It could happen to any parent - including you

It could happen to any parent - including you

In the past few weeks, two families have experienced every parent’s worst nightmare in the most agonizingly public way.

A 3-year-old boy crawls under a barrier into a gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati zoo, escaping only when the animal is shot to death after repeatedly dragging him around a moat, as his horrified family watched.

A 2-year-old wades along the edge of a lagoon at Disney World and is dragged under the water by an alligator. His desperate father tries to save him; the toddler’s body is found the next day.

Terrifying images I can’t get out of my mind.

Sadly, many on social media couldn’t wait to judge — or as one writer later put it, “shame and blame” — the parents. How could this happen? Why couldn’t the mom at the zoo keep track of her son? Why would parents let their child go into the water with clear “no swimming” signs posted?

A Facebook page was created to get “Justice for Harambe,” the 17-year-old male gorilla killed by the Cincinnati zoo’s Dangerous Animal Response Team. A petition to police and child protective services seeking to hold the parents responsible collected more than 500,000 signatures (and was also criticized as a race-based smear campaign). Authorities declined to press charges.

Other parents were quick to say they’d never let their child get in harm’s way.

One Twitter user was finally moved to post: Dear Internet, please stop.

I wasn’t at the scene of either incident. I’ve read about them, but I don’t know every detail, or what was going through the parents’ minds, or what I might have done differently.

All I know is, there but for the grace of God go I — and a lot of other moms and dads.

The parents at Disney, who are from Nebraska, were enjoying a movie night on a family beach at a resort billed the “happiest place on Earth.”

There were no signs warning them about alligators — despite reported sightings from previous guests at the Grand Floridian — though Disney now says it will do that. “No swimming” isn’t quite the same as “Dangerous alligators, stay away from the water.” Or how about a fence, maybe?

Author Carrie Goldman, in a blog post urging compassion for the family, posted Disney’s own ad showing a couple walking in the water along the same beach at the Grand Floridian. Another mom shared photos of herself and her son playing along the water’s edge just an hour before the fatal attack.

It could happen to any of us.

My son, at age 5, broke his arm inches from me when he slipped after trying to balance with his arms, gymnast-style, on the back of a sofa and a chair rail. I didn’t even have time to tell him to get down.

I remember once chasing my then-2-year-old daughter around Target because she thought it was fun to play hide and seek. My 5-year-old finally cornered her, but my heart rate jumped 100 beats a minute thinking of the frightening possibilities.

A friend once had to ask a furniture store to shut down — literally locking all the exits — until she found her daughter hiding in a display.

Luckily, we were in stores, not a zoo or a lake.

We’re human. It doesn’t mean we’re bad parents.

In fact, my husband and I are accused of being too cautious. Once, at a playground, he told my son to be careful going down the slide. “You always say that,” he replied.

It was funny, but true. We older parents have a huge built-in caution meter; we’ve seen what can happen in this world.

We all try to walk that line between helicopter parent and negligence, teaching our kids about safety but letting them be adventurous. It’s a monumental responsibility.

We can’t possibly prepare for every eventuality. Terrible things can and do happen. The best we can do is make our children as safe as we can, use these tragedies as teaching moments, and pray it doesn’t happen again.

For now, all I can think about is the grief of these families, especially in Florida. I don’t know how you get over the death of a child, particularly if you feel at all responsible.

So let’s not pile on during the absolute blackest period of their lives.

More eloquent voices than mine have already heaped shame on the shamers. Writer Melissa Fenton posted a powerful essay last week on Facebook pleading for compassion for the parents. It was shared more than 500,000 times.

When Adam Walsh disappeared from a shopping mall in 1981, or Baby Jessica fell down a well in 1986, the country didn’t shame them, Fenton wrote. Rescuers worked nonstop to free Baby Jessica. Adam’s parents lobbied legislators to pass “Adam’s Law.” And the entire country supported them — without blame, Fenton said. “Those parents were us.”

But in 2016, “the year of THE PERFECT PARENT,” she wrote, we live in a time “where accidents are not allowed to happen. ... because we have become a nation of BLAMERS and SHAMERS.”

“And how are accidents allowed to happen if we can’t blame someone? Surely, they can’t, right? I mean, random acts of nature, unpreventable tragedies and fateful life-changing events that take place in a matter of nanoseconds cannot possibly occur if everyone is being a responsible parent, right? NOPE.

“They can’t, because this country and its population of perfect pitchfork-carrying mothers and fathers sitting behind keyboards needs to accuse. They NEED TO BLAME, to disparage, to criticize in every damn way and at every damn corner, the parenting of another.”

She asked the shamers whether they’d have the guts to say what they posted on Twitter directly to the grieving parents, who must now bury their 2-year-old son.

Better yet, she said, how about telling them, “I grieve with you.”


Julie Wurth blogs about kids and families and covers the University of Illinois for The News-Gazette. Leave a comment below, or contact her at 217-351-5226, or

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Chambanacitizen wrote on June 21, 2016 at 4:06 pm

Don't break the rules and you won't be eaten by gators. Same as don't break the law and you won't go to jail.

JMV wrote on June 23, 2016 at 2:06 pm

Thank you Julie, for your column/commentary on June 21 about the tragedy in Florida.  I agree with everything you wrote and was shocked at some of my friends - with children - who were quick to blame the parents.  It's Disney World!  Where everything is promoted as fun, and magical and you have no worries.  There are three beaches on that Lagoon.  There are boating activities on that Lagoon where people could fall in the water (kayaks, fishing, etc.)  Other families had been wading in the water in the same area.  There are movies shown outdoors on a grassy area nearby.   And NO signage about alligators.  Why not??  Spoil the Disney "Magic" I guess.

Accidents happen to children - and adults.  And they are just that.  My son rolled off his changing table when he was an infant.  Could I have prevented it?  Probably.  Was he hurt?  Luckily no.  Did it make me a terrible parent?  No.  Do I still remember it 31 years later?  Yes.  Any parent who has made a trip to the emergency room for a child who broke a bone on the playground or in the backyard feels responsible.  As they should.  But for the public to flog them unmercifully is shameful.  And do it anonymously and visciously.  

Those parents will have the image of their little boy being dragged into the water and not being able to save him for the rest of their lives.  I feel nothing but sadness for them.

Julie Wurth wrote on August 09, 2016 at 11:08 am
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Belated thanks for your comment. I, too, relive all those mistakes I've made as a parent, and feel blessed that there were no long-term consequences.