What’s a parent to do? PSAs broadcast on radio throughout the day tell listeners that every kid is constantly on the verge of smoking dope and thus ruining their life. Parents are encouraged to scrutinize their kids’ internet use since they are in imminent danger of abduction by a sexual predator or intimidation by a cyberbully. The medical and political authorities warn us about the dangers of HIV, occasional exposure to sidestream tobacco smoke, riding a bike without a helmet, contaminated lettuce, and now the scourge of unsafe bridges. Newspapers alert us to the plethora of dangers we need to worry about with headlines like “Stricter ATV regulations needed to protect kids, some say;” or “Sand holes can swallow a person.” News media reports lead people to believe that gang violence is rampant, even in a relative backwater like Anchorage. And then there are “foreign” terrorists and bird flu. It’s simply amazing that any kid in america makes it through to adulthood these days.
Apparently there are people who believe this crap, since overbearing parenting is all the rage. Whatever the problems associated with growing up in the sixties and seventies, it was heaven compared to what kids have to go through with modern childrearing. Although our parents kept us on a relatively short leash, at least we had some breathing space, some areas of our lives that were outside the scope of parental supervision and snooping. Not so much for the children of today.
Modern parents seem to feel the need to keep their children under constant surveillance. When the kids are small, they don’t let them go play on the streets with just anyone, but prefer to set up play dates through other parents. If they get a minor injury at their day care center, the parents want a full scale government inquiry. As they grow up, they buy them cellphones and require them to check in throughout the day so they can be interrogated and harangued. They vet their children’s friends, and they expect their kids to see mommy and daddy as friends they should confide in. They pry into their internet activity and monitor their phone usage. They obsess about whether their kids are having sex and try to schedule their own days in such a way that their kids are never unsupervised when they are not at school. They can’t seem to just leave their kids alone and trust them to make good choices, even for a moment. This may make the parents feel like they are raising kids responsibly, but it interferes with the kids’ ability to develop a sense of self-responsibility and independence. Small wonder so many grown children still live at home.
What happened to the people I grew up with? The ones who smoked dope, drank, had sex, got home before their parents each day and somehow still managed to have jobs, go to college, live on their own? The ones who resented their parents’ attempts to control their lives? The ones who rebelled and struck out on their own and somehow succeeded? Apparently they have turned into their parents on steroids.
Father and Mother Know Best
They believe their parenting style is justified because of the alleged dangers of the world, which they perceive to be much worse than those they encountered growing up. But this is all nonsense. Few children are abducted by strangers for sexual purposes or otherwise. Sexual predation remains largely a family affair, and is likely much rarer than we are led to believe by the hysterics on television and elsewhere in the mass media. Many kids smoke pot, and are none the worse for it, while marijuana use is surely no more prevalent now than it was decades ago when today’s parents were growing up. HIV is uncommon and difficult to transmit, the dangers of sidestream tobacco smoke are ridiculously overblown, and riding a bike sans helmet is no more dangerous than it was when us old folks grew up, and, somehow, survived to talk about it. And, miraculously, we haven’t all been wiped out yet by plane bombings, a flu pandemic, or E. coli on our veggies.
Part of the problem is a poor understanding of risk. This is nothing new. Early in the HIV outbreak people were told “everybody” was at risk of getting AIDS. This was simply a lie. If one did not have sex, share needles, or receive blood products, one was in fact at no risk of acquiring HIV. And if one were prudent in their sexual practices, the risk approached zero. But people in general simply bought the authorities’ and AIDS activists’ lies about HIV and abandoned their reason and skepticism. People seemed unable or unwilling to evaluate their own risk and simply bought the line being sold by the experts.
The same goes for most of the other things people fear so much. The majority of those who smoke pot do so safely and in a way that doesn’t interfere with their lives. Kids are online all the time and rarely get raped as a result. Sidestream smoke is simply an annoyance to most. And riding a bike without a helmet puts the rider at only a small risk of brain injury. But data and statistics are presented in ways that breed fear and people’s minds seemingly shut down when the authorities make their proclamations about what is safe and unsafe. All the worst case scenarios are presented, while the data necessary to evaluate the real risks of whatever is being demonized are either omitted or lied about.
For instance, we all know that most cases of lung cancer occur in tobacco smokers. However, it is not uncommon for people to be surprised when I tell them that it is also true that most smokers do not get lung cancer; in fact only about 15% of smokers will. Similarly, while the only way to meet an online predator is to be online, only a tiny percentage of those on line are sexually victimized. If you are riding a bike and fall a certain way, while pedaling at a certain speed you can sustain a brain injury, but these accidents are uncommon and the “need” for helmets greatly exaggerated; according to CDC, there are only 6300 hospital admissions for traumatic brain injuries related to bicycling in the entire country (of 300,000,000 people) each year. And perhaps the biggest bugaboo these days, sidestream smoke is highly unlikely to do any serious damage to most people exposed to it. While the “experts” claim there is no safe level of smoke exposure, this is true only in the sense that there is no safe way to drive, cross the street, or have sex, since taking part in any of these activities can, in some circumstances, result in injury or death. Nothing is risk-free, and, if the standards applied to assessing the risks of breathing environmental tobacco smoke are applied to other human activities, one could say there is no safe level of exposure to living life itself.
Figures Don’t Lie, but Liars Figure
One needs only to read the data presented in the articles with the sensational headlines I cited above to see how manipulative writers can be in making their case about supposed hazards. In the story about ATVs, statistics were presented which showed that two children were killed in ATV mishaps in Washington this year and 18 kids under 16 were killed between 1982 and 2005. The writer fails to point out there are more than a million people under 16 in the state, thus neglecting to provide a context in which to evaluate the real risks involved. Less than .0002% of kids in Washington die of ATV-related injuries each year, but the writer believes this “threat” requires more government action to “protect kids.”
But the threat of ATVs pales beside that of collapsing sand holes, which have resulted in the deaths of 31 children and young adults since 1985. One finds, when reading below the sensational sub-head, however, that this is 31 people in the united states, united kingdom, australia, and new zealand. But the fact that the number of kids killed at the beach is not zero, even though it is close to that number, just isn’t good enough. Parents are encouraged to keep their kids from digging deep holes in the sand and lifeguards on Martha’s Vineyard are expected to order kids (and adults!!) out of sand holes and fill them back in. Thank god someone is looking out for our children.
I’m From the Government and I’m Here to Help You
So, in a world where dangers are lied about and exaggerated and people have come to expect that someone else, usually the government, will analyze threats and provide them with protection therefrom, it is no surprise that not only are children’s lives increasingly micromanaged and hemmed in by their parents, but the government is taking on more and more power to regulate the details of daily life. From curfews to raised drinking ages to statutory “rape” laws, over the years the government has become even more intrusive in its attempts to control the lives of young people than it is in its supervision of the rest of us.
People in general are gullible and trust in the authorities, because they would rather not have to think for themselves. They believe that “safety” is the most important thing in the lives of their children, but fail to use any critical thinking in figuring out what is really safe and what unsafe. Absolute safety is unattainable and all one can realistically hope to do is decrease the risk of harm from activities they participate in.
But that is not what happens. People continue to readily engage in many activities that put them at real risk, but are overly concerned about dangers that are unlikely to affect them. So millions upon millions eat themselves into diabetes and heart disease, and then support laws that require other people to stop smoking or wear helmets. Although 4000 or so americans have been killed in the last several years in the military’s campaign of slaughter in iraq and afghanistan, there are no calls to abolish the military (except from some of the few anarchists around), but there are those who believe we are failing to exercise good judgment if we don’t intervene when kids play at the beach because one dies every year or so in a freak accident. People seem to have lost their perspective.
Everyone should be free to express their safety concerns and even, annoying as it may be, lecture others about their private behavior. After all, those of us who are not so credulous and frightened can ignore the nannies or tell them to fuck off. But when it comes to kids, attempts at persuasion take a back seat to force and compulsion. If parents are unwilling or unable to force their kids to live lives restricted by endless protections, they are more than willing to make the state the enforcer. They are happy to have the state make anything from walking the streets at night to having a beer at 18 to smoking a joint to having sex with someone of the “wrong” age a violation of some law or other that justifies harassment, arrest, or even imprisonment of young people.
An over-concern with ever-present dangers, real or perceived, to our safety has created a sort of paranoia among all too many people. Politicians and bureaucrats, with their continuous speechifying about threats to the “homeland” and fake epidemics of injury and illness, both promote fear and take advantage of it to increase their power. Although adults have the ability to escape some of this increasingly intrusive government bullying, younger people are forced to live more and more constrained lives. That’s what’s wrong with kids today: too damn much meddling from family and government.