Surveillance Parenting


Written by The Mom

This post is about book #1 of my 100 books review.

Recently I saw a list of classic books and decided it would be fun to read my way through it. I like lists, and I like reading, so it sounds like a nerdy version of a win-win to me. 1984, by George Orwell was the first on the list so I picked it up at my local library and started reading it. I knew when I started reading it that it was a political book. What I didn’t expect was how much it reminded me of parenting today.

The other day my husband and I were taking the kids for a walk to the park. My son (Little F), who is 2.5 years old, is going through a very independent stage. He’s discovering his autonomy and the power of No. We encourage independence in our children and allow them to freely discover their abilities as much as possible when safe but at times it can be frustrating, as any parent with a toddler will understand.

Little F wanted to bring his tricycle on our walk. About 10 feet from our house he decided he wanted to walk instead. My husband suggested he either take his trike back to the house or pull it in the wagon. As occasionally happens when you are 2.5, neither choice or any option was what Little F wanted. He broke down in angry tears and refused to walk another step. In a moment of extreme frustration, my husband raised his voice. He only said a single word: my son’s name.

Immediately I found myself looking around to see if any neighbors were watching. Stories of neighbors calling CPS on families popped into my head. It was silly, really; my husband is a fantastic father, always gentle and has endless amounts of patience. Nor was I worried about our neighbors; we know almost everyone in our neighborhood and are lucky to have great neighbors. Yet there it was: the feeling that we were being watched or judged, that someone was waiting for us to make any small mistake or misstep in our parenting.

It’s not surprising that those thoughts came to my mind, considering the recent stories in the news.

An Arizona mother made headlines this summer for leaving her baby in a shopping cart outside of a store. Before the mother’s identity was even known, before she had a chance to tell her side of the story, photos were posted all over social media assuming the worst about her, calling for her prosecution or for the removal of her children from her home. In a heart-wrenching video, the mother felt compelled to explain her side of the story to society, saying, “I’m a good mom who made a horrible mistake.”

In the generation of social media, having to explain your actions to all of society is a new concept. If this mother had lived even 50 years ago, she likely would’ve returned to pick up her child, been the subject of local gossip for a day or two, and it would’ve ended there. Instead, she was crucified to the point where police back-tracked twice on whether or not to prosecute her: originally they recognized her mistake for what it was and said no charges would be pressed. After public outcry they decided to move forward with a misdemeanor charge, sending it to the local prosecutor. All charges against the mother were eventually dropped.

In another news story from this summer, an 11-year-old boy and his 4-year-old brother were taken away from their parents for a month after a neighbor called police because the older boy had to wait outside in his front yard for 90 minutes for his parents to come home. The boy was reportedly shooting hoops in his driveway when police showed up. Upon their arrival home, his parents were handcuffed and taken into custody, and charged with neglect.

This spring, a policeman picked up two children (aged 10 and 6), two blocks from their house, telling them that he was going to take them home. Instead, they were turned over to CPS and the frantic parents weren’t notified for hours.

In a time when it’s easier to communicate and know someone than it ever has been before, parents live in more fear and mistrust of each other than they ever have. Will we be charged with neglect if we leave the baby sleeping in the apartment while we take the trash out? If we stop at the post office to drop off a letter with our kids sleeping in the running car, will a good citizen call the cops on us? Will we be arrested because the toddler finds a way out of the house and wanders down the street before we realize he is gone?

Of course there are situations in which police should be called and when charges are appropriate. If I saw a child alone in a hot car, I would call the police. If I saw a young toddler wandering down the street by himself, I would call the police. I would hope someone would do the same for my child. There are irresponsible parents out there. Toddlers can be escape artists. Mistakes of terrible proportions do happen.

But where do we draw the line? Why are we so quick to call for families to be ripped apart, parents to be thrown in jail, and lives to be ruined? What is it about the society we live in that people are more likely to whip out their cell phones and post video of someone’s mistakes on social media than they are to offer a helping hand?

1984 is about a society under constant government surveillance, with “Big Brother” always watching, always listening, always judging even your thoughts for any hint of rebellion or disloyalty. Telescreens (screens set up in nearly every indoor and outdoor space of society) constantly scrutinize every action, facial expression, and spoken word.

The lowest class of society in the book are referred to as “proles”. They make up about 85% of the population. They are poor, uneducated and for the most part free of surveillance. Because they are not well-educated, they are easy to keep under control as long as they are distracted and pacified. It never occurs to them to rise against their situation.

There is a scene in which the main character of the book, Winston, says, “The proles are human beings. We are not human.” He realizes that society (except for the proles), himself included, has become numb to the world around them. There is no empathy, no friendship, no love, and in fact their government actively discourages those things. Even the main character frequently thinks violent thoughts towards others without any apparent shock or remorse, or realization that he is thinking of other living, feeling human beings. “If there is hope,” Winston says, “it lies in the proles.”

Social media is wonderful for sharing information, keeping in touch with friends and family, and inviting others to participate in some small way in our daily lives. But it also holds a strange power. Behind the screen, we can become hardened. We are in a position to judge others. Empathy and understanding are easily lost. Just read the comment section of nearly any news article and you will find the comments quickly dissolve into petty arguments, name-calling and frequently even threats.

If our society has already become numb on social media, what is to stop us when we aren’t behind a screen? Soon a citizen who is concerned about little kids walking by themselves is calling the police instead of offering to help them find their way home. A neighbor who sees a boy locked out of the house assumes he is being neglected instead of asking if he would like to use a phone to call someone. A good mother is judged cruelly by society before she has a chance to explain her side of the story.

Let’s not be those people who are numb and dead inside. Instead of judging our neighbor, let’s judge when they need a helping hand. Instead of keeping each other under constant surveillance, let’s watch out for one another. Instead of sharing photos of a mom’s worst moments on social media, let’s share our experiences when we, too, have risen above our worst moments.

Let’s not be the generation known for surveillance parenting. Let’s be the generation that encourages and supports each other. We are raising the next generation of human beings. Will they be empathetic, kind human beings who live in a world full of people they can turn to when they need help?

Or will they, too, be numb?


One thought on “Surveillance Parenting

  1. Pingback: I Like Sports | these good old days

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