Should children be the pampered centers of a mother’s universe? For Stephanie Metz, a 29-year-old mom from North Dakota, the answer is a definitive ‘no’. So she took to her modest blog (original readership: eight followers) to post a self-described “rant” about helicopter parenting and the moral panic surrounding bullying culture. Three weeks on, her cri de coeur against “modern parenting” has netted more than a million views and provoked a media frenzy, with critics calling her tone deaf and defenders praising her for challenging the parental status quo.
Metz’s diatribe was sparked by her four-year-old son’s hesitancy to bring a toy that slightly resembled a gun to school, because he thought might get him into trouble. “My boys are typical little boys. They love to play guns...How long will it be before their typical boy-ish behavior gets them suspended from school?” she wrote. The post quickly slid into more emotionally fraught territory. “There was a time when kids got called names and got picked on, and they brushed it off and worked through it...Now, if Sally calls Susie a bitch...Susie's whole world crumbles around her, she contemplates suicide, and this society encourages her to feel like her world truly has ended, and she should feel entitled to a world-wide pity party. And Sally—phew! She should be jailed!
The inflammatory post was a departure from what Metz normally blogs about (“Four Fabulous Finds On Friday!”; “Weekend Recap: Enjoying Home and a Girls’ Night”). When something so innocuous as a mother with an opinion becomes an Internet sensation, it’s clear she’s hit on an issue that strike a chord in the wider culture—even if, as Metz admits, her thoughts were “all over the place.” It might have been scattered and sloppy, but Metz’s post tapped into an increasing frustration with the fuzzy line between kids being kids and officially dangerous behavior.
Indeed there are innumerable examples of kids being suspended from school for what Metz calls “typical boy-ish behavior”: the six-year-old boy who was sent home after pointing a finger gun at his classmate and saying “pow”; the two 7th-graders suspended for a year for playing with toy guns in their own yards; the 12-year-old boy banned from a class trip after a gun-shaped keychain fell out of his backpack. All of these incidents happened after the Sandy Hook massacre, but the strictness of zero tolerance policies predates even the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School. Punishment at school for such harmless incidents speaks to our culture’s love of moral panics, specifically those related to supposedly “violent” play. Metz is fired up for good reason—parents and school administrators can’t seem to distinguish make believe from bringing an AK-47 to school—and, despite the online backlash, some experts think that Metz has a point.
“These [zero tolerance] reactions are so clearly beyond the pale,” says Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry. “It’s a bizarre leap from reality through what I call ‘worst-first thinking,’ where you come up with the very worst possible scenario, the worst situation you could ever imagine and proceed as if it’s likely to happen. That’s the part of [Metz’s] piece that really had me cheering.”
We’ve reached a point of extreme cultural paranoia that even a four-year-old child is censoring his creative instincts, fearing his toy gun will be construed as a real gun. It’s understandable that Columbine and Sandy Hook loom large in parental nightmares, but we need better solutions to dealing with the panic that has infiltrated our society along with those tragedies. The helicopter parents dictating their child’s every move and schools politicizing their play are doing more harm than good. “That is my big fear—that we start internalizing the craziness, the irrationality and it becomes the way we live our lives,” says Skenazy.
Rosalind Wiseman, author of the New York Times bestseller Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and The New Realities of Girl World has two boys aged 10 and 12 and says she empathizes with Metz’s frustration: “I totally get it. One of my kids went to school and was labeled as being ‘threatening’ because he brought a book to school about gross diseases called This Can Kill You. The head of the school confiscated the book and made him feel like there was something drastically wrong with him for being interested in those kinds of things, as did his teacher.”
But Wiseman warns there could be a downside to Metz’s approach. While the seemingly progressive style of modern parenting is actually regressive in the sense that it prevents children from making their own decisions, Metz’s laissez-faire attitude is equally counterproductive, says Wiseman. “When you’re a mother and say boys are tough and just like to run around, you immediately get to a place where boys are not allowed to have emotions aside from expressing anger. The boy then grows up feeling like he can’t talk about any problems, because he feels [doing so is] weak and that his mother won’t accept him.”
Metz misses the mark when she writes about instilling a certain hardness in one’s children so that when they’re “hurt emotionally” they’ll be able to “work through the hurt and carry on with life.” This isn’t the only alternative to “coddling” one’s children, as Metz puts it—and it could damage her kids later in life.
Still, Metz’s post may be an indicator that we’re losing patience with zero tolerance brigades. “They’re making schools stupid and making kids and parents second-guess every normal thing they do during the day, from giving your kid a nail-clipper to letting him play cops and robbers game,” says Skenazy. “The whole country is fed up with it. And this woman was too.”