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What parents worry about vs what they should worry about (npr.org)
95 points by cwan on Sept 10, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 57 comments

This is a huge pet peeve of mine. Prompted by news of an abduction in Missouri a while back, I wrote this: http://messymatters.com/strangers


I love this quote from security expert Bruce Schneier:

   Remember, if it’s in the news don’t worry about it. The 
   very definition of news is “something that almost never 
   happens.” When something is so common that it’s no longer 
   news — car crashes, domestic violence — that’s when you 
   should worry about it.
The truth of that hit home recently when I saw a news feature on the abduction of a four-year-old girl from her front yard in Missouri. Candlelight vigils, nation-wide amber alert, police blockades where every single car was stopped and questioned, FBI agents swarming the house. I think the expected reaction from parents is “oh my god, I need to be so vigilant, even in my own front yard!” My reaction was the opposite: Wow, this sort of thing really does essentially never happen. Let the kids run free!

[EDIT: It goes on to compare to a non-abduction story...]

In summary, a toddler got separated from her caregivers and wandered off, where a passerby saw her. Seeing no one else around, his first instinct was to scoop her up and take her with him. But he decided that that was a big risk to himself — what would people think? — and continued on, reporting it later.

The girl then fell in a pond and drowned.

As a parent, one of the things I fear most is DCFS. I live on a large area of land with many natural resources and my children are free to do many things. I inform them of dangers and protect them from realistic dangers. But not every other parent thinks that way or agrees with it. It only takes one fearful parent to place a call into DCFS about their opinion on your parenting style. Once DCFS is involved you are at their mercy with little or no oversight.

So beware implementing some of the ideas presented here as things you shouldn't fear. Because not everyone will agree with you, and those other people can make your life very difficult.

My cousin's daughter said some sexually explicit things in school, and the DCFS was called. They combed the entire house and computer, looking for pornography, sex toys, etc. My cousin came up clean, but how many people would? I certainly wouldn't.

Even nows my cousin is extremely paranoid about her daughter. At 14, this girl wasn't even allowed to read Twilight; a tragedy, because the girl otherwise refuses to read.

So having a sex toy hidden well in your bedroom that your daughter has never seen before and a daughter that says something vaguely sexual in school could lead to you losing your daughter? Wow.

It depends where that happened. In a few US states (Alabama?) I believe, it is still illegal to sell sex toys! A local raid by CPS (Child Protective Services) that finds sex toys and porn can turn nasty if the local judge, police and other officials feel they can go on a morality campaign, and perhaps choose to find or invent a reason to take the kids away.

They might lose in court but a lot of the damage is already done by then.

I personally feel that a lot parents have been over-protective and irrational lately not because they have started loving or caring for their children more, but because they are afraid of looking like a "bad parent" while this whole media "child threat" frenzy is going on. I am not a parent so this is totally speculative, I have read not studies or haven't done any research on this.

Likewise, times ten. As a parent of three small children, there are certain things I won't say or do around people I don't know very well for exactly this reason.

You also nailed the real issue on the head - it's not that we don't need some sort of child protection services; it's that "you are at their mercy with little to no oversight".

if someone like the DCFS wanted to take my kids, i'd get the urge to poke them off my property with a loaded gun. i mean, US citizens have the right to bear arms, for the exact purpose of defending themselves against the government, or what was that?

Believe me, I hear what you're saying. But DCFS has no oversight. If you have guns in your house with kids they will take a very keen interest in you. There are DCFS rules for what you can/will/should do with guns in your home that may exceed what you would do. If the DCFS agent finds your gun not locked by an XYZ lock your kids will be taken from you. I am not joking either.

Every attempt you make to establish your rights will lead you further down the path of their goal. Take heed from the stories above and you will see how it works.

Unfortunately that would probably just make things worse. :-/

They might just come back with more guns, then what?

That sounds like the bogus kind of worry that the article is talking about. Do you know how often that kind of thing actually happens? My Google-fu is failing me but my guess is it's gotta be in the 1 in a million range.

It happens many times a day. Google news shows about a dozen times in the past 24 hours:


And these are just the cases that make the news

I dont know, I hope you're not advocating allowing parents to beat their kids with machetes like the first news story there. Logicalmind was talking about letting his kids roam free outdoors, that would be an outrage if government stepped in for that. I've been outraged by the nightmare child removal stories just like everyone else, but those stories don't appear very often, I've maybe heard of ten or so ever. It seems to me if it was happening everyday the outrage would be constant and people would be up in arms.

But, but, but, Bruce said we needn't worry about things that are uncommon enough to be news.

First, let me say that you should all read that link he posted.

Second, worry about my ability to distinguish real dangers from fake makes me avoid many sources of news. To get a sense of what dangers are actually real, I pay attention to the lives of people I know and read my local police log occasionally. I also try to learn as little about people who get into the news for doing stupid/petty things as possible - no need to give them encouragement.

That is seriously wrong, calling somebody who talks to a kid a child abductor. Does it happen to men only? Both of my two brothers have been saved by strangers multiple times when they were lost. In a place where people are so afraid of strangers interacting with kids there is a non negligible chance that one of them would be dead now (got lost on a dangerous road next to a river, he was walking the wrong way, but fortunately a man noticed him and brought him back to the camping).

Great story! It's another good antidote to the "but you can never be too safe" reaction. As your story shows, maximum vigilance about your child's safety requires that you not instill a fear of strangers. Strangers should be viewed as a source of help, not danger. (Maybe amend that with some common-sense exceptions as they get old enough to grok the subtleties.)

Sadly, the paranoia seems to be out of control. So much so that I take the commenter below ("a couple creepy incidents") with a grain of salt. Was it really something creepy or are kids taught to overreact when a stranger so much as says hello and the story got exaggerated in the telling?

It's ridiculous what I've seen parents describe as creepy. They just cannot get the image of a child predator out of their heads.

- I held hands with a stranger who brought me back to my parents when I was lost

- We opened the door when somebody rang the doorbell we were home alone

- We used to go around town to ask people if we could earn some money by doing stuff in their house or garden

- When my bike was broken a stranger drove me home with his car

To the parents who are freaked out by their kids talking to a stranger the above things may sound mind boggling. A part of this is a cultural difference of seeing kids as sexual objects. Who lives somewhere where people would find it strange if a dad holds hands / hugs / kisses / bathes with his young daughter? I read a story where a dad was arrested for holding hands with his daughter.

I got hit by a car two separate times (I know...I know...). Both times, the car that hit me fled the scene and the very next car that came along gave me a ride home.In the second grade, I was walking home from school through the crosswalk at a green light and the car turned right didn't look and hit me, the other time I was crossing the a road on my bike and don't really remember the specifics. Also, when I was two my parents "lost" me at Knott's Berry Farms...and a stranger took me to the lost and found.

I imagine men are more likely to seem suspicious when talking to a kid, particularly a young girl. No one ever dreams a woman talking to a child could possibly have ill intentions.

I know just the other day I watched a man in his late 30s/early 40s walk out of a supermarket with a 12-14yo girl who was clearly not his biological child (completely different ethnicity) and get into a car. I couldn't help but be just the slightest bit suspicious. I may have been right, I may have been wrong, but if it was a woman with a 12-14yo girl OR boy, not a single eyebrow would raise.

Perception is a funny thing.

I'm a 30 year old male with a scruffy not-really-a-beard and mostly t-shirts in my wardrobe. When I go out alone, I can't so much as stand in the same grocery aisle as a child without getting suspicious looks from parents and store employees. It's much worse at the swimming pool or beach.

When I have my baby with me, it's the opposite. Kids crowd around me; parents strike up conversations. Mothers are happy to read a book while their daughters talk to me or swim around me at the pool. It suddenly makes sense to people why I haven't shaved in 3 days and wear t-shirts.

They go from thinking Chris Hansen should tell me to "have a seat right over there" to thinking I'm just like Mr. Rogers. I'm still the same person, but the perceived threat level is completely different based on whether or not my kid is with me.

A friend of mine was telling me a story about how if he stands near the women's restroom waiting for his fiancée and her young daughter he gets all sorts of dirty looks. But if he stands there holding a stroller people just smile and walk on by.

I hate this phenomenon. Allowing fear to prevent friendship just isn't worth it. There are just too many interesting, friendly people in the world who happen to be of the masculine persuasion. I go out of my way to encourage strangers--men in particular--to interact with my son, specifically as an act of protest against this way of thinking.

"What if" they're dangerous? Come on. The average stranger is far more likely to try to hurt me than a kid. [1] Life's too short to think that way.

[1] http://allcountries.org/uscensus/139_homicide_rates_by_race_...

A close family friend of mine is an older gentleman with three kids, none of whom are his biological offspring. It is sad how many askance looks he gets from passerby when he is out shopping with his adopted children.

These fears seem to stem from the illusion of control and detectability.

Ask most folks if they would be able to tell if their child is depressed or suicidal and you'll get a variation of "Of course I'd know if my child was suicidal" or "My child isn't depressed!"

Ask then if they could tell if a school sniper is going to target their school or if a terrorist attack was going to happen. You won't find a similar confidence in the detectability of the outcome.

And that produces fear.

Unfortunately, car accidents, abuse, and suicide are in fact more prevalent because they have false detectability. The very same human factors that contribute to people answering with confidence about their child's emotional or mental state also cause us to overlook subtle warning signs.

That's in part why people so often express surprise when there is a suicide attempt or familial abuse. You don't often hear parents or relatives say "yeah, I saw that coming." It's more often "Johnny tried to kill himself? What a shame, I would not have seen that coming , he was always such a bright/happy/etc child".

"Things that kill children" is not identical with "things parents should worry about". For example, immediate mortality is probably not parents' major concern with drugs (#5 on the list).

I came to say this same thing. As a parent, I really don't worry about 1-4 on the "shouldn't" list, but drugs is a real issue, especially in a family with evidence of a predisposition towards addiction.

There are also things I can do things about and things I can't, and that impacts what I worry about. I can't control a drunk that decides to cross four lanes of traffic, so beyond driving defensively, I don't worry about that.

On the other hand, I can teach my kids simple things in a way that doesn't have to panic them to keep them safe from unlikely chance they run into "stranger danger". We live in a low crime area, yet there have been a couple of very creepy incidents involving adults following/bother kids walking home from school.

I do wonder about where they got that list, though. I've never heard a single parent I know (and I know a lot of parents) who has said "I sure Johnny makes it home from school today and that the snipers don't get him." WTF?

How likely is it that your child will die from a random drunk crossing four lanes of traffic vs. merely taking a ride with a friend who is unsafe? Or, for that matter, drunk?

Drivers aged 16-19 have auto fatality rates four times higher than other drivers. That's not because they are magnets for middle aged drunk drivers.

1 in 4 teens killed in auto accidents were under the influence of alcohol.

Children are more likely to be molested by family members and friends of the family than by strangers. They are also more likely to die by stepping into the car of a friend than by being hit while driving alone. It's important to instill in your children the skills necessary to deal with the actual threats they are likely to encounter. Indeed, as a ridiculous example, if you told your children that they are not allowed to ride with friends but they are free to hitch-hike with random adult strangers chances are they'd actually be safer.

I could also fireproof and earthquake proof their rooms and never let them out, make sure they constantly wear rubber suits in case they trip, and only feed them formula through a stomach tube so they won't choke.

Yes, teenage drivers are scary. I'm scared every time my son backs out of the driveway (for him and everybody on the sidewalks). We have laws here that prohibit a new driver from having friends in the car without parents, which I think is great. I wish there was more we could do to make people safer and greatly applaud companies like Mercedes who are using technology to help with that.

However, I won't cripple myself or my kids by living for the worst case. I will try to teach and coerce so they worst cases won't happen, but I refuse to be a helicopter.

Yes, quite so. My point wasn't that you should coddle your children, but rather that it's important to understand what the real dangers are and empower your children to deal with them. Being overprotective of your kids from real dangers is a problem too, but being overprotective based on imaginary dangers is just plain dangerous.

I think the point is not that drugs will kill them. The point is drugs can cause serious problems with their lives, and as such still warrant concern. Whether they warrant more concern than something that might kill them is up for debate, but I think it's safe to say if the risk of a certain kind of death is orders of magnitude lower than the risk of drug abuse and life problems because of that abuse, the drugs are more important.

"I can't control a drunk that decides to cross four lanes of traffic, so beyond driving defensively, I don't worry about that."

You can control that risk in a vague, statistical fashion just by driving around less. Of course, you have to cost-benefit that against certain lifestyle choices, but there are actual tradeoffs that would be affected by this. For instance, the actual risk of a child getting abducted on public transit is probably a lot less than the risk of the child getting killed in a car accident, but most parents ignore the car accident risk and drive their kids around instead of letting them take the bus[1]/train/subway/monorail.

[1] Trains in particular, but even buses are likely safer--they're driven by professionals who tend to drive more slowly and conservatively. They also have a higher profile so other vehicles are more likely to see them, and on many buses, passengers are elevated above bumper height. It seems like an ordeal to get the statistics on buses together, though, so if it makes it more convenient for you to understand my point, you can just pretend I didn't mention anything about buses.

I had two theories, but I had to cross one out. The one I dismissed was if she surveyed parents in the DC area around 2003, which there was an active sniper. But I couldn't find any evidence she was from that area.

The other idea is that she means "school shootings" instead of snipers specifically.

"It makes no sense to worry about things you have no control over because there's nothing you can do about them, and why worry about things you do control? The activity of worrying keeps you immobilized." - Wayne Dyer

That's one of the founding principles of stoicism[0], as I understand it. The general idea is to change your emotions about external events, since you can't change the events themselves.

I'm told it's rather helpful for POWs.

[0]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stoicism

This article pretends that both lists are mutually exclusive. Maybe combined they equal most parents' top 10 list of worries, and the ones that happen rarely are simply the ones that are most effectively prevented. I rarely die, but I don't consider the time I spend preventing it to be wasted.

This rock keeps tigers away. I'll sell it to you for $20.

That's specious reasoning

How much time do you spend preventing sniper attacks? (#2)

My sons play MW2, so they're well well trained in handling sniper attacks. They're also well versed in fending off campers and noob-tubers, in case either of those are #6+ on the list.

I hope they are well stocked with smokes and not stun grenades when the snipers come looking. Lets hope they have cold-blooded pro as a perk too.

Strange that you would pick that one. My school district has experienced a school shooting (with 1 fatality), threats by a crazy hater stockpiling weapons whose plan was foiled by local law enforcement, and a nutjob deliveryman who used a pellet gun to snipe at children waiting for the bus. I hate to say it, but sniper attacks have earned a justifiable place on my list of parental worries.

School snipers is kinda ridiculous, but if you define "worry" as "fret due to a lack of control over the situation," then you can expect these kinds of results.

You're asking the vast majority of reasonably conscientious parents at large. What they "worry about" is the list of risks which they have not found a practical way to mitigate.

They're not being asked about how they think other people's kids might be killed, which would make comparing the two lists a valid exercise.

So these are heartening results. If parents are "worrying" about their kids dying by gunshot instead of actually locking up their handguns, you have a major problem.

Was the point about school snipers referring to actual gunmen picking off kids, or kidnappers grabbing a kid as they came out of the gates before their parents could pick them up?

Surely the gun-toting variety wouldn't be that common, even in the US?

I'm really curious about the survey methodology. If I ask a parent "Hey, are you worried about the fact that right this moment somebody might be shooting your child with a sniper rifle for no good reason?" I'd probably get the response "Well, yeah, now I am..."

This list is about how we fear the rare events that terrify us (terrorist event) over the more common events we just accept as risks of life (car accidents). Nothing to do with parenting.

Since car accidents are number one cause of child fatality, and since it's on topic, I'd like to remind you people that rearward facing car seats protect better in an accident.


Also, "Child occupants seated in the center had an injury risk 43% less than children seated in either of the rear outboard positions."


There are social factors that magnify worrying about children. For example, in the UK over 0.5% of children are in state care.

Thus parents also worry about what other adults think of them.

similar issues are discussed regularly on the Free Range Kids blog: http://freerangekids.wordpress.com/

I'm a parent and I worry tons about drowning and car accidents. I also worry about kidnapping, though, just because it's such a horrible thing. I have never yet to lose a minute of sleep over terrorists or snipers though -- it sounds they surveyed the Fox News paranoia generation with those responses (assuming this is an American audience. Those are obviously real threats in some parts of the world).

I don't think so. My parents worried about the things in the list that gets kids killed, and not about the things in the that doesn't get kids killed. Which parents really worry about snipers and terrorists?!

Exactly. When I was a kid my parents put a lot of emphasis on making sure I crossed the road safely. When I was slightly older they put a lot of emphasis on making sure I rode my bike safely. And when I got old enough to drive, they damn well put a lot of emphasis on making sure I drove safely.

As far as I know they never worried too much about me getting shot by a sniper.

There are real costs to being worried about the wrong things. How many kids today have been raised in over-protective environments? Not allowed to travel around the neighborhood or the city alone, for example. How does that affect them when they become adults? How does that impact their ability to be self-reliant, inquisitive, adventurous, confident, self-starting?

Slightly related, leading cause of death in my age group is accidental poisoning. This got no traction when I posted it, but I'll try linking one more time.


It's an interesting topic, but I found it a confusing article. I read quickly, but really didn't get a sense of how many of the deaths were due to what, what this implied, and what could be done about it. And I'm sure the required password certainly didn't help people read it. Post again when you find a clearer article that's out in the open!

I recently gave a talk at Ignite Boulder along these same lines. It's not just parents, we are all guilty of being scared of the wrong things:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AtyydlDsS5I [video]

Great point. There is a lot of fear mongering in our society and this is only perpetuated by the media which focuses mostly on bad news rather than good news.

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