Gorilla tragedy: Why are we so quick to blame the parents?

Witness: Child joked about going in enclosure
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Story highlights

  • More than 430,000 people have signed a petition saying the boy's parents should be held accountable
  • But many parents are sympathetic as they, too, have lost track of a child

Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter @kellywallacetv.

(CNN)The blame game was almost immediate.

As soon as word spread about the horrifying tragedy at the Cincinnati Zoo involving a 450-pound gorilla and a 3-year-old toddler, people took aim at the boy's mother, blaming her for the events that led zoo officials to kill the gorilla, named Harambe.
    More than 430,000 people have now signed an online petition calling for criminal charges to be filed against the boy's parents for their "lack of supervision and negligence" and for child protective services to investigate the boy's home life.
    What we don't know is how many people who signed that petition are parents themselves. And the majority of the parents I connected with following the tragedy have an entirely different view. These parents have instead been reflecting on how they could have just as easily found themselves in a situation like this one.
    "If you're a parent who hasn't lost your kid before, you're lying," said Buzz Bishop, a broadcaster and father of two boys from Calgary, Alberta. On his blog DadCAMP, he's written about how he's lost track of his son for two minutes at places ranging from the grocery store and a hockey arena to a farming exhibition.
    "I'm just glad on the most serious occasion, he had the sense to seek out a security guard and not jump through fences and into an animal enclosure," Bishop said. "Kids are going to explore, we know that ... so they will get where they're not supposed to go. They just will."
    It is during those minutes, or seconds, of distraction, inattention or daydreaming that your life can go terribly wrong. My moment occurred when my younger daughter was 2 or 3 -- a traumatizing memory I hate to remember. She was playing in a lake and in hindsight, I know I was standing way too far from the water. My husband, my mother-in-law and I were chatting, and I got distracted. The next thing I knew, she was head down in the water.
    Those next few seconds were the longest of my life. Thankfully, she was okay, but that moment could have easily had a very different ending.
    "Every single parent can think of a time when something scary (or) unfortunate happened to their child," said Nikki Little, a mother of 3-year-old twin boys and an account director in social media for a public relations firm. "It is not humanly possible to watch your child every single, waking second of the day."
    Cathy Sharick, a mother of three, said her husband lost track of their son at the zoo when he was almost 3 years old. "He had a tendency to run off at that age and the place was extremely crowded," said Sharick, who is executive editor of Power to Fly, an online platform that matches women with remote jobs in tech.
    The whole zoo had to be shut down while officials searched for him. Luckily, he was found in a park going up and down a slide and not in an animal cage, she recalled.
    "Things happen in a blink of an eye when you are a parent and unfortunately this little child ran off to an incredibly dangerous place and not to a park," said Sharick, who said she feels enormous empathy for both the gorilla that was killed and the mother of the little boy.

    Should parents be held accountable?

    We are all susceptible to distractions and mistakes. At the same time, we also have a responsibility to avoid decisions, such as leaving young children home alone or letting them run freely in the street, that put our kids in harm's way.
    The boy's mother was with the child at the time he managed to slip past a fence and fall into the enclosure, according to authorities. Cincinnati police announced they would be investigating the "actions of the boy's parents/family that led up to the incident" at the zoo.
    If the mother is found to have acted in a negligent manner under the law, where she could have reasonably anticipated the danger and done something to prevent it from happening, she should be held accountable, some parents said. So should any of us if we find ourselves in a similar scenario.
    Kelli Arena, a mother of three in Houston, has no interest in judging the parenting skills of the mother in question, but she does believe there should at least be a financial penalty. Arena wondered how long the child was maneuvering his way toward the enclosure. After asking the opinion of a friend who has experience working at zoos, she got the sense that it would have taken the boy some time to land where he did.
    "The situation resulted in the killing of a rare animal and a financial loss for the zoo," said Arena, an award-winning journalist and executive director of the Global Center for Journalism and Democracy at Sam Houston State University. "She should at least be fined. As a society, we must remember there are consequences for our actions whether we think they are fair or not."

    'Why do we have to place blame on anyone?'

    What struck me and other parents was just how quickly we as a society want, or need, to assign blame -- and why we're so quick to toss blame at the parents, especially the mother.
    In some ways, modern parents face a no-win situation: we're often blamed for being too protective and messing up our kids and society, or else for being too lax and doing equal damage.
    "Why do we have to place blame on anyone? Something happened. Why do we have to place value on whether someone was right or wrong or "good" or "bad"? said Sharon Kennedy, a mom of two girls who are 7 and 9. "I feel like we are all guilty of creating even more pain for ourselves, for the families that go through such tragedies ... rather than just focusing on how to effectively keep this from happening again."
    Television host Miss Lori, who has written about being terrified when she couldn't find her then 4-year-old daughter at an auto show, said, "Imagine if all these people steamrolling the parents and the zookeepers about this incident were to invest their 'Monday Morning Quarterbacking' energy into actually becoming an expert in zoology, early childhood psychology or social work. Ah, what a world this would be."
    Some of our quickness to blame stems from the notion that there is such a thing as the "perfect mother" that always does the right thing, said Avital Norman Nathman, who explored the concept in an anthology on motherhood she edited, "The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality."
    "This is not an issue of a good or bad or neglectful parent," said Nathman, a mother of one who also wrote about the tragedy in a post for The Stir. "This is a horrible circumstance that nobody could have predicted. By focusing so much on the mother in this situation, as if she is the one that caused it, we're just solidifying the unbeatable yardstick by which to measure parents, but specifically mothers ... The 'Good Mother Myth' hurts us all."
    The boy in question does have a father, but most of the vitriol appears to be targeting the boy's mother.
    "We are quick to blame moms, but where are the dads?" asked Danielle Le Roy, a mother of two and chief financial officer for an information technology firm. She brought up the case of the Sandy Hook school shooter Adam Lanza, and how so many of the criticisms were aimed at the mom while Lanza's dad was conspicuously spared.
    "Parents can't win, particularly moms," Le Roy said.

    'Shame Nation'

    Join the conversation

    See the latest news and share your comments with CNN Health on Facebook and Twitter.

    People have no doubt been judging parents for decades, but what's different today is that a modern parenting mistake can get attention beyond your family or community. It can go viral.
    "Yes, we have all had those major parent blunders. However, today they can be magnified thanks to the digital generation," said author and family Internet safety advocate Sue Scheff, who explores this issue in a book, "Shame Nation: Preventing, Surviving and Overcoming Digital Disaster," set to be released in the fall of 2017.
    In what she describes as "Shame Nation," she highlights how many parents now judge other parents as if they've never made their own mistakes.
    "We have all had our 'oops' moments," she wrote. "Thankfully, they were in prior virtual reality times."
    Do you think we are too quick to blame parents after a tragedy like the one at the Cincinnati Zoo? Share your thoughts with Kelly Wallace on Twitter @kellywallacetv.