Nothing calls our can’t-win parenting culture into sharper focus than the outrage aimed at the parents of a 3-year-old boy who entered a gorilla exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo over the weekend.
“They should have shot the mother instead,” popped up on my Twitter feed shortly after word spread that zoo officials shot and killed Harambe, the 17-year-old western lowland gorilla who dragged the boy through a moat. Similar sentiments have followed ever since.
More than 400,000 have signed a Change.org petition calling for the zoo, Child Protective Services and the Cincinnati Police Department to hold the child’s parents responsible for Harambe’s death.
Strange, coming from the same culture that shames and pillories parents for helicoptering.
Modern parents and our hovering, smothering, hyperwatchful ways have been blamed for saddling kids with anxiety and depression, robbing them of their childhoods, sabotaging their self-reliance and sapping them of future leadership skills.
Ease up, we’re told. Cut the apron strings. Lengthen the leash. There’s even an annual Take Our Children to the Park … and Leave Them There Day.
“The world is not perfect – it never was – but we used to trust our children in it, and they learned to be resourceful,” free-range parenting founder Lenore Skenazy once told The New York Times. “The message these anxious parents are giving to their children is, ‘I love you, but I don’t believe in you. I don’t believe you’re as competent as I am.’ ”
Shame on you, helicopters. Until, that is, your child is perceived as a little too free-range. Then, shame on you for that.
Now, the boy from the zoo is 3 – an age at which few people would advocate hands-off parenting. But we certainly encourage parents of children that young to allow their kids to explore the world around them within reason. And within reason means the mother’s eyes may have left her son for a minute – enough time for him to dart from her grasp and her sight.
“The mother was standing next to a zoo exhibit and lost track of her child for perhaps a minute or so,” Ohio State University criminal law professor Ric Simmons told reporters.
I wasn’t there, and neither were most of the people tossing out furious judgments, signing petitions and otherwise passing themselves off as experts in parenting other people’s children. So we don’t truly know the extent to which the child was allowed to roam free.
Police are investigating the events that led to the boy falling into the gorilla enclosure, and if the parents are found to be negligent, we’ll no doubt hear about it. As we should – particularly as a cautionary tale for other parents and caregivers who take young children to zoos.
But we don’t yet know what happened, and it’s premature and cruel to lash out at the parents.
Parents look away. Parents get overwhelmed. Parents make mistakes. These are not crimes punishable by death. (“They should have shot the mother instead.” Seriously?)
They shouldn’t even be crimes punishable by social media’s shame tribunal, especially when that same tribunal delights in pointing out all the ways modern parents screw up our kids with our fussy, eternal (literal and metaphorical) hand-holding.
The gorilla’s death is a tragedy, without question. But the little boy’s death would have been also. And so would the mother’s.
Moral outrage at a living being’s untimely demise loses credibility when it’s used to call for the demise of another living being’s.
Especially because, as author Bunmi Laditan (“The Honest Toddler: A Child’s Guide to Parenting”) noted on her Facebook page, we aren’t exactly universal in our embrace of animal rights.
“Unless you’re a card-carrying vegan, how is the death of an animal shaking you to the core?” Laditan wrote. “You eat ribs, no? That too is animal. Burgers. Chicken fingers. Wings. All animals. Is it because gorillas are considered closer to people? Like pets? Or because the gorilla wasn’t killed for a TGIFridays appetizer platter?
“I think people are upset that the gorilla was killed to save a child of parents that they perceive to be negligent,” Laditan continued, “not because they care about the gorilla who, just so you know, wasn’t exactly living his best life in a zoo.”
That’s an excellent point. The world is not perfect, as Skenazy rightly noted.
We ought to stop insisting that parents should be.
Heidi Stevens is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org