Family

I Used to Worry About Being an Overprotective Parent

The Trump era changed that.

A mother drawing with her child.
Illustration by Jim Cooke. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

This is part of What We Learned, a series of reflections on the meaning and legacy of the Trump years.

Back in 2017, I was a new parent who had read plenty of Lenore Skenazy and had every intention of defying what I thought was the dominant culture of hover parenting. If you had asked me then whether American society is generally “too safe,” I would probably have said “Yes!” I wanted to be a parent who let my child find her own footing. Head shaking at our “safe society” was something we all did in my very liberal family—my mother, reading a long warning label on a stepstool and laughing at all the cautions the manufacturers had to include to avoid a lawsuit; my older relatives, reminiscing about the years when kids used to tumble out the door at dawn and return by last light. The idea that our culture had gone a little too far over to the cautious side seemed like a simple bit of conventional wisdom.

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Now, after four exhausting years of conservative sneers about snowflakes, “safe spaces,” and soy boys, I don’t think I’ll ever again perceive conversations about American safety as politically neutral. These were the years when I realized that the commonly held belief that American kids and teenagers are overprotected—articulated over the years in Atlantic cover stories and bestselling books—is a cousin to the Trump-y argument that American life itself has been weakened by safety. It’s with this argument as ideological fuel that his administration stripped away occupational safety protections for workers, rolled back environmental regulations, even lowered standards for the inspection of meat.

But all the rollbacks, rule changes, and cruel comments minimizing the trauma of children separated at the border (do not forget this) look, in hindsight, like a prelude to the way the right used anti-safety-ism to dismiss the COVID-19 threat. As Donald Trump bungled his way through the pandemic, there was a stretch where the message from the right was: Stop being so scared of a little virus; your ancestors would be ashamed of you. Or, as Trump himself said in October, after he left Walter Reed pumped full of the best COVID drugs American medicine has to offer: “Don’t let it dominate your life.”

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This “buck up and take it” argument became a persistent theme last summer. Fox’s Brian Kilmeade said in early July that schools should reopen because “life is full of risks; kids should learn early on that life is full of hurdles; you’ve got to find a way to overcome.” Rush Limbaugh, around the same time, said on his radio show that Americans needed to do what their forebearers had done and get on with life. In the course of the 1918 flu, he said, “There was no, ‘Woe is us.’ It was just the next in a long line of things that happened with people that they dealt with.” Limbaugh went on to talk about the Donner Party and how, though they had to turn to cannibalism, they “didn’t complain about it, because there was nothing they could do. They had to adapt.”

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Limbaugh’s Donner Party bit got more press—of course; it’s hilarious—but the 1918 comment is almost more chilling. If our great-grands didn’t say “woe is us” about the flu, it’s because they had no recourse for dealing with it. At that time, they didn’t even really know that influenza was a virus! And the mental damage from the flu pandemic—the grief, the neurological effects on survivors—was huge. Reading these arguments, thinking about their usefulness to Trump, I came to see how the idea that history is a series of inevitable tragedies, and that human effort to avert them is futile, can do a great deal to cover for governments’ failures to protect.

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The anti-vaxxers who have found common cause with Trump also draw rhetorical fuel from this reactionary anti-safety-ism. This took me a while to understand, because anti-vaxxers are also motivated by misplaced fear of the possible effects of vaccines. But the Trump years have shown me that anti-vaxxers think we who vaccinate are the ones who have let an obsession with safety govern our lives. In 2019, Darla Shine, wife of then–White House deputy chief of staff Bill Shine, hopped on Twitter to argue against the use of the measles, mumps, and rubella shot after news of a measles outbreak in Washington state. “Bring back our #ChildhoodDiseases,” Shine wrote. “They keep you healthy and fight cancer.” Kids and parents should be brave enough to let kids have these diseases, goes the logic, because then they will have “life long natural immunity.”

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Later on in 2019, a study came out showing that having measles actually wipes out a bunch of a body’s accumulated immunity to other viruses and bacteria—a phenomenon called “immune amnesia” that does not occur when you get the MMR shot—so this belief now looks even more misguided. But scientific information has turned out to be a poor counter for the right’s deeply held belief that liberals are just babies who need to grow up.

It’s no mistake that the right hates the reformers of the Progressive Era, who best articulated the idea that a rich society like ours should extend the means of safety to as many as possible, through benefits like sanitation, occupational protections, and health care. Is American society “too safe” in 2021? I’ve never seen more clearly that for most people, in most places, it’s not safe enough.

This is part of What We Learned, a series of reflections on the meaning and legacy of the Trump years.

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