Car seat woes

Carseat Woes

I love my rural life. I love the night sounds of creatures crawling in the leaf litter, I love the wild berries that line our country lane, I love the moon sparkling on the frosty cedar trees that ring our house.  And, I love the privacy afforded by the forest around me, too.  The freedom to experiment with building and gardening without the pointy noses of city authorities or neighbors constantly poking into my business.

Living off the grid has required that I go without many of the conveniences that I grew up with in my urban childhood–washer/dryer, electric light on demand, dishwasher, thermostatically-controlled heating.  As we’ve built our homestead, we’ve worked hard to set up patterns of sustainable and ecological living, which has required lots of unlearning of bad habits and addictions, a vigilant questioning of our needs for things that we previously took for granted (refrigeration! unlimited supply of water!)   I am so thankful for the stripped-down life that I now lead.   I thought that I would never give it up for anything.

And then came the carseat.  Ha!

Everytime I strap my son into that hideous contraption–which reminds me somewhat of a straitjacket for babies, or even a torture device–I seriously consider moving to a little town somewhere, with everything we need within walking distance.  I know this may be an extremely unpopular thing to admit to these days, but I really hate the carseat, or, as they are commonly (and all-too-accurately) described, “infant restraints.”

I am currently doing what I can to minimize car travel, but since I live in a rural area, I am still fairly dependent on my car, since there is no ready access to public transport, and we are still a-ways away from manifesting our dream of new village life where we produce all we need onsite.  For now, everytime I get into a vehicle, I am forced to choose between two undesirable options.  Do I want to forcibly “restrain” my child as he screams like he’s going insane, or do I want to risk our physical safety by playing on the loose in the backseat with my son, just like my parents did in the fifties?

If you are thinking that car seats are hands-down the safest way for children to survive a car crash, you’d probably be correct. But, I ask you to consider that this may be a narrow view, one defined by a society utterly dominated by automobiles. The real question ought not be, “How can a baby best survive a car crash?” but rather “Why do we consider cars an appropriate place for a baby at all?”

Since they cannot speak up for themselves, let me submit that little babes, who cannot yet consent or even understand why they are being strapped down, should not be expected to ride in an automobile.

But, alas, we do not live in a society that honors children, mothers, or any of us enough to even consider this view as humane and frankly, commonsensical. To me, it is frightening that, year after year, our society blindly accepts the staggering casualties resulting from our use of automobiles–the US census in 2009 reported over 2 million people are injured or killed in car accidents in the US alone–rather than demanding meaningful redesign of our towns and cities to encourage walkability and car-free culture.

If I had my choice, I would much rather accomplish all my errands on foot, if only to spare my child the indignity of strapping him into that thing.  Then combine all that fuss with careening down the highway at 50mph, and you’ve got the makings of a horror film! I’d much prefer simply to walk, thank you.

But how many American cities and neighborhoods are designed to facilitate a walking option? Not many these days, thanks to skewed development schemas that prioritize car access, strip mall construction and megaprofits above the needs of children and families. How about designing safe, green neighborhoods built with the flesh of the human foot in mind, instead of quick cash, steel and gasoline?

Yes, I am as dependent on my car as most Americans, living in a rural area with a sluggish economy. But this does not mean that I therefore desire to strap my child down in a moving vehicle, often with him kicking and screaming “No, Mama!!! No!!!!”

There is little question that if we were to be in a crash, that he would be safer in his car-seat. But, I ask you, is the risk of getting into a car accident automatically greater than the risk of emotional damage that results from forcibly strapping him down against his will? What harm do I cause him when I repeatedly ignore his very clear communication that he does not wish to be tied up, by himself, with no chance to wiggle and stretch (as babies do) and no warm lap to comfort him? Why should he be expected to sit still? He’s a baby for goodness sake! I do not blame him one bit when he protests.

Unfortunately, I have seen many times an over-reliance upon the practice of “infant restraint” for the parents convenience, rather than the child’s safety.  As they are moved from the car, then to the shopping cart at the big box store, then back into the car again, often spending hours without ever leaving the car seat, children quickly learn that their needs and requests will be ignored and overpowered, and cope by becoming completely passive.  It isn’t hard to understand that a baby needs to move as part of the developmental process. “Child restraint” is anathema to this development by definition.

Everything I’ve read and observed about continuum parenting, connection, and attachment theory underlines the importance of listening to children and accommodating their basic needs for physical connection with their parents, of being in-arms, and of sensing and going with–not against!–their cues wherever possible. The consequence of coercing and bending them away from their basic needs may at first create that docile little “angel,” watching the world go by from their padded car seat transport. But there is a heavy price to be paid later when the child learns he cannot trust his parents to hear and respect his needs.

A child who learns in infancy that ‘might makes right’ will soon start to learn and use his own methods of coercion. Monkey see, monkey do. It’s very simple, and very predictable. From temper tantrums at two years old to all-out mutiny and rebellion in the teens–all of these are legitimate adaptive responses to a culture of coercion.

Just because I was born into a regrettably car-obsessed culture doesn’t mean I agree with it’s basic assumptions—namely, that the risk of getting into a car accident must be avoided at all costs, even when it assures damage to his sense of emotional safety, which is arguably just as important to health as physical safety.

So when I refuse to ignore my son as he screams to be released from his little car straitjacket, I ask you not to judge me as a monstrous, incompetent parent. On the contrary, I am trying to protect him from the carnage of an emotional car wreck, carnage which is so common these days that many have ceased to notice it.

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