risk benefit analysis

Dear Moralistic Busybodies: *You* are the Greatest Danger to my Child

When I was five years old I walked the quarter mile to kindergarten every morning without parental supervision. My best friend, a first-grader, accompanied me. On days when she was home sick, I walked alone. This wasn’t due to any kind of parental negligence. The year was 1983, and this is what people did.

By the time I was in first grade, there had been a string of kidnappings across the country. Our cultural response at the time wasn’t to lock the doors, to keep the kids inside or shuffle them around in cars. Instead, teams of educators visited public schools and taught kids not to take candy from strangers or ride in their cars.

Back then it was normal to walk to a friend’s house and let the day progress from there. Because there were no cell phones, there was no way to check in every minute, but even if there had been, no one seemed that worried. My best friend’s mom would leave to go to the store and we’d raid the fridge and make our own sandwiches. We’d ride our bikes to the park. Maybe we’d leave a note.

Those were the days.

Earlier this week, The Atlantic ran an article about a mother who was arrested for letting her nine-year-old daughter play at the park alone. In brief, the mother had a regular shift at McDonald’s, and allowed the girl to play at the park while she earned a living. When a bystander learned that the girl was unsupervised, she apparently decided that the most helpful thing to do would be to call the cops. The mother was arrested for abandonment; the daughter was placed in state custody.

This comes shortly after an essay on Salon addressing similar issueswent viral; “The Day I Left My Son in the Car” details the years of litigation author Kim Brooks faced after leaving her son in the car unattended for several minutes. As with the above incident, she was reported to the police by a bystander who saw himself as a “good Samaritan.”

Here are two objections I have to this interventionist practice:

1. As a parent, I reserve the right to perform my own risk-benefit analysis—especially when our cultural norms are based on no legitimate evidence. As Lenore Skenazy, founder of Free Range Kids reports: “Our crime rate today is back to what it was when gas was 29 cents a gallon, according to The Christian Science Monitor. It may feel like kids are in constant danger, but they are as safe (if not safer) than we were when our parents let us enjoy the summer outside, on our own, without fear of being arrested.”  Statistically speaking, children are far more likely to be injured in a car accident than they are to be snatched from a parked car, and yet there is no cultural taboo around driving with kids.

2. Wanna-be good Samaritans, YOU are the Danger Strangers. I’m sure plenty of us have known kids like the nine-year-old who is now in state custody, kids who have parents (or a single parent) struggling to keep it all together. Some people might respond to this situation by trying to figure out what they can offer. Maybe that simply means keeping a loose eye on the girl while she plays in the park, helping to ensure she stays safe. Maybe, if the kid is in your neighborhood it means getting acquainted with that mom and inviting the kid over once in a while. Apparently, other people call the cops. Who are these people? Is displacing a child to foster care their goal? Do they have any concept of what foster care actually means? If their fear is that a child alone in the park or in a car is in danger of being forcefully removed from her parents, do they realize that by calling the cops they are facilitating EXACTLY THAT?

Conor Freidersdorf, author of the Atlantic article, gets to the heart of the matter when he writes, “Parents ought to enjoy broad latitude in bringing up their children. There are obviously limits. The state ought to intervene if a child is being abused. But letting a 9-year-old go to the park alone doesn’t come close to meeting that threshold.”

It’s true. Our current cultural climate no longer allows us full freedom to make our own parenting decisions. I submit the following lists for your consideration.

Things I won’t do because they are associated with proven risks:

1. Keep a loaded gun in the home.

2. Allow my children to ride a bike without a helmet. (Okay, this is one way we’ve evolved since the eighties.)

3. Offer my children beverages sweetened with corn syrup at every meal.

Note that I am not advocating that any of the above practices be made illegal. If a kid rides by my house without a helmet, or reports that he drinks Coke for breakfast I don’t call the cops.

I can't believe these still exist. Image source: http://swaggernewyork.com

I can’t believe these still exist.
Image source: http://swaggernewyork.com

And here are some things I won’t do, not because I believe that they are actually dangerous in and of themselves, but because I fear being reported and losing my children.

1. Allow my older son to wait in the car if he so chooses while I run a five-minute errand.

2. Send my son (once *I* determine he’s old enough) to the corner store.

3. Allow my son to explore the wooded area one block away from our home.

The above list may sound self-serving, and I won’t deny that’s true. Item one is about avoiding unnecessary complications. But items two and three reflect my desire to teach my children independence. You see, I work with millennials and I’ve seen firsthand the results of helicopter parenting. If my sons choose to live with me or visit often once they’re grown, I don’t want to still be doing their laundry. I don’t want to be the one emailing their college professors when they have the stomach flu and can’t make it to class. I don’t want to sit in on their first job interview.

And, perhaps more importantly, I want them to grow up feeling at ease in the world rather than fearing that something dire will befall them the moment they are out of my sight, that in the two blocks between our house and the corner store they will be mugged or kidnapped in broad daylight, or attacked by a pack of coyotes.

This guy is totally making sure no kids are unsupervised. Image source: www.projectcoyote.org

This guy is totally making sure no kids are unsupervised.
Image source: http://www.projectcoyote.org

 

In Response to the article “Baby Dies While Sleeping in Car Seat”: Fear, Smoke, & Mirrors

Over the past few days, the following article has appeared several times in my Facebook news feed: Baby Dies while Sleeping in Car Seat. Though the article is dated 2006, it seems to have recently gone viral. Whenever I see this kind of title (which is often),  go through the same process: 1) My heart rate rises. 2) I want to click. 3) I try to convince myself not to click. 4) I click.

 ImageImage from: http://www.ksl.com/?nid=148&sid=711452

The article begins with a photo of the exact car seat I currently use. It’s a popular car seat. It tells a very sad story of a baby girl who died while napping. Her caretaker had detached the seat from its base and brought her inside so that she could continue to nap undisturbed. I, like most parents of this generation, am familiar with this practice; in fact I’ve probably done it twice this past month.  The article goes on to mention a study, based on nine infant deaths, where researchers found that car seats allow babies to sleep with their heads tilted forward which can then, in worst case scenarios, restrict their airways. The article concludes with this paragraph:

While it’s not safe to let babies sleep for a long time in the car seat out of the car, we want to make it clear: while in a car, it’s a different story. There is no question that infant car seats save lives and researchers say may reduce car accident injuries by as much as 90%.

There’s a kind of ambiguity here that troubles me—an ambiguity that seems to be present in so much of the safety advice I read. What does the author mean by “long periods of time”? Forty minutes? Two hours? And why does the article suggest that napping in the car seat “outside the car” is more dangerous than it is inside the car? Unless I’m missing something, if car seat napping is risky, it’s risky wherever it happens.

In fact, on long drives my baby’s hour-long car seat naps are probably more dangerous than his car-to-house naps. When my baby naps in the house, I check on him every few minutes. (Is he still breathing? What about now? Still breathing?) On long trips in the car though, when he’s quiet, I can entertain these fears but I can’t do much about them.

In any event, it seems that the author of the article and the experts he consulted are performing a risk-benefit analysis on my behalf, and they’ve concluded that the benefit of the car seat while driving outweighs the risk of my baby not breathing. While this is a sound conclusion (yes indeed, I will continue to use my car seat), I resent the smoke and mirrors. In my reading, the article tries to pretend that somehow napping in the car seat—which was so risky in the preceding paragraph—magically becomes safe in the car.

I complain about the smoke and mirrors now because I see it as a trend in parenting literature. Authors and experts prefer to offer hardline advice rather than simply offer me the data, or admit that they don’t know. Case in point: take this video on alcohol consumption during pregnancy, a typical example of the limited data that is typically shared with pregnant women.

March of Dimes is unequivocal in their advice that women should absolutely never consume any alcohol during pregnancy. Compare this advice to this more balanced assessment here: we know for sure that binge drinking leads to birth defects, but there is no conclusive evidence on how moderate drinking affects a fetus.

Personally, I’d like to be trusted to make my own decisions for my body and my children, to perform the risk benefit analysis myself, rather than being insulated from the data.

At the end of the day, there’s no avoiding this truth: babies are fragile and living has risks. I’d like to monitor my one-year-old’s breathing every moment of the day, but the fact is that sometimes I do need to sleep, sometimes I choose to drive somewhere several hours away, and sometimes, as my baby naps in his crib and I finally get a few moments to myself, I choose to believe that he’s all right. I’d like to systematically eliminate every possible risk from our lives, but I’m worried that for each risk I manage there are more sinister risks over which I have no control.

I often think about parents in earlier times when infant mortality was common. Did they listen for their baby’s breath many times in a day? Did they sometimes tiptoe to the cradle, waiting to see any sign of motion? I imagine they did, that the fear of losing something so precious haunted them in the same way it haunts me. But I wonder also if they were less obsessed by the details, the logistics, if they engaged in daily risk-benefit analysis or if instead they lived their lives with their babies on their hip or at their side and simply prayed for the best.