Peggy Orenstein’s recent column in the New York Times about parental fears in response to a USA Today report on poor air quality around schools struck a chord with me. Our own neighborhood school was reported to be “more toxic than at an Ohio elementary school that closed in 2005 because of poor air quality,” due to the high levels of sulfuric acid, a result of the nearby paper mill.
Wisconsin prides itself on being a great place to raise a family, and our neighborhood, with its public parks, pools, and numerous city services for children, is an idyllic paradise for families with young children. Or so I thought.
Although I’m skeptical of media fear-mongering -- especially when it’s geared toward parents -- the possibility of our children being exposed to toxins should make us worried, and angry. Yet Peggy Orenstein seems to chastise “the hypereducated, ecoconscious” parents (including herself, to be fair) for their obsessive efforts to keep their children safe, calling their fears “another blade in a helicopter parent’s propeller, another version of the overzealous monitoring that has produced kids who leave for college without ever having crossed the street by themselves.” Maybe it’s because I live in a blue-collar town and not Berkeley, but that description seems a bit unfair. While the “blade in a helicopter parent’s propeller” is a snazzy metaphor, I find her argument a straw man—and missing the point. Sure, there exist over-protective parents who are easily manipulated into purchasing products that offer only the slimmest of health claims (organic chocolate chips, anyone?), and yes, we are often afraid of the wrong things (as Leavitt and Dubner point out in Freakonomics. But parents should question the toxins that pollute our neighborhoods and schools. Instead of relying on alarmist articles and the subsequent quick dismissals, parents should learn more about the industries in our towns and the regulations in place to protect us.
Why are we so fearful for our children? Perhaps because we’re raising them in a country with no guaranteed health care, sky-rocketing college tuition, and an ethos that privileges profit over its citizens’ welfare. Unfortunately, buying a $25 SIGG water bottle and dressing them in organic cotton pajamas will not keep them safe. But a healthy, informed anger might be a good place to start.