Judgey judgey

Harambe’s dead, and I’ve been too judgey about helicopter parenting


I am the Cincinnati zoo mother.

Not literally, of course. During the recent Cincinnati Zoo tragedy, I was 4,000 miles away, in Belgium. Neither am I saying I’m like her, because I don’t know the first thing about what kind of person or mother she is.

In the days following the death of Harambe, the gorilla shot dead over the weekend to protect a 4-year-old boy from possible harm, I saw the unmediated anger, especially toward the little boy’s parents. I watched the videos of that sweet, but terrifically strong, animal and wept, because that life should not have ended. And I said things like, “I’d like to think I’d have been more vigilant.”

But the key phrase here is “I’d like to think...” Because you know what I really think? What my first, private thought was?

That could have been my son. That mother could have been me. 


I don’t think of myself as a helicopter parent. In fact, I actively try to not be one. I’m a proponent of “free-range parenting.” I think kids need unstructured, risky, outdoor play. I don’t think they benefit from 24/7 parental surveillance. And I’ve even joked about my sometimes less virtuous reasons for signing up for that philosophy (I simply don’t have the energy to constantly hover and worry).

That said, my kids are very small, about the age of the boy who fell in Harambe’s enclosure. They’re still too young to go unsupervised, and I do my best to protect them from obvious, imminent threats. Still, sh*t happens.

My primary mode of transportation here in Belgium is the leg-powered kind. We walk a lot, so my kids have tons of opportunities to dash away. And my 2-year-old son takes them — every single one. Thankfully, the few times that he’s made it too close to a street before I’ve been able to catch up, another adult has grabbed him. These adults did not berate me. They did not criticize me. I got no stink eyes, no exasperated sighs. They did not seem to understand why I apologized to them. They were just happy they were there to help.

I’m not saying “blame the bystanders!” here. (Nor am I saying “Europe is better!” because I’m sure neighborliness still thrives in the US.) But I am confused by how much we’re supposed to hate this mother. The mother who, it sounds to me, was at the stroller busy doing momma sh*t directly related to parenting her four kids.

There are fellow mothers who don’t know this woman, didn’t witness this event, and yet take it upon themselves to organize efforts to demonize this woman. Who say things like, “You have to be watching your children at all times.”

And, you know what’s sad? I guess you do.

I guess you have to become a 24-hour monitoring child system, no matter how many you have or what you have going on, because, well, maybe no one is going to help you. And maybe, after not helping you, they will verbally abuse you, or call for your arrest, or even your death.

And if you’re not allowed to glance away from a toddler for an instant with potential, if improbable, dangers afoot, of course your older kids can’t just hop on their bikes and ride alone unsupervised through the neighborhood or walk down the street to the park. Because your neighbors, far from keeping an eye on them (if they happen to be within eye-shot) might instead try to have you arrested. (American legislators were obliged to pass a federal law protecting parents who allow their kids to walk to and from school.)

Far from fellow “villagers” helping raise your child, they may stand aside watching your child run toward the street, or into the ocean at high tide, or into a zoo enclosure, and feel no mobilizing impulse to help, but nevertheless indulge every impulse to publicly shame you.

Again, I’m not saying that other adults at the zoo were responsible for this tragedy, or for this boy. I wasn’t there. I don’t actually know if any witnesses could have done a thing about it. And it sounds like some of them sympathized. But I am suggesting that, just maybe, we all underestimate the extent to which we are responsible for and to each other. It may not be our solemn duty to protect someone’s kid from danger, it’s also not our place to unequivocally condemn her.

This whole zoo sh*t storm has made me realize that I’m way too judgmental of helicopter parenting. No wonder some parents don’t let kids out of their sight. No wonder they hover below as they climb the jungle gym. No wonder they’d rather plop them in front of a television or sign them up for six classes to structure their free time instead of letting them play outside. They get no help, and they get no slack.

When I first heard the news, I felt some of the angry grief that prompted people to cast blame for the tragic, preventable death of a beautiful, blameless animal. But, I’m starting to lose my patience with it all, too.

Because I am the Cincinnati Zoo mom. In fact, I’d be willing to bet she’s a better mother than I am. With four kids, I have no doubt she’s working harder.

And I wish I could have been there. Because I can’t know for sure if I’d have been able to rise to the occasion, but I’d like to think I would have tried to lend a hand, either to help protect her child from danger, or to comfort her.

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