Five months ago, when a 5-year-old died in a tragic accident inside a rotating restaurant in Atlanta, droves of internet commenters implied that the parents should have been on top of the child at all times — although the parents had been at a table a few feet away and the incident had happened terribly quickly.
One commenter wrote on the Huffington Post, “Parents are much more casual these days about their children wandering away from the table in restaurants.” (Really? They are?) Several readers asked accusatory questions: Were the parents staring at their phones? Drinking wine? How long was the boy away? Why was he not sitting down?
They all insisted: Parents should not let their kids out of their sight for a fraction of a second.
A couple of months later, I read an essay entitled, “No, your kid can’t have my subway seat.” The piece received hundreds of comments from readers who eagerly dove into a new chance to scold all modern parents for what the author termed their "coddling impulse." The piece specifically argued that tired commuters should not have to forfeit their seat to a child of 6 or so who could instead stand up and grasp the germy pole herself. One commenter argued that today's parents need to “learn to let go” — and another said they should stop “put[ting] their child on a pedestal.”
It's baffling how widely the internet hive mind swings back and forth in its conflicting opinions about what, exactly, is wrong with modern parents. Are they far too coddling and “helicoptering," as the subway article commenters suggested? Or exactly the opposite: Is their self-involvement and neglect putting their kids in danger? The parent-shamers just can't decide.
Another example from a year ago: Internet commenters similarly rushed to judgment when a 2-year-old boy on vacation at a Disney resort was tragically dragged into a lagoon by an alligator. Commenters demanded to know: How far were the parents from the child? Why was the family outdoors at 9 p.m.? (Jet lag? Who cares?) Did the father try to fight the alligator? (He did.)
Let's get this straight: Even a “helicopter” parent can't prevent tragic accidents — and playing the blame game only does further damage to families who have experienced an awful loss.
Why do people judge the victims of tragedy? A 2016 Atlantic article called "The Psychology of Victim Blaming" offers some insight, suggesting that folks who search for scapegoats in this way do so because they want to believe a similar accident could never happen to them. They would never be so distant/selfish/hands-off as to allow something terrible to occur. (On the flip side, they would never be so smothering/overprotective as to allow something so supremely inconvenient as asking for a subway seat for their child. It's illogical, but it does work both ways.)
So commenters blame other parents in an attempt to differentiate themselves from them. But why the two extreme and diverging views? Well, even the parent-critics with opposing viewpoints tend to agree on one thing: Things were much different — and better — when they were kids.
Some fans of Stranger Things have waxed nostalgic about its setting: a simpler time when kids roamed unsupervised — before media coverage of the 1980s Adam Walsh abduction supposedly scared parents into becoming overprotective. But weren't parents also scared after Etan Patz’s 1979 disappearance in New York? And what about the 1932 Lindbergh baby kidnapping about which we still hear references in pop culture? It’s true that we hear more about tragedies today due to expanded technology and media, but other things have changed since generations ago: We've become a more diverse, varied and variable human society.
Yes, it’s possible that some of our miscellaneous numbers are "too" overprotective or "too" hands-off, but most of us are probably doing our best just to figure it all out.
An individual tragedy in the news isn’t a sign that "all modern parents" are doing something wrong. It's an example of a story parents can take in, mourn and learn from — without judging. Although we can certainly try to teach our children every safety precaution — and even every subway etiquette lesson — individual circumstances and situations differ widely, and chances are we don't know the full details of someone else's experience.
Perhaps, then, instead of fueling an endless stream of negative comments on the internet, we can channel our energy toward teaching our children to have sympathy — and to think critically before judging others. In fact, this might be one of the best lessons they carry with them into adulthood.