Magazine | October 10, 2016, Issue

A Literal Nanny State

No Child Left Alone: Getting the Government Out of Parenting, by Abby W. Schachter (Encounter, 280 pp., $25.99)

My son was born in December 2000 at Cayuga Medical Center in upstate New York. Immediately, there were complications. He was a month premature, his lungs collapsed, and he was quickly diagnosed with pneumonia. A joyous day had turned immediately into one of the most stomach-churning experiences of my life.

For days we watched him, held him as best we could, and prayed fervently as he panted for air. When he wasn’t panting, he was crying and whimpering. Because of all the wires and tubes attached to him, it was hard to hold him, and nothing seemed to comfort him — except when we were able to bottle-feed the breast milk that my wife was faithfully (and painfully) pumping.

In the midst of this misery, I asked one of the nurses for a pacifier — hoping that that would bring my son some contentment and relief. Owing to the surprise circumstances of the early labor, we hadn’t gone to the hospital with the bag we’d prepared, there were no pacifiers in the hospital gift shop, and we’d hoped the nurses could help.

One of the nurses looked at me like I’d asked to give our son a shot of Jack Daniel’s, to “take the edge off.” Her reply was cold: “At this hospital, we discourage ‘nipple confusion.’” My response was indignant: “Well, in my family, we practice nipple diversity!” And with that, I drove to a store, bought a pacifier, and immediately helped calm my distraught son.

I thought about that incident while reading No Child Left Alone, by Weekly Standard and Reason writer Abby Schachter. The book is about the unholy alliance between government nannies and private busybodies who are regulating and sometimes criminalizing the discretion out of parenting — all for the “good of the children.”

Those whose kids are grown — or who opt out of government schools — can miss the staggering array of regulations that govern everything from how children nap at private daycares to the kinds of food properly served at school. Taken together, the government is increasingly implementing a one-size-fits-all model of child-rearing — in which every baby is breast-fed, no one hurts his feelings (or his body) on the playground, and each person is appropriately slim after eating state-approved meals.

The governing model is risk-avoidance taken to an absurd extreme. Schachter effectively lays out how government regulators intervene when they imagine that something bad might happen (in the absence of any evidence of harm) or when the risk of danger is so absurdly low that the act of, say, driving your child to the grocery store is grossly irresponsible by comparison.

Even when there is a problem — for example, childhood obesity — you can count on the government to respond with one-size-fits-all nonsense. Children are different, yet the government responds with uniformity. Some parents are indeed terrible, but foster families can be worse. And the entire effort is shot through with dubious science and classic governmental favor-trading (are milk portions best for kids, or best for the dairy industry?).

Fighting against the overreach are a small group of activists Schachter calls “Captain Mommy” or “Captain Daddy.” These are the free-range moms — the people who grant their children more freedom to walk to school, to play alone, or to take the train; the people who (gasp!) dare to question breast-feeding mandates; the parents who actually don’t mind if their kids play hard at the playground.

Many of these parents were drafted into the fight when the state came calling after they used the same parenting techniques their parents had used. Conventional wisdom in one generation becomes criminality in the next. In one of the book’s more effective passages, Schachter shares how expectations for six-year-olds have changed. In 1979, readiness for first grade included being able to “travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to store, school, playground, or a friend’s home.” Now, sending a child that age alone to school is enough to bring the police to your door.

Given the multiplicity of regulations, it’s clear to me now that my happy childhood was a veritable hellscape. I ran by myself almost a half mile from my house to play (unsupervised!) by a local sinkhole while older kids circled us riding go-karts at unhealthy speeds. At school, I engaged in disturbing, violent behavior by repeatedly fighting off the imaginary Nazis at Bastogne with my brave friends. At home, I faced indescribable risks as I let myself in the house before my parents came home and then brought my chess set onto the front porch to match wits with my latch-key neighbor. My goodness, anything could have happened.

It’s a curious reality (one perhaps under-explored in the book) that parents of my generation (and older) are exactly the people who’ve rejected that same freedom and are even now imposing new standards that would have rendered their own parents neglectful criminals. My generation is wrapping their kids in emotional and physical bubble wrap. I found my childhood freedom exhilarating. Was it secretly terrifying for my peers?

To her credit, Schachter doesn’t advocate replacing a misguided government’s futile attempts at utopia with her own, more libertarian version of perfection. She recognizes that terrible parents can do grave harm, but she’s sensible enough to know that bad facts can make bad law and that the cure can be worse than the disease. For example, when children get truly, morbidly obese, does the potential physical benefit of forced relocation outweigh the terrible psychological costs of family separation, especially when the parents aren’t trying to hurt their kid? When kids are so thoroughly protected from risk, do they pay an emotional price later when they find that the world isn’t as “safe” as they’d hoped?

Moreover, are legal sanctions truly the most effective method of controlling misbehavior? After all, the law is not the only check on wrongdoing, and relying on legal-compliance checklists as a stand-in for effective caregiving is shallow indeed. Peers and families can and do intervene all the time to protect children, and the state should remain only the protector of last resort, the entity that intervenes not because it knows best but because it’s saving lives.

Schachter effectively conveys how the state child-welfare bureaucracy is vast and largely unaccountable, with virtually any parent one misinterpreted moment away from a legal nightmare. I’m reminded of a recent visit to our neighborhood pool, where another person watched the “rough” way I was playing with our youngest child. (I was in the pool with her, tossing her in the air to make a big splash when she came down.) My daughter was laughing and having a great time, but it didn’t matter to the neighborhood busybody. She “could” hit her head. She “could” get hurt. So this woman approached my wife and threatened to call Child Protective Services.

It was a chilling moment. The lifeguards immediately vouched for me, for which I’m thankful, and we defused tensions. But other families are not so fortunate. Stray but a little from the new norms of childhood fun, and the government is one phone call away. After all, risk is terrible. Something bad might happen, and we can’t be too careful with our nation’s most precious young resource, can we?

Read Schachter and you’ll realize that we can, indeed, be too careful. In taking such extreme care, we impose unacceptable costs on parents, and we weaken our children. Our kids are tough enough to endure dodgeball. It turns out that bubble wrap may well hurt them more.

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