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March 30, 2007

Fear of Living

The late Henry Fairlie once wrote about what he called Americans' "fear of living," that is, their exaggerated and, at times, crippling, sense of danger and risk associated life's normal activities.

What Fairlie wrote twenty years ago (he died in 1990) is, if anything, triply true now. I thought of him while reading "Let Kids Outdoors" by L.J. Williamson in yesterday's Los Angeles Times. As someone who literally grew up on the streets, not because I didn't have a home but because you couldn't play stickball in your living room (no one had family rooms where and when I grew up), I nodded in agreement when Williamson wrote,

Our hyper-anxiety about the safety of children is creating a society in which any outdoor activity that doesn't take place under the supervision of a coach or a "psychomotor activities" mandate from the state is too risky to attempt.

An example: My son's school has a written rule that students in grades K-4 may not ride their bicycles to school. My son and I cheerfully ignore this restriction; I think school rules belong on campus, not off. As we ride together each day, I remember the Huffy Sweet 'n' Sassy I rode to school when I was a kid. Hot pink, with a flowered wicker basket, it stood out among the other bikes parked in the crowded racks, its tall orange safety flag flapping in the breeze.

Now my bike was a stringray with a banana seat but I can make the requisite imaginative leap.

Why the concern? Do you have to ask? It's the fear that around every corner, behind every bush and inside every storm drain, there's a sexual predator waiting to spirit your child away and turn her (if she's white, blond and blue-eyed) into the next obsession on cable news.

It doesn't matter that "statistics show that rates of child abduction and sexual abuse have marched steadily downward since the early 1990s" and that your child stands a better chance of being struck by lightning, eaten by a bull shark or maybe even being struck by frozen airline urine (okay I added that one but I wouldn't be surprised if the numbers turned out to be true) than being the victim of a sexual predator. What matters is that "I fear, therefore I'm good."

The irony of course is that in protecting our kids from imaginary dangers we expose them to real ones:

Meanwhile, as rates of child abduction and abuse move down, rates of Type II diabetes, hypertension and other obesity-related ailments in children move up . . .

In 1972, 87% of children who lived within a mile of school walked or biked daily; today, just 13% of children get to school under their own power, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In a significant parallel, before 1980, only 5% of children were obese; today that figure has tripled, says the CDC.

If, like my idol Allen Thornburgh, you're armed with the necessary requisite multivariate statistical models  and decide to say "no" to the fear, you face the problem pointed out by Kevin Drum: "people think you're a bad parent." As Atrios rightly notes, people's neurotic obsessions become cultural norms, the violation of which are met with opprobrium and, under easily imaginable circumstances, treated as neglect.

All of this leaves in mind of something from, of all places, the book of Leviticus: "As for those of you who are left, I will make their hearts so fearful in the lands of their enemies that the sound of a windblown leaf will put them to flight. They will run as though fleeing from the sword, and they will fall, even though no one is pursuing them."

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I can't argue with you at all on this matter, especially from the perspective of statistics, or - more to the point - from the perspective of probability. Because the question here is "What is the probability that Horrible Crime X will happen to my child if I let them do Activity Y."

My problem is that I find that when something horrible happens to someone, they don't exactly care that there was a very tiny chance that would occur.

For example, crime statistics are used all the time to suggest that there's no need to recognize the right of an individual to reasonably arm themselves. But, having been a police officer and having dealt with victims needlessly ill-prepared for possible crime, the reality is that some people (incl kids) *will* be victims. And for them and their family, the low-probability of their victimization couldn't possibly matter less. (It might reasonably even make them more angry.)

That said, I agree that we overprotect our children. And, having seen society's nasty underbelly, I will always be among those parents for whom relaxing the grip upon their precious children is a struggle. Ultimately, it comes down to preparing as best as possible and then trusting God.

Sometimes tough to do.

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