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Lara Pingue is an assistant national editor at The Globe and Mail
In case you missed the memo: Halloween is back. Trick-or-treating has been given the green light this year, making a welcome return after a dismal showing in 2020, when parts of Canada were advised to forgo the festivities altogether. Too risky, health officials said. The fallout was like watching a sociological experiment unfold in real time: some parents shrugged off the health warnings and went ahead with the Smarties-fuelled revelry; others hunkered down and tried to convince their kids that staying home was better than venturing outside to collect candy from strangers. Both sides sneered at the other.
Halloween 2020 feels like it was eons ago, but the risk predicament it presented is very much still with us. To be an adult is to constantly assess risk, a task that becomes especially loaded when it involves children: Are they safe? Are we doing enough to protect them? What possible bodily harm awaits them if they cross the street alone/rollerblade without a helmet/eat nothing but Pop-Tarts for a full week? When the pandemic hit, it took virtually every mundane decision there is and upped the ante. Suddenly, grave risk was (apparently) everywhere – in classrooms, at the grocery store, at the playground – making our every move scrutinized, doubted.
It’s not news that parenthood, particularly motherhood, is fraught with judgment. But a global health crisis has put new weight on that judgment, elevating it from petty to profound. The stakes, it seems, have never been higher.
“We’re frightened, and not just about contagion,” writes Kim Brooks, who chronicled parental anxieties for The New York Times in the early months of the pandemic. “We’re frightened of being judged by others, especially at a time when the educational, emotional and psychological needs of our children are posed in direct opposition to the containment of a public health crisis.”
Ms. Brooks knows all about fear and judgment. In 2018, she published a memoir-turned-cautionary-tale about her decision to leave her then 4-year-old in a car alone while she popped into a store to buy a pair of headphones. She took the basic precautions, leaving the car window cracked, locking the door, dashing in and out as quickly as she could. In the end, her son was fine, but Ms. Brooks wasn’t: a bystander had filmed the entire episode and alerted the police, setting off a chain of events that eventually led to a warrant for her arrest. In her book, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear, Ms. Brooks doesn’t lament her decision so much as she launches a takedown of a modern-day parenting culture that breeds anxiety. Statistically, she says, if you’ve driven your kids to the store and you leave them for five minutes, by far the most dangerous thing you’ve done is just put your kid in the car and driven them to the store.
What’s telling is how closely fear and morality are linked, albeit illogically. In Small Animals, Brooks points to research that found people are more likely to draw conclusions about the danger of an action based on its perceived morality. (For instance, if a parent left their child in a car for five minutes to buy milk it was viewed as safer than if that same parent left their child for five minutes to meet a lover.) Immorality, it appears, is risky business.
While I’m not anywhere near leaving my young children alone in a car anytime soon (can you feel the judgment?), I do find myself longing to give my kids a level of autonomy that feels unpopular or unsanctioned in the parenting world these days. As I write this, my 9-year-old son has been granted permission to go to the park alone. He knows if he’s not home at exactly 5:45 p.m., I will come looking for him, flustered and muttering about never letting him do this again. I call this Free-Range Parenting Lite.
I like to think my calculation of risk is deemed acceptable by other parents; I hate that their approval means so much to me, and wish instead we could separate risk from judgment, and fear from morality.
A recent news article out of Germany highlighted the philosophy of incorporating risk into playgrounds, the idea being that play spaces shouldn’t always be a danger-free zone. “If we want children to be prepared for risk, we need to allow them to come into contact with risk,” Rolf Schwarz, a professor at Karlsruhe University of Education, told The Guardian. How utterly sensible and yet completely at odds with the parental instinct to pad and protect our kids.
In the meantime, this Halloween is already a little bit less scary than last year, thanks to vaccines and falling case counts in most parts of the country. And so we’ll wear reflective gear when trick-or-treating, we’ll carry out the requisite candy inspection before we rot our teeth with it and we’ll call it a night.
What else we’re thinking about:
I’ve written in this space about my love of TV drama, but real-life theatrics always trump fiction. That’s why I couldn’t get enough of The New York Times’ Who is the Bad Art Friend?, a viral article that captured the excruciating details of a tiff-turned-legal-battle between two fiction writers over who owns what, when art borrows from reality. Like any good tale, this is a story rife with villains, questionable motives and, well, a kidney donation. Read it, debate it with your friends and then get the author’s behind-the-scenes take on what made this story so irresistible. A perfect example of truth being stranger than fiction.
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