Risky Business?
September 22nd, 2010

I have calmed down over time. 

I used to be a worrier – a big one.  Raised by a varsity worrier, I developed deft and highly tuned “worst case scenario” skills.  I assumed that no news was always bad news, and that the absence or delay of a check-in phone call was the tell-tale sign of disaster.  It was a stressful (and frequently unpleasant) way to live. 

But, as I said, I have calmed down over time.  When GAP is late getting home from work I no longer assume he’s been broadsided by a city bus.  When Nanny forgets to call me when she and IEP return home from a morning outing I do not assume that they were both abducted and are stuck in the trunk of a car.  I have trained myself to realize that the risk of these events is infinitesimally small.  I have learned to curb my imagination and keep my blood pressure in check.  It’s nice.

I wonder, though, if my whole new risk assessment paradigm will fly out the window when IEP gets a bit older.  As a parent it is (to some extent) my job to worry on his behalf.  My eyes are glued to him any time we are near a pool.  I don’t let him run too fast on the hardwood floors in socks.  He isn’t allowed near anything hot or sharp.  He doesn’t know better yet, and right now it’s my job to protect him from himself.  But eight or nine years from now?  He’ll be standing on the corner to catch the school bus.  He’ll be walking to a friend’s house alone.  He’ll be playing sports and playing online.  At that point my bigger initiative will be protecting him from other dangers.  And that is where this whole premise of risk and caution gets interesting. 

I recently read this NYT article (which I highly recommend) about how parents assess and attempt to mitigate risks to their children.  As it turns out, we’re miserable at it.  According to mother/author Christie Barnes, “We are constantly overestimating rare dangers while underestimating common ones.”   We are more concerned about kidnapping that car wrecks even though we know, statistically speaking, that getting in the car is the most dangerous thing most of us do all day.  The article goes on to say:

We probably do this because our brains are not designed to process abstract or long-term risk. We were built to hear a sound, determine whether it is the growl of a saber-tooth, and then decide to run or go back to sleep. But in a world where you can hear the roar of what may or may not be a tiger (or a kidnapped child) in Montana while you are sitting in your kitchen in Florida, it’s tough to assess personal danger. With worst-case scenarios being thrown our way hourly on TV and the Internet, our sense of proportion and ratio becomes muddled.    

This fascinates me, probably because it rings so true.  We are disproportionately aware of risk that, more often than not, isn’t even posed to us.  I hear a story of a kidnapping in California, or Texas, or Virginia and I immediately go to the mental place of, “what if it were my family?”  And yet it wasn’t my family.  It wasn’t any of the millions of other families in those areas.  It was one hideously unlucky family whose circumstances are likely nothing like my own.  The NYT article cites a research study that was done which concluded that in order to ensure that your child were kidnapped, you’d have to leave him on a street corner for 750,000 hours.  Astounding! 

So, my son is at greater risk every Sunday afternoon when we load up into the car and go to Whole Foods (wherein he will hug me from the shopping cart every time I feed him a sample of cheese), than he will be as a grade schooler walking to a neighbor’s house to play catch. 

So what are we parents doing?  How can we worry ourselves to tears over things like which bike helmet we choose if we let our kids play peewee football and drink soda with supper?  We want to believe that we’ve protected them against everything.  But we can never do that.  So why don’t we focus on the evils that are statistically more likely and within our control, rather than worry about a boogey man who may not even exist in the first place?


The aspect of this issue that the story didn’t really address is one that has gotten attention elsewhere, and that is the issue of the child’s independence.  Lenore Skenazy famously let her 9-year-old son ride the New York subway alone.  She wrote an article about it which elicited both cheers and jeers, which then prompted her to launch her blog Free Range Kids.  I have mixed reactions to her site, finding myself perplexed about many of the issues she sites.  I am however, passionate about the raising self-sufficient, confident kids who approach the world with conviction.  I have no idea how I’ll do it, but I’m confident it will involve letting go more often than I’ll want to.

16 Responses to “Risky Business?”

  1. Jeanna Says:

    Great topic! I’m all for raising “free range” children. Although I’m not quite sure how I will actually handle letting my babies go somewhere on their own for the first time.

  2. Laura H. Says:

    This is such a difficult subject for me now that I have a first grader who goes to her friends’ houses without me sticking around for the “playdate” like I did when she was younger.

    It’s uncomfortable to ask the host parent, “do you have any guns in your house?” So I don’t ask.

    It’s uncomfortable to tell the host parent, “I don’t want M~ playing outside without your supervision.” So I don’t tell.

    It’s uncomfortable asking the host parent, “are there other people who live at your house?” So I don’t ask.

    But I have taught M~ that if she sees a gun, she needs to get out of the room and call me to come get her. I have taught her that she can’t go outside with her friend unless her friend’s mom/dad goes outside too. And I try my best to know a family (and who may be in the house) before she has a playdate.

    I have to admit this approach isn’t fullproof…I recently discovered that one of her friends has a 15 year old brother who lives in the house, and I am tangentially aware that the mom of one of M~’s friends has a partner who lives in the house. I understand why these parents might not want to broadcast to the parents of their child’s new friends “I was a teenage parent” or “I am a lesbian” but I really don’t care about these things. I’d rather know who will be at the playdate when I allow M~ to come over.

    I feel like my not asking is because of my own discomfort, but maybe I need to drop the mom guilt and get comfortable with a bit of free range parenting. But how much responsibility is really reasonable to expect of my first grader?

    (I did however ask the woman from our church who takes M~ to religion school every week to commit to not using her cell phone for calling or texting while driving M~ so I’m not a total discomfort-a-phobe!)

  3. Gale Says:

    Laura H. – I come to your quandary with a slightly different perspective. I wouldn’t try to get over the “mom guilt” about having those concerns. I would try to get over the discomfort. Ask the hard questions. Then let M~ go play without reservations. As a first grader she’s still very young. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to know the details about homes where she’s playing. And perhaps by just asking those questions you could free yourself up from a lot of worry?

  4. Anne@lifeinpencil.com Says:

    Now that school’s back in session, I frequently see kids standing in their driveways waiting for the bus on my commute. I often think, “Geez, they seem young to be out there alone on a two-lane road!” And then I think, “Anne–you’re an anxious freak.” So, clearly, I’m a worrier and I have no idea how I’ll handle this someday. All I know is that I do tend to worry about the uncommon, highly unlikely risks, rather than the common ones. I’ll be checking out that article.

  5. Jane Says:

    What an important topic! My husband and I marvel from time to time (with all the protecting we try to do for our children) and wonder how in the world we ever made to adulthood when we consider all the free time and independance and lack of safety measures we had as children compared to what our children have now.

  6. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    I think I read somewhere that the rate of child abductions hasn’t gone up significantly since the 1950′s; it’s just that we hear so much more about it in the media nowadays. I’ll admit, I’m a freak about it. Still, I’m determined not to “helicopter parent” to the degree that my own mother did. I grew up believing I couldn’t do anything for myself.

  7. Gale Says:

    Kitch – I think you touch on an important point. When kids are hovered over and “helped” all the time what damage does it do to their self-esteem and belief in their own abilities. I remember reading this story a year ago about a 13-year-old boy who drove alone (towing two horses in a trailer!) from Virginia to Texas. Obviously it’s a scary scenario, but I remember being struck by how capable this boy was. I think kids are frequently able to do much more than we give them the opportunity to do.

    I get the same feeling reading The Pioneer Woman’s blog. I don’t know that I’d ever let my seven-year-old drive a four-wheeler, but you can’t deny that those kids know how competent and valuable they are.

  8. Laura H. Says:

    Thanks Gale. I just drafted an email to use for the next playdate invite! I also included a question about whether they would have a helmet available for M~ in the event the girls want to ride bikes or scooters or skate. I’m going to keep it in my drafts, so it’s ready to go and so I don’t chicken out next time!

  9. BigLittleWolf Says:

    It’s natural to worry, and we worry differently as our kids change and our circumstances change. I believe we have an infinite capacity for worry (sometimes quite imaginative) and also a limit – at a certain point we would worry about everything, and we simply cannot survive it. Nor should our children be brought up in the proverbial bubble due to our worries.

    The tricky part – ever changing – is finding that workable middle ground. The very real worries (the car – and even the bicycle helmet when they’re biking in the road) and all the monsters we imagine jumping out at them from behind the bushes.

    I do know our parents – make that my parents’ generation – simply didn’t worry about much of what is considered common sense these days. Somehow, most of us survived.

    That said, I worry, too. Hard not to.

    Very thoughtful post.

    So how much is too much worry, anyway? And for whom?

  10. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    What an interesting topic, Gale. Like you, I am the daughter of a champion worrier and, though I continue to worry disproportionately about a lot of things, I don’t worry nearly as much as I could about my kids. I’m not wholly convinced by Lenore Skenazy’s arguments on her site and don’t think I’ll ever be a true “free-ranger,” but I do believe that childhood is a constant process of trial-and-error. Obviously, I would never willingly place my kids in harm’s way, but I hope that I can let go of my own neuroses long enough to let my kids take risks and make mistakes. (Wish me luck on that.)

  11. Eva @ Eva Evolving Says:

    I’m a worrier – always have been. (And I’m not a mom yet, thank goodness!) I like to think through scenarios and plan for the worst case. It makes me feel in control and prepared in some way… but I know it takes a toll on my wellness. I need to learn to just “be” where I am instead of rushing mentally ahead to things that may not ever happen.

    My coworker was just telling me he thought the young years of infant, toddler, preschooler were the hardest – until his oldest got her driver’s license. There’s nothing like watching your two kids drive away, under their own control, in a motor vehicle, and there’s nothing you can do to protect them.

  12. Gale's Mom Says:

    I’m the “varsity worrier”, and I enjoy the occasional visit to this blog. Today’s is interesting, and I want to pass on this story. A friend, my age (‘of a certain age’), raised her boys in a mid-sized English city. Moms and nannies, then and there, pushed their babies around in ‘prams’. When they got to the market, it was common practice to leave baby in pram while they went into the store. So, there would be a row of prams, parked in front of the store, with a baby in each one, waiting for Mom or Nanny to finish shopping.

  13. Gale Says:

    Jan, er, Mom – According to this NYT article they would have to have left their babies outside for 750,000 hours before needing to worry. Genius!! … Clearly, I’m teasing you a bit. This is obviously something that would never happen today. And to be honest I’m a bit surprised it happened then. But it illustrates the point nicely. We worry about so many things that will likely never happen.

    Now, as for today’s culture, you could never leave your baby in a pram outside the market. The baby may be fine. But the mother/nanny will most certainly be charged with child endangerment.

  14. Cathy Says:

    I am a professional worrier too. I have not calmed down. I imagine every worst-case scenario. I have a secret belief that if I imagine it, it will not happen (how messed up is that on so many levels?!)

    Anyway, your post reminded me of what one of my friends said:
    The chances of a child being abducted are ridiculously low, something like 1 in 1.5 million, but parents are so shit-scared of them being snatched away that they’ve
    …resorted to driving them to school rather than letting them walk. And the number one killer among children is………car accidents.

  15. Gale Says:

    Cathy – These little ironies just amaze me. It’s incredible what we do to feel in control. We feel powerless watching our child walk off to school. So we load them up into the car believing that if they’re with us they’re safe, when in this case quite the opposite is true. We are so guided by our hearts that we disregard actual truth and logic.

  16. Free Range, Cage Free Kids. But Not In My Backyard. « Theycallmejane's Blog Says:

    [...] frustrating travel down our little two lane road this morning reminded me of a blog post I read recently by Gale at Ten Dollar Thoughts. She sends you to this NYT article here and then [...]