DEAR CAROLYN: In regard to Emma [whose parents allow her to go to school but not “anywhere else, ever” http://bit.ly/EmmaAgain]: Please look at it from all angles. Maybe the mother suffered abuse at the hands of a friend’s brother or father or grandfather and they are being vigilant and protective of their only child. Could it be overprotective? Possibly … but rather safe than sorry.
DEAR G.: I know you mean well, and yes, Emma’s mom might be traumatized.
I’ll go one further: Parents have wide latitude to raise their children as they see fit.
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But “better safe than sorry” is for tossing leftovers from the back of the fridge. Emma is a human being, and oversimplifying the way someone relates to the world for the entirety of her childhood — meaning well beyond that, most likely — is a profound disservice to her.
If raising her entirely at home, with all non-school activities occurring under parental supervision, were the responsible way to prevent harm, then every child should be kept home — right? Because what makes Emma’s risk different from any other child’s? (If Emma herself were traumatized — different column.)
Think about it for a moment.
If the risk is so high that Emma isn’t safe anywhere but home or school, then why is it OK for Emma’s friends to come to her house? By the parents’ logic, these friends, too, are safe only at their own homes or school. Emma’s parents can’t treat their rules as reasonably protective and host other children sans parents. They can’t have it both ways and make any claim to integrity.
Either: Every child is in enough peril in a dangerous world that all of them should be under constant parental supervision until they reach certain age.
Or: The risks don’t justify keeping every child home. And therefore the only reason a hypothetically traumatized mother keeps a child home is that the mother herself needs it to feel safe.
Which means it’s not about the child’s well-being at all, it’s about the parent’s.
My logic probably sounds unsympathetic, but I’m not. I understand. Trauma doesn’t bug you for days or weeks and then leave; it rearranges your life.
It’s unrealistic to expect its victims to shed every memory of it, especially during the profound and emotional experience of child-rearing.
But there has to be compassion for the children, too.
For one thing, sometimes home is the problem. So much — too much — trauma comes from within families. You said it yourself, in a way. You refer to possible abuse by “a friend’s brother or father or grandfather” — ergo, the friend in your hypothetical has a predator in the house herself. A culture of permitting kids to visit other houses, within responsible limits that reflect each family’s needs, doesn’t only introduce potential harm; it can rescue kids, too. It can give an abused child temporary refuge, and chances to know how healthy environments feel.
It can also just broaden typical kids’ horizons.
Plus — parents aren’t creating something on their own, of their own and that only they control. Child-rearing isn’t sculpting. It’s loving, protecting, teaching and ultimately releasing a fully realized human whose experiences from the beginning are her own. Emma deserves a chance at the childhood her friends are having when they come to her house. One of nuance, due diligence and trust.
And they all deserve a definition of “safe” that protects them not just from predation, but also from emotional stunting, from the joy-warping effects of irrational fear, and from the risk-seeking rebellions often launched by teens and young adults who’ve been raised like veal.
So, parents who have been traumatized owe it to their kids to manage their own emotional health sufficiently, in treatment if necessary, to accept some calculated risk on behalf of their kids.
Because life is risk. And to this parent, at least, life is better full than arbitrarily “safe.”
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org or chat with her online at 10 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.