Parents may avoid other topics, such as the pandemic, because they don’t know what’s going to happen next, and they don’t want to frighten their child by admitting it. Emily Aron, a child psychiatrist and professor at Georgetown University, notes that this misunderstands what children actually need. “There are going to be questions that parents won’t have an answer to,” she told me. “Say that. Sometimes, we feel overcome by our kids’ emotions, and we really want to answer the question or fix whatever they’re upset about. But part of parenting is just helping them sit with their feelings and bearing witness to what they’re going through. That may not seem like what we think of as ‘parenting,’ but it’s comforting to a child.”
All of this raises an interesting possibility: By curing us of the delusion that we can fix all problems and explain away all uncertainty, could our anxiety-ridden moment lead to less anxious parenting? In her forthcoming book, A Good Time to Be Born: How Science and Public Health Gave Children a Future, the pediatrician Perri Klass describes how the world—and with it, parenting—has been transformed by declining infant and child mortality over the past century. “In my grandmother’s lifetime, most people would have lost either a child or a sibling,” she told me recently. “What was parental anxiety like back then—when a sore throat could be scarlet fever and a child could die from it? And why has losing that unthinkable level of danger not led to less parental anxiety today?”
One reason, Klass believes, is that parents—especially privileged ones—keep elevating expectations for health and safety. Once vaccinations were more or less universal, attention turned to the next frontier in child safety, and the next—car seats, prevention of sudden infant death syndrome, bike helmets. In her book, Klass points to these campaigns as pediatric triumphs. But driving down deaths has had some unrecognized effects on what is expected of parents. “It results in a worldview that says, ‘If you do everything right, your kid will be safe.’ When a child gets hurt somehow, people now ask, ‘Was she in a car seat?’ ‘Was she wearing a helmet?’ We all wonder, could this have been prevented? My grandmother thought of the world as essentially unsafe, so I don’t think she felt that same pressure. If a kid got hurt in the street, people didn’t think it was the parent’s fault.” (To which I’d add: An even more pernicious aspect of this development is that it absolves society of responsibility for children’s welfare—with the result that even as affluent parents spend heavily on their children’s safety, other children are left to suffer the profoundly unsafe conditions associated with poverty and trauma.)
“To create a sense of security for children,” Klass told me, “you do not have to promise that you have superpowers. You don’t have to say, ‘I will never die.’ To help them feel secure, you can rely on old-fashioned things: children’s books—including ones from the unsafe world of 100 years ago—routines, rituals, certain kinds of affection. All of these can be very comforting. You don’t have to guarantee certainty.” In children’s stories of earlier eras, Klass noted, dying is a part of life, and uncertainty is one of the few givens (see among many other examples Little Women and Betsy-Tacy, both of which matter-of-factly feature death without being about it). In contemporary kids’ books and films, as in contemporary kids’ lives, disease and death are rare. This is partly because many modern parents steer clear of upsetting content—but as Klass pointed out, it’s also because art imitates life, and at least until recently, fatal illness hasn’t been much of an issue in the average kid’s life. Equally to the point, it hasn’t been an issue in modern parenting.