I was 16 years old in a hot tub at the wave pool with my girlfriend, sucking on her face. Because that’s what obnoxious teenagers who’ve recently discovered each other’s naughty bits do: They publicly display their affection regardless of how many bystander stomachs it causes to churn.
I came up for air and noticed a kid not getting any air.
It was a big hot tub that could fit around 25 people. The kid was about 5 and lying facedown in the water just a few feet in front of me, not moving. I leapt forward and grabbed his arm and hauled his head out of the water. He sputtered and coughed and cried, and his mom, who had been deep in conversation with someone else, came and tore him away from me, a nasty look on her face.
“Mommy I don’t know how to swim!” he wailed.
“Well then stay on the bench like you’re supposed to,” she barked at him.
I was there. I saw what happened, and can assert with confidence that she’s a shitty mom.
Oh, and my girlfriend said, “You just saved that kid’s life.” I don’t know about that, but I was happy to go back to making out with her.
I have two kids and my wife and I are a bit paranoid. We don’t want to helicopter, but at the same time we try to keep them safe. It was about 20 years later, at that exact same wave pool, when I was there with my son, who was about the same age as that boy in the hot tub. We were playing in the pool and the waves were coming. He wanted to explore deeper and deeper, but he could not yet swim.
So we went to where the water was up to his chin, but he was never out of arms reach. At least, he wasn’t until a wave pulled him away from me, into water that was over his head.
But I’d been watching like a hawk. The wave pulled him away and he knew one clear thing in an instant: Oh, fuck. I need my dad.
He looked back over his shoulder and reached towards me, and I was there. I grabbed his hand and hauled him back into shallower water.
It doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes, even when you’re not shitty hot tub mom, but actual good and vigilant mom (or dad), you blink, and the kid disappears.
When my son was 5 I took him to see The Incredibles. One of the characters is “Dash,” a boy who can run at super speeds. Of course, he was my son’s favorite part of the movie. He imagined himself being Dash and able to run that fast.
After the movie we went to McDonalds. It was snowing and the roads were slippery. I got him out of his booster seat in the back of the car, and in the half second it took me to close the car door he ran away.
He was thinking I’m Dash. I’m gonna run fast. And so, he did something he normally never would have done. He bolted straight towards the doors of McDonalds without waiting for me.
And he ran right in front of a big SUV.
Dear SUV driver: Thank God for you and having your shit wired tight. I know the roads were slippery. I know he came out of nowhere and ran right in front of you. Thank you for stopping in time.
It still gives me a mild myocardial infarction thinking of it now, almost 13 years later, because my son almost died.
A few years later, when my son was almost 9 and my daughter had just turned 6, we were visiting Disneyland. And yes, we had drilled into our kids’ heads ad nauseam the need to never wander off, stay close, do what we say, don’t run away, stand right here, keep your hands at your sides … They’d been prepped / drilled / cajoled / threatened and bribed to not run wild. Ever.
But kids are not robots, and they can break with their programming at any moment.
I blinked, and she was gone.
We’d just had photos taken with Goofy, my daughter’s favorite. We were heading off somewhere else and then she just wasn’t there. We looked at yelled and were in the process of developing a strategy of what to do when I spotted her.
We had walked past a flowerbed. It turned out that she had bent over to pick one then ran back to give it to Goofy.
Nice gesture. Thanks for the heart attack.
I expect that, if you’ve been paying attention to the news, you know why I’m telling you these stories.
A gorilla is dead and a toddler is in hospital, and we have armchair parents, armchair zoo enclosure specialists, and armchair primatologists all weighing in to offer their opinions.
My opinion is that the whole thing sucks. A kid got hurt and a gorilla got dead. Maybe there is blame to be doled out and maybe there isn’t. Maybe the mother was like shitty hot tub mom or maybe she was vigilant but she blinked.
I wasn’t there. I don’t know if she was playing on her phone or if the kid just pulled one of those disappearing acts that no parent, no matter how much they helicopter, can control.
But that doesn’t stop the armchair parenting. The mother has faced a ton of scorn. She’s received death threats. People have said they should have shot the mother instead of the gorilla.
Anyone who raises children will know that they can disappear in an instant, because that’s what they do, even ones that normally don’t behave that way; like the case with my son running in front of an SUV. All you can do is hope that it doesn’t end badly and someone else is there to help. In my case, I got help from the driver who was on his game. The mother got help from the zoo staff who made a tough call to protect the child.
One thing I wonder about is how many of the people hurling vitriol at this mother have any experience with raising children.
James S. Fell is an internationally syndicated fitness columnist for the Chicago Tribune and author of Lose it Right: A Brutally Honest 3-Stage Program to Help You Get Fit and Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind, published by Random House Canada. He also interviews celebrities about their fitness stories for the Los Angeles Times, and is head fitness columnist for AskMen.com and a regular contributor to Men’s Health.