Helicopter Parenting and Killer Hippos

by Abby on September 9, 2013

One of my favorite movies of all time is a documentary called “Babies.” The almost wordless 80-min. film follows 4 babies in different parts of the world from birth through their first year of life. The most striking thing about it, to me, is that it shows you how a baby growing up with, say, cloth diapers and Mommy & Me music classes in California is not that different from a baby growing up in Namibia playing in the dirt with wild dogs. In fact, the African baby seems happier, probably because her mother is not hovering over her making her participate in some dumb class with hand puppets.

Baby Ponijao from "Babies" (2010)

Baby Ponijao from "Babies" (2010)

As luck would have it, I know someone from Namibia. Since he is the father of a young child, I took the opportunity recently to grill him about American vs. Namibian parenting. First off, it was telling that he had never even heard the term “helicopter parenting”; I had to explain to him what that meant. I had a hard time fathoming how, in a country where killer snakes and worse run wild, parents could ever let their children out of their sight.

“So your parents weren’t worried you’d get eaten by a crocodile?” I asked S. I may be totally ignorant about most aspects of his country, but I do know they have crocs there.

He laughed. S. laughs a lot. I told you that Namibian baby in the movie seemed like the happiest of the bunch! Then he explained that crocodiles have a strong fishy smell, and kids learn at a young age to stay away when they smell fish. The people who usually get attacked by crocs are older people who didn’t heed their instinct to stay away from that tell-tale odor.

Um, OK. That’s reassuring… I guess? “So has anyone you know ever gotten attacked by a crocodile?”

Oh, sure, he said. You just have to hit the croc until it gets disoriented and drops its prey.

“What?! That’s horrifying! So have you helped someone fight off a croc attack before?”

“Yes, maybe 3 or 4 times.” Totally calm, like he’s talking about giving a neighbor’s car a jump-start.

“Well, what about hippos?” I ask. “I hear they can be pretty aggressive towards humans.” That’s right, I watch Animal Planet.

hippo with open mouthThis is true, he says, but again, Namibian children learn from a very young age how to spot potential danger. “You can tell when a hippo is in a good mood. It sprays water in the air,” S. explains. “And when they are angry, you can tell.” Wha..?? He says that angry hippos charge at you and you can feel their thunderous approach from far away. Also, he says, hippos are vegetarians. So they may crush you to death with their iron-strong jaws, but they won’t actually eat you. (!!) This is in NO WAY comforting or reassuring to me as a parent.

By this time I am making a mental note to never, ever visit Namibia – and we haven’t even GOTTEN to the snakes yet. Apparently, they have snakes there called black mambas that average around 8-10 feet long – the longest venomous snakes in Africa, but wait, it gets worse – and they can STAND UPRIGHT on just a few inches of their tails. “A group of people is usually required to kill it, as it is very fast and agile, striking in all directions while a third of its body is 3–4 feet above the ground.” (per Wikipedia) And yes, our friend S. has also faced down a black mamba.

It’s now becoming clear to me why he has chosen to raise his child in America, but that still doesn’t answer all my parenting questions. Are our kids really so much better off, with our school shootings and processed foods and 24/7 screen-time? Am I protecting my kids or doing them a disservice by standing vigil in the street with a “Children Playing” sign while they ride their bikes with training wheels while wearing helmets? Is there a happy medium between ensconcing your child in bubble wrap and antibacterial gel and having him get killed by a ginormous venomous snake?

I’m still grappling with these issues, all the while thanking God that trash-ransacking raccoons are the worst of our wildlife around here.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Kathleen Basi September 9, 2013 at 5:32 pm

I have a very clear memory of my uncle and my cousin arguing fiercely about this kind of thing. I think it was in Africa, too, in a former war zone. There was a town where there was a mine field separating the east from the western side of town (or maybe it was north to south–in any case, a mine field bisected the town). People went through this mine field on a daily basis, always following the same path because they know it’s safe. Kids, too. Little kids. My uncle couldn’t fathom why people didn’t just pass the time by chucking rocks into the mine field until after a few years they’d all be gone, but my cousin shrugged. Why would they need to do that? They know how to be safe. “Kids are capable of learning a lot more than we give them credit for,” he said.

I think about this a lot. I would imagine that if we all suddenly woke up in some dystopian universe, there would be a high mortality rate among us and our children, because we haven’t been trained toward survival from day one. But any children born in that dystopian future would probably survive quite well.

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Abby September 10, 2013 at 9:45 am

Fascinating comment, Kate. I understand intellectually that kids need to be able to take small risks and steps towards independence, and that by preventing them from doing that because I think I’m keeping them safe I may actually be hurting them, not helping them. But that doesn’t make it any easier when my 4yo is hurtling at top speed toward a busy road!

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jetts31 September 11, 2013 at 12:13 am

Its a gentle balance you have to maintain between letting them ride their bike on their own and being able to smell a crocodile. As much as I want to be hands off, I find myself hovering. Sometimes more than I would like. Kids are resilient and sometimes they need the space in order to learn about the hippos.

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