their kids have turned in their homework assignments, review the grades they are getting on tests and reports and daily homework assignments, discover whether there have been any "behavioral incidents," and even find out whether their kids chose chocolate milk or Pepsi with their burger and fries in the school cafeteria.
Excerpted from A Nation of Wimps by Hara Estroff Marano Copyright © 2008 by Hara Estroff Marano. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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