20 September 2010


“Parents are just bad at risk assessment,” said Christie Barnes, a mother of four and the author of “The Paranoid Parents Guide.” “We are constantly overestimating rare dangers while underestimating common ones.” Lisa Belkin in The New York Times Week in Review.

Long, long ago, when I was in the New York City Police Academy, I read a study which indicated that the most dangerous thing you could do in an automobile was not drive drunk, but make a left turn (or, I suppose a right turn in Ireland, the UK, Australia, Japan, etc) ("Left turning vehicle movements were the most likely to cause a fatal intersection crash. Almost one half of the fatal intersection crashes involved a left turn by one of the drivers involved in the crash.").

I also learned that, by far, the most dangerous people to children are their own parents, followed by close relatives and friends ("Among children under age 5 years in the United States who were murdered in the last quarter of the 20th century, 61% were killed by their own parents: 30% were killed by their mothers, and 31% by their fathers.").

from Consumer Reports
Today, I wonder exactly how much "driver inattention" is caused by children - especially very young children - sitting behind and out of the direct view of their parents as they ride "in safety" in state-of-the-art child safety seats. Perhaps the number of crashes requiring the rear seat position for safety would be dramatically reduced if parents were not driving down highways looking at the back seat ("Dealing with children and/or pets can be extremely distracting, especially if they are crying, fighting, barking and the like."). You know how distracting a barking child can be, right?

We worry a lot about certain things kids will do, at home and at school. Schools, for example, spend enormous amounts of money and energy trying to "keep kids safe online." And in doing so, we severely limit many educational opportunities. But the threat level is mighty low for children online. About 90% of the "sexual solicitations" of teens online come from other teens online, and most of those are teens the "teen victims" know offline. And if my memory serves me at all, I don't think sexual solicitations among teen acquaintances is much of a new thing.

We worry a lot about children walking places, playing in the park, etc. But as Belkin's article points out, "This despite the fact that the British writer Warwick Cairns, author of How to Live Dangerously, has calculated that if you wanted to guarantee that your child would be snatched off the street, he or she would have to stand outside alone for 750,000 hours."

We insist that our children wear bicycle helmets if they ride to school, yet only four American States (New York, New Jersey, California, Texas) require any kind of seat belts on school busses.

So, we're serious about some things, usually those which make few demands on us - and mighty lax about other issues - or against possible solutions which might have actual costs.
  • We're against drunk driving, but not so much that most municipalities don't insist on certain amounts of parking spaces for bars, and block bars from areas where patrons could walk to them.
  • We sneer at American football concussion issues because we like the sport.
  • We worry about our kids online safety but won't spend the money to make school busses even slightly safe (or "waste our time" letting kids learn how to handle themselves in online and mobile environments).
  • We yell at kids for running in school halls but won't give them enough time between classes (which might make our school days longer).
  • We insist on side curtain air bags in our cars (not a bad thing) but won't limit left turns because that might inconvenience us.
  • We oppose bullying - even pass laws against it - but few adults in any American community are willing to actually value all students equally (what's your High School football attendance versus Girl's or Boy's Soccer, versus Orchestra concerts, versus Debate Club events?).
  • We even worry desperately about performance on standardized tests, yet hardly concern ourselves - as a society - with any actual preparation of our students for the world they will graduate into.
When my son was young I let him and his friends build a treehouse in the backyard. They borrowed my hand tools. They rode their bikes the mile down to the hardware store for nails and stuff. The banged and fell and scraped themselves. Many other parents thought me completely irresponsible, but I snuck out late at night and drove in screws where I thought they were needed, and I was always watching - or at least listening - as they worked. But I thought that the risk of construction injury was far less than the risk of not knowing how to build things or not understanding risk themselves.

(copyright) Andy Bruchey
And when I was a small child my mother let all of us kids ride our bikes down to the beach in the eye of a hurricane.  The Atlantic was still furious, and we could see the dark eyewall in every direction. But the sun was shining and the whole beach had been pounded so flat we rode across the sand.

We joke now that Ma was trying to get rid of us, but really, the risk that we'd be surprised by the storm's return was very low, and the memory of that experience remains something of remarkable power.

- Ira Socol

1 comment:

Charlie Roy said...

@ Ira
Great post. The main culprit in all of these is irrational fear. I remember as a kid having my candy x-rayed at the local hospital. My wife is still afraid to let our nine year old walk one block to the store and bring back a gallon of milk yet we will strap him in tupperwear so he can play football on Saturdays. Every year I deal with a good number of people who have irrational fears. We shouldn't let kids use their phones at lunch because they might deal drugs. We should ban water bottles because someone could put vodka in them. We should block facebook because of online predators and on and on and on.

Glad to hear a voice of reason.