Child Safety

Copyright (c) 2008 by Kenny Felder

Here is a little science fiction story I made up today.

A group of children spend the entire summer of 2009 playing video games, watching TV, and doing...well, whatever it is that children seem to do for endless hours on Facebook. They never go outside, never interact with any other human being in person, and subsist on Doritos and Coke.

Their concerned parents take away the computers and televisions, thinking their children will find old-fashioned forms of entertainment. The children can't think of anything to do at all: they stare at the walls and demand their video games back.

The parents decide to create a summer camp. They come up with wholesome activities involving art, sports, music, and nature. The kids aren't interested. They want their computers.

Now comes the science fiction part. The parents use a time machine to ask help from a bunch of parents and teachers from the 1950s: "Back in your time, kids had fun without 21st-century technology. We want you to help us set up a summer camp so exciting that kids will want to do it." After consulting and considering, the 1950s parents come back with a detailed plan.

...and so on.

The 2009 parents look over the list. "These are great, exactly the kind of thing we're looking for. The only problem is, we don't have enough supervision. We can't send a parent out with every pair of kids downtown. Our insurance wouldn't cover the real animals on a farm. How would it be if we had a scavenger hunt on the school playground, and then went to a barn and talked to a farmer about his animals?"

The 1950s parents look confused. "The kids will be bored to tears!"

"Yes, you understand perfectly!" explain the 2009 parents. "They are bored to tears with everything we've come up with! We need ideas that are fun and exciting, like your ideas, with just one little detail changed: they need to meet modern standards of liability and insurance. That means no kids in the woods, in town, on the water, or anywhere else where they are not closely supervised by adults at all times."

The 1950s parents then deliver the punch line of the story. I'm torn here between two possible endings.

1. "Maybe we misunderstood from the beginning. Are we talking about 4-year-olds here?"

2. "Tell us again about these—what did you call them?—video games."

I don't think the story needs to go any farther to make my point. The rule "No unsupervised activity that could possibly ever lead to a lawsuit" is not a little detail to plan around. It is the insurmountable barrier that drives our kids ever deeper into their Nintendos.

When I talk to people about this, they tend to be sympathetic, up to a point. Sure, kids would like to run around in the woods. Sure, it would be nice if they could interact with animals. But...well, you just can't do that, not with kids. You do know that, don't you?

The best response I have thought of is to hit you with a few vignettes, alternating between older fictional depictions of childhood, and modern real-life ones. Perhaps the most surprising thing, as you read the following, is how un-surprising it all is. The older stories seem perfectly natural in the old-fashioned lives of children. The modern events seem equally natural in a modern context. Somehow, modern adults have no difficulty holding both of these things in their heads at the same time: "Sure, we did that sort of thing when I was a kid, but you just can't do that nowadays."

1970, E.B. White, The Trumpet of the Swan. A camp counselor addresses a group of boys (12-13 years old, I think) on the first night of camp.
And now it's time for everybody to go to bed. You may take a swim before breakfast tomorrow, and you don't need to wear your swim trunks. Just jump out of bed when you hear the trumpet of the swan, strip off your pajamas, race to the dock, and dive in.
2008: I attend Jack's cub scout camp. Any scout who is anywhere, any time without the watchful eye of an adult is considered in serious violation of the rules, and will be expelled from camp. (Of course they don't let them anywhere near the lake without swim tests, life preservers, and an army of life guards.)

1960, George Selden, The Cricket in Times Square.

"Papa, can I go down to Chinatown and get my cricket a house?" Mario asked.

"It's Sunday," said Papa. "There won't be any stores open."

"Well but there may be one or two open," said Mario. It's Chinatown."

"All right, Mario," Papa Bellini began....

Mario took the IRT local subway downtown. At the Canal street stop Mario got off and walked over several blocks to Chinatown. Down at the end of an alley there was an especially old shop...

2008. When a high school student finishes an activity two blocks from school, he asks if he can walk back to school for a study session. He is told this is impossible, because no teacher is available to walk with him. In case you're wondering, the place is a very safe suburban 5-minute walk, the time is the middle of the day, and the student has a perfect record of good behavior and academic seriousness. I don't think anyone doubted his intentions. But he was forced to miss the study session.

Written in 2001, takes place in 1934: Kit Learns a Lesson, part of the wonderful American Girl series.

Mr. Fisher [the school teacher] had also decided that Kit, Ruthie, and Stirling would deliver the class's Thanksgiving basket to a soup kitchen while the rest of the class was watching the Thanksgiving pageant....After an early lunch at school, the rest of the class went to the pageant. Mr. Fisher helped Kit, Ruthie, and Stirling put the Thanksgiving basket into the wagon. "The soup kitchen is down on River Street," said Mr. Fisher. "After you deliver the basket, you may go home." Kit, Ruthie, and Stirling set out....
2006. A high school teacher leaves a group of well-behaved high school students unsupervised on their own campus for an hour. Nothing bad happens to the students, but the teacher is fired for the danger he is causing to children.

1982, Cynthia Rylant, When I Was Young in the Mountains.

When I was young in the mountains, we walked across the cow pasture and through the woods, carrying our towels. The swimming hole was dark and muddy, and we sometimes saw snakes, but we jumped in anyway. On our way home, we stopped at Mr. Crawford's for a mound of white butter. Mr. Crawford and Mrs. Crawford looked alike and always smelled of sweet milk.
2008: A group of high school students, carefully screened by SAT tests for academic excellence, attend the "Duke TIP" summer program at Appalachian State University, where they live in dorms and spend 7 hours a day doing advanced classwork. When they are not in class, a variety of exciting activities are planned for them. "What if a student wants to walk across campus to the library?" I ask. "Oh, don't worry, sir," I am assured, "We would never let them do that unsupervised."

I read to my kids a lot, and I have daily experience with two different schools, so I am smacked in the face with these discrepancies every day. They become even more apparent if you read older books, or real-life biographies. We've just gone through the childhoods of John Paul Jones and Soloman Story, both of whom had enough adventures by the age of 15 to comfortably feed a pack of modern lawyers and their wives and children for years to come.

But let's get to the heart of the matter. Let's talk about safety.

Most people, when confronted with this issue, respond that "the world has gotten more dangerous." This is not a matter of how you feel; it is a statement of fact. Either it's true, or it isn't.

So look it up! I spent a few minutes browsing the Web, and here's what I found.

Steven Levitt: "Crime fell sharply in the United States in the 1990s, in all categories of crime and all parts of the nation. Homicide rates plunged 43 percent from 1991 to 2001, reaching the lowest levels in 35 years. The Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) violent and property crime indexes fell 34 and 29 percent, respectively, over that same period."1

U.S. Department of Justice:2

crime statistics, 1973-2005

Here's one that even surprised me, again from the DOJ. Between 1993 and 2005, the percentage of students in grades 9 through 12 who reported carrying a weapon to school declined by 50%.3

Don't take my word for it. But even more strongly, don't trust that instinctive voice in the back of your head that says "the world is more dangerous than when I was a kid." Do the research for yourself, on the Web or even in a library. The world is not becoming more dangerous by any metric I can find. But our over-protectiveness is growing by leaps and bounds.

Mom wants to go shopping; 8-year-old Bobby wants to stay home, alone. Should she let him?

If she leaves Bobby at home, he could wander away and get lost, or fall down and cut himself, or swallow the wrong medicine, or find Daddy's gun. And let's not forget the possibility of a fire, or an evil kidnapper who picks just the right moment to show up at the door. My goodness, it's a dangerous world! Mom should drag Bobby with her, right? That way, only one thing can go wrong: a traffic accident, during the short drive to the store.

Oops. If you look at accidental deaths of 5-14 year olds in 2002, motor vehicles were responsible for 59.5%. Contrast this with "smoke, fire, and flames" (8.9%), "accidental discharge of firearms" (2.2%), or poison (1.5%). Violent crime and kidnapping don't even make the list. And of course, most traffic accidents occur very close to home. Bobby is in far more danger on the way to the store, seat belts and car seats and all, than he would be playing in the yard.

If danger isn't up, lawsuits certainly are.

When Jack's third-grade teacher wanted to take the class to work with farm animals, the school was very honest in their reply: you can't do this, because it isn't covered by our insurance.

High schools are less honest when they forbid students to drive themselves to field trips. These same students drive themselves (and their friends!) to school every day, so when the schools claim that they are motivated solely by concerns for student safety, the charade is paper-thin. But there are many cases where the hypocrisy is less obvious, and is all the more dangerous for that.

The solution has to come from both directions. The government has to change the laws to prevent ridiculous lawsuits from crippling schools and other organizations. But the schools and organizations also have to stand up and say, "We're not going to jeopardize our entire educational mission on the 0.01% chance that someone might sue us." The change that put us where we are happened from the ground up; the change going the other way will probably have to do the same.

And suppose the change never comes. Why does all this bother me so much? Is it really so bad if our kids play a lot of video games?

I could obviously answer that by talking about childhood obesity, and all the attendant health problems it causes. Children don't naturally want to spend all day sitting around eating chips; we're forcing them. But in reality, my concerns go far beyond the physical problems.

Wading in a stream with your pants rolled up is an important part of childhood. Riding your bike to the ice cream store is important. Getting completely lost with a friend, and finding your way home hours later, is important. These things confer advantages that cannot be replaced by any adult-supervised activity.

And on the flip side, there are the completely unknown psychological consequences of raising an entire generation to believe that they are helpless in the face of a dangerous world, that nature is a continual threat, and that most strangers are evil. How will we ever measure the results? How will we weigh them against one child's death, one mother's anguish?

These judgments are difficult to make, and of course you have to find a balance. In our family, we are religious about seat belts, sun block, tooth brushing, and looking both ways before we cross the street, among many other safety precautions. But we also voluntarily expose our children to tangible, physical risks—nothing as dangerous as riding in a car, but skiing and romping through the woods and other activities that could lead to injury and/or death—all the time. We're trying to give them a healthy childhood, and help them grow into healthy adults. This has never been easy, and it's only getting harder.

This is my second essay on this topic; click here for the first attempt.

Also, if you want a bit more evidence, here are some quotes from a New York Times article that came out several years after I wrote this essay.

The number of violent crimes in the United States dropped significantly last year, to what appeared to be the lowest rate in nearly 40 years. In all regions, the country appears to be safer. The odds of being murdered or robbed are now less than half of what they were in the early 1990s. "One murder is too many, but the 2010 spike has to be viewed in the context of the historic low the year before," said the New York Police Department's chief spokesman.
The article cites dramatic declines in murder, rape, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, and others. I think it doesn't mention kidnapping because that was already so incredibly rare.4

1 is the Steven Levitt article on the drop in crime rates in the 90s. Some readers may not agree with his conclusions, but I've never heard anyone dispute that he gets his facts right. It is referenced in the essay here.

2 is where I got the DOJ Violent Crime Rates chart. You can see a number of other revealing DOJ charts at It is referenced in the essay here.

3 is not my original source for the 50% drop in high school students carrying a weapon to school, but it seems as credible a source as any. You can actually find any number of references to that statistic once you start looking. It is referenced in the essay here.

4 the Times article about the startling decrease in crime. It is referenced in the essay here.

See Also
Since I wrote this essay, I have discovered Lenore Skenazy's "Free Range Kids" movement. You can read more about our encounter below. She is a voice of sanity and humor in a field that desperately needs both. Check our her blog at or her book at "Another mom said that she doesn't even let her daughter go to the mailbox in her upscale Atlanta neighborhood. There's just too much 'opportunity' for the girl to be snatched and killed. To her, I'm the crazy mom."

I also highly recommend the Time article "How Americans are Living Dangerously" by Jeffrey Kluger. He doesn't have a particular ax to grind about child safety, as Lenore Skenazy and I do, but he does a wonderful job of laying out the irrational ways that we fear all the wrong things at,9171,1562978-1,00.html. "Shoppers still look askance at a bag of spinach for fear of E. coli bacteria while filling their carts with fat-sodden French fries and salt-crusted nachos."


From: Michelle Williams
December 19, 2008

I'm watching people around me raise kids and wondering. I think it's not just lawsuits that are being avoided, it's conflict—or parenting with authority. Examples:

I don't have kids; haven't spent more than one night solely responsible for any. And that one is the perfect child and almost always does what she's told without argument. I don't claim I would do a better job, given the chance, or even a different job.

However, when left home alone I knew better than to drink drain cleaner (readily available), play with matches (readily available), or let strangers (infrequent) into the house. And I was more afraid of what my parents would do if they found out than I was of getting sick, burned, or abducted.

We had a conflict among the members of my generation a few years ago. While several of us reeled dizzily from the incomprehensibility of the response to our actions by the opposing side, the shrink in the family pointed out that, when you're an only child, you don't necessarily learn to handle conflict well. And indeed it was us folks with siblings (and experience in the business world) against them folks without.

If all the rules are imposed by adults on each other and all the conflict handled at that level, then children don't have rules. I wonder if, when they start bumping up against them as they near adulthood, they seem a bigger deal because they haven't necessarily learned why they exist and when it might be OK to break them. Is that what happened to your nephew?

From: Kenny Felder
December 19, 2008

You're making an interesting connection, one that would not have occurred to me. Hiding the knick-knacks is definitely the correct response if a 2-year-old is coming, and the wrong one for an 8-year-old. Somewhere in between there, the kid should develop the discipline to leave things alone, but the age when we expect that discipline may be getting older and older.

Ironically, I hear a lot of parents complain that kids today grow up too fast. In some ways, that's undoubtedly true. But in so many ways, kids today grow up unbearably slowly.

When I wrote my first safety article, a lot of people told me about the New York Sun article about a woman who allowed her 9-year-old son to take the subway home alone. The woman's name is Lenore Skenazy, and I sent her a link to this essay. She emailed back:

From: Lenore Skenazy
December 20, 2008

Kenny—not only are we on the exact same page—I mean EXACT same page—I loved this entire post and would like to excerpt part of it on my blog. You are so right about so many, many points and you make your case so cogently. I loved reading it (and I bet you're a great teacher!). You should also know about a group called Common Good, headed by a guy named Philip Howard, who is beating the same drum about how if we allow stupid lawsuits to even get heard, we'll have to act as if stupid worries make sense, because eventually they could be our undoing. You'll also love looking on a website called Spiked (it's British) for the work of Frank Furedi (who wrote "paranoid parents" back in 2000) and also the essays by my friend Nancy McDermott, who is just a genius about all these issues.

Finally, I'm writing a book that I hope hits most of these points, too: Free Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry. It's due out in late April.

I was just very heartened to read your piece, but very sad that it is so true.

Anyway, I'm happy we're in touch and let me know if you'd like me to post the beginning of your blog on mine.

Either way, take care!

Lenore Skenazy

Needless to say, I was ecstatic. I also checked out the links, and it is true: her stuff is perfectly congruent with my own message. After years of feeling like a lone voice crying in the wilderness, I am extremely heartened to find a few kindrid spirits out there. Check it out!

From: Regina Victoria
December 23, 2008

Hi! I just wanted to say that I stumbled across your essays today, and they were a truly interesting read. I'm only 22—I've grown up in the video-game-playing, junk-food-eating, scared-of-everything generations, and I think your comments about future generations who have no idea about anything are spot-on. I was lucky; I had just enough rough-and-tumble to let me know that that's how a kid should grow up.

I'm still afraid of everything, even though I know better. I've never broken a bone, I've hardly any scars, and the scariest thing that's happened to me was getting lost in Sacramento for a few hours, in my car. I'd gladly trade a few bumps and bruises for having had the kind of upbringing that people used to have.

From: Kenny Felder
December 23, 2008

Thanks so much for the kind words, Regina! Yours is a perspective I hadn't heard before. I talk mostly to people my age (43) and my kids' ages (15 and down). As an adult who was brought up in this world and regrets it, you have a very different view on it.

From: Regina Victoria
December 23, 2008

I think a lot of people my age haven't realized the harm that that kind of upbringing causes—or even the simple fact that it can cause harm. It's not always easy to notice the bubble you're in. I just lucked out by having a mom into horses and moving to an agrarian area—once you've realized you're in love with small-time farming, getting rid of that oh-no-can't-get-hurt! mentality is kind of a must, hehehe.

From: Augie Turak
December 29, 2008

I'm lucky enough to live out here in the country where I still see the occasional kid riding a bike without a suit of armor. When I was young I thought nothing of jumping on a bus at 11 or 12 and going into down town Pittsburgh just to goof around. When I was younger still we took all day "bike hikes" and wandered all over the place on foot. My parents who had 8 kids never worried about us as long as we came home for meals and when the street light came on. Loved your essay. Keep up the good work.

From: Thomas Whitmire
July 23, 2009

A personal peeve of mine is how we downtalk to younger people... projecting babylike qualities on them when we converse (I'm thinking the age range of maybe 5 years old or so, and up). One of my favorite things to do is talk to them just like they're an adult (as in, use the same intonation). They usually are shocked by this.

It may be interesting for you also to look into the phase we call "adolescence." I can't remember the specifics here, but I do recall that in a Psych class I took, I learned that adolescenes apparently came into existence back in the 1700s I believe. Also, cross cultural comparisons of how people treat that age range. Our culture doesn't expect or project them to be "mature enough to handle themselves" for some reason. Or at younger ages, as with the lady's kid on the subway. My Dad tells stories of walking alone to school, or friends from NYC also mentioning taking the subway at young ages. Kids are quite capable it would seem. I guess the fear in these cases is a stranger kidnapping them or something? I think media has really made us buy into that fear...Those stories sell, and we take them to be common thereafter.

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