Mom lets 9-year-old take subway home alone!

The Today Show has a cover story today entitled “Mom lets 9-year-old take subway home alone.” The controversy over this — that is, the fact that there is any — is a wonderful example of how poorly people assess risk in modern society. What this woman, Lenore Skenazy, has done to stir up trouble is to make a decision about her child based on reason rather than emotion (specifically fear) — something that seems frighteningly uncommon today. As she puts it:

“It’s safe to go on the subway,” Skenazy replied. “It’s safe to be a kid. It’s safe to ride your bike on the streets. We’re brainwashed because of all the stories we hear that it isn’t safe. But those are the exceptions. That’s why they make it to the news. This is like, ‘Boy boils egg.’ He did something that any 9-year-old could do.”

She’s right. Most of us in our 30’s today remember growing up in the 1980’s — and it involved riding your bike across town, visiting neighbors, and being unattended for relatively long periods of time. Of course there were unsafe areas — there were parts of cities where people alone really aren’t safe — but these are the exceptions rather than the rule. Today, most parents seem to live in fear, convinced that there are criminals lying in wait to abduct children everywhere. It simply isn’t the case — it never has been, and crime rates are lower today than they were in the 80’s! We have not gotten any less safe, we have simply become so afraid that we think we’re less safe. And this culture of fear is damaging and contagious:

“Half the people I’ve told this episode to now want to turn me in for child abuse. As if keeping kids under lock and key and helmet and cell phone and nanny and surveillance is the right way to rear kids. It’s not. It’s debilitating — for us and for them.”

There are a variety of reasons that people believe that their children are under constant threat. Among them are:

In truth, the violent crime rate today in the United States is less than half of what it was in the 1980’s! Most of our burgeoning prison population consists of nonviolent drug offenders, and most violent crime occurs in geographically delimited areas. Skenazy is right — the streets and subways of New York City are as safe as they were in 1963. Crime against children is even lower — the simple fact is that the overwhelming majority of humanity doesn’t want to hurt kids and is inclined to help and protect them.

It’s sad how many normal childhood experiences have been lost to this obsession with safety from small risks — just try to buy a chemistry set today even as an adult and compare it with what was available to young children 20 years ago (or to what’s in The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments, now available pretty much only via BitTorrent, which begins by teaching children to use an alcohol burner to shape glass tubing. Today, a children’s chemistry set would never be allowed to contain an alcohol burner… or glass tubing.)

The key is this:

‘The statistics show that this is an incredibly rare event, and you can’t protect people from very rare events. It would be like trying to create a shield against being struck by lightning.’ ”

She said that people ask her how she would feel if one of those terrible and rare events happened to her son. “It would be horrible,” she said. “But you can’t live your life that way; you could slip in the shower.”

When faced by extremely low risks, the rational response is sometimes to disregard them. Sometimes the response to fear of something is, in aggregate, worse than the thing itself. We of course do the same thing with terrorism, and these same biases cause us to misallocate security dollars in industry, too (how many companies have tens of thousands of dollars in firewall and IDS hardware, but no disaster recovery plan?)

risk, society, statistics

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