On reflection I am pretty sure I grew up under the shadow of an over protective mother. But, having said that, my parents were conundrums. They allowed me to do things as a young child that would horrify parents nowadays. For example, I am a cursed with extremely fair skin which, let me tell you, is bad news when trying to safely navigate the harsh Australian summer. But my parents blithely allowed me to run around the beach, semi naked in the middle of summer turning the color of a perfectly cooked lobster. No thought to covering me with sunscreen. How I never developed a melanoma is one of the great miracles of our time.
But then my mother would turn around and say I wasn’t allowed to own a bike until I’d reached the age of 16. Her reason? Scared to death I would be knocked over and killed if I rode on the street. Go figure. But she was like Mother Teresa compared to some of these Mums.
When Manhattan sixth-grader Amedeo White, steps off the school bus, only two blocks from his home, he follows exactly the same drill every afternoon. The 11-year-old takes out his cellphone, dials his Mum and delivers the following running commentary while walking back to his apartment: “Passing the deli,” he says.” Waiting for the walk signal.” He continues giving a step-by-step account of his movements, which is standard operating procedure for helicopter mothers who hover over their children 24/7. These mothers would actually prefer their child never left the womb.
Amedeo’s after school routine is listed among a number of oh my god moments in a Discovery Channel reality TV series suitably called: World’s Worst Mom. A written review of the show was recently published online. It is the poster child for how modern day parents are paranoid about their children’s safety. A group of atypical obsessively protective mothers presented in all of their obsessive horror. Then they are subjected to the intervention of a woman called Lenore Skenazy, who ironically earned the title of World’s Worst Mother, when she allowed her 9-year-old son to ride unaccompanied on the New York City subway and then wrote about it in her newspaper column. This I find quite intriguing. When I was growing up, granted it was more than half a century ago, parents did not bat an eyelid in allowing their children to travel unaccompanied. I used to walk three kilometres to school unaccompanied. No one would call my mother the world’s worst because it was considered normal behaviour. Kids walked everywhere and travelled on public transport by themselves. Nowadays if children go to school, even if its 50 metres from where they live, mother drives them to the front gate and pick them up. If you don’t believe me, go to any school, pretty much anyway in the world, around 3.30pm and chances are you will encounter a traffic jam.
According to the online review of the show, Skenezy is the founder of the so-called ‘Free Range Kids’ movement. The publicity accompanying the series says Skenazy is “ parachuted into people’s home, much like Supernanny, in an effort to eradicate irrational phobias and force anxious mothers to loosen their grip.”
““Some kids are losing their childhood because their parents are so overprotective,” Skenazy says. “Fear is being shoved down their throats at every juncture. “Yes, you have to be vigilant, but not to the degree where you are micromanaging and stopping them from thriving and becoming independent.”
Getting back to the reality TV series, viewers are introduced to some bizarre examples such as one mother insisting her 13- year-old son use the women’s public restroom in case child molesters are lurking in the men’s lavatory. Another is so terrified that her 10-year-old will choke when eating food, she spoon feeds him like a baby. Give me a break.
Remember Amedeo, the kid who calls his mother as soon as he gets off the school bus and provides her with a running description of his movements walking home. Well, it turns out his mother, Cayle White, an actress and entrepreneur, volunteered to appear on the show because she recognized her fears were paralyzing her family. “I really felt like we were stuck,” White says. “I was holding the whole family back, and something had to change.”
One of White’s biggest issues was an unnatural fear of her children becoming infected with germs, either from contracting the flu as a result of touching an elevator button or by food poisoning. “You always hear horrible stories about people getting E. coli from undercooked meat and children dying left and right,” says White, who microwaves already overcooked food to kill off potential bugs. I am pretty sure she is overstating the dangers. Sure am glad she’s not my Mum.
“My kids would be begging me for something juicy and tasty, because everything I made would be dry or burned,” admits White, who also uses hand sanitiser once every 20 minutes. Unfortunately for White’s kids including Amadeo, her philosophy is “Better to be safe than sorry.” Imagine growing up not ever knowing what properly cooked food actually tastes like?
You might be pleased to know (or not) Cayle White was far from being a lost cause in terms of turning around her obsessive behaviour. After ‘Intervening Mom’ Lenore Skenazy insisted the family go for a barbecue in a park — where the agitated Cayle White was banned from any involvement in the cooking process — White comes to the realization that steaks with a tinge of pink do not constitute a death sentence from food poisoning. In another enforced challenge, Amedeo is given nothing more than a map, no cellphone, and told to spend two hours exploring Central Park. During his odyssey, Amadeo finds the courage to ask a stranger for the time— something utterly unthinkable in the past.
“When he came back, he seemed really proud of himself,” admits White, who spent the entire time wringing her hands and biting her fingernails. “Even his posture was better.”
As Skenazy points out there is no greater gift to your child than giving them the gift of self confidence. She says it was amazing to see the transformation in Amadeo.
The mostly newly reformed, Cayle White claims to now have a more relaxed attitude to parenting. Amedeo, is permitted to take the bus to school without a running cellphone commentary to his mother. And his brothers, Felix, and Ziggy, discovered the joys not to mention the taste of properly cooked food.
“One of them dropped something on the floor the other day and it was well beyond the five second rule,” says White. “It was probably there for a minute and I said: ‘Oh, go on, eat it!’”
Another New York family who also received the Skenazy treatment on the show is the Almonte family of suburban Rockland County, whose home resembles a five star prison thanks to Mum’s insecurities.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m in a box and nobody can come into it and I’m not allowed out of it,” 10-year-old Brianna says to Skenazy on the show.That’s because Phyllis Almonte won’t allow her daughter to have play dates with other kids such as sleepovers, because she’s worried about Brianna being inside a strangers’ house, changing clothes and no privacy. Phyllis Almonte even accompanies Brianna into the stall of the ladies’ room at the mall in case her daughter comes into contact with germs or a stranger makes an approach.
In something that I can personally identify with, 12-year-old son Zach, is banned from riding his bicycle away from their driveway because Almonte is afraid he could be hit by a car on the road. “It feels like I am two years old still and my mum has to watch and correct what I am doing if I make a mistake,” Zach says. “It feels like I’m trapped.”
And If that’s not bad enough, when the Almonte children are playing in the backyard, they keep in touch with their mother through a walkie-talkie. Seriously.
“I constantly fear that they will get abducted or hurt,” Almonte says on the show. “I know what I’m doing is not good, but I can’t help it.”
In her case, the intervention on the show takes the form of an organised play date where Brianna is allowed to host a swimming pool party for a group of girls from school. It’s a triumphant success, with Almonte even bonding with the other mothers and arranging a reciprocal play date for Brianna in the future.
Zach gets to cycle to the park less than four kilometres away, where he plays basketball with his friends. But it is two steps forward and one step back. Phyllis Almonte drives to the courts to check up on him, later conceding it’s time to stop being so overprotective. “I learned that you have to teach your kids right and wrong, talk to them and it all boils down to trust,” Almonte says “I can’t keep them inside this bubble forever, or they won’t know how to handle themselves in the real world.”
According to the online review, the high point in the show, is when a terribly brave Zach Almonte zooms down a giant slide at a water park, moments before his mother, afraid of heights and water, does the same. “Self esteem doesn’t come from being told: ‘Oh, you’re great!’ It comes from doing something hard,” Skenazy says. “Part of our job as parents is to encourage kids to take that extra step.”
At the end of the show when Skenazy says her goodbyes, a more relaxed Phyllis Almonte physically looks 10 years younger. Just goes to show what stress can do to your appearance. While Brianna and Zach, now get to act like normal kids, Almonte says: “Instead of thinking of all the things that could go wrong, I’m thinking about all the things that could go right.”
Most people would think that’s pretty good advice. Tough as it is, you can’t live your child’s life for them. Wrapping them in cotton wool doesn’t help either. Equip them to handle life’s challenges as best they can says Skenazy and hope like hell they do.