What’s Really Dangerous for Kids? Hint: It Has Four Wheels and a Tailpipe.

2822848009_98b4623864_m.jpgPhoto by pawpaw67 via Flickr.

When she wrote a column for the New York Sun last year about letting her nine-year-old ride the subway on his own, Lenore Skenazy was pilloried by many as an irresponsible mom. She stuck to her guns, though, and started a blog dedicated to "sane parenting", advocating the idea that we are over-sheltering our children from infinitesimal threats such as stranger abduction. According to Skenazy, the kind of independence represented by that subway trip is necessary and healthy for children — and their parents as well.

Now she’s making the publicity rounds promoting her book, Free-Range Kids. In a recent interview with Salon, she pointed out that  while many American parents are terrified to let their children walk a few blocks or ride public transit, they think nothing of driving them everywhere — even though car crashes are the leading cause of death for children in the US:

Skenazy: If you don’t want to have your child in any kind of danger, you really can’t do anything. You certainly couldn’t drive them in a car, because that’s the No. 1 way kids die, as passengers in car accidents.

Salon: Rationally, why aren’t cars the bogeyman instead of stranger abduction?

Skenazy: It would change our entire lifestyle if we couldn’t drive our kids in a car, and it’s a danger that we just willingly accept without examining it too much, because we know that the chances are very slim that we’re going to have a fatal car accident. But the chances are 40 times slimmer that your kid walking to school, whether or not she’s the only one, is going to be hurt by a stranger.

Skenazy’s answer gets to the heart of why it is so hard for people to accept the many ways in which automobiles hurt everyone in society, perhaps especially children — through crashes, through polluting the air, through promoting obesity. We can imagine a life in which our children are not allowed to play outdoors, walk to a friend’s house or spend any time unsupervised. But we just can’t imagine life without cars.

Or can we?

9 thoughts on What’s Really Dangerous for Kids? Hint: It Has Four Wheels and a Tailpipe.

  1. Love the blog, love the cogency of the argument. We really can’t live without cars very much at this point — at least not in most parts of the country. So we make them as safe as possible — we put on seat belts, and use car seats — and try to drive carefully.
    Why can’t we do the same with kids? Teach them how to cross street safely, how to talk to strangers but never go OFF with strangers, and then let them go on their way, too?
    It is so easy to curtail someone else’s freedom — kids — but so irksome to curtail our own (cars).
    Lenore “Free Range Kids” Skenazy

  2. I agree with Skenazy 100%, but I’d add one caveat. Many of the new developments built in the last 20 years, especially in areas where suburban sprawl is the norm (Atlanta, Phoenix, Las Vegas, etc.) have been built without sidewalks and crosswalks, and with about zero thought given to pedestrians or kids who might walk or ride their bikes along streets. We don’t build downtowns anymore, we build strip malls along multi-lane expressways or state highways.

    So even if it might be as be safe, statistically, for kids to walk or bike to school today as it was a decade or two ago, it certainly appears less safe. And appearance almost always overrides statistics, which is why more people are afraid of flying than driving.

    Our brains, while easily frightened by the media’s “abduction of the week” stories, also make judgments based on what we see in our communities. Even separated from the media, I think parents can see that things don’t appear to be as safe as they used to be. The idealized town center, with a school and a a park close by, is a thing of the past that never was in many parts of the country.

    We’ll never stop the media from playing up the sensational, but if we build more pedestrian friendly communities, parents will feel safer still. They’ll send their kids out on their own because they know there will be more eyes on the street and areas where they’ll be separated from traffic. We need a fundamental restructuring of cities and towns in order for this to happen.

  3. Psychologically, people are most afraid of dangers that are immediate and/or spectacular, but not ones linked to preventable causes or gradual death resulting from choices of convenience.

    People are afraid of death by: plane crash, terrorism, violent attacker, poisonous spiders, falling in the train tracks, nuclear weapons, asteroids, and disease outbreaks such as SARS and Swine Flu, and they will frequently make important lifestyle to avoid these dangers.

    People are typically not very afraid of: cigarette smoke, car accidents, AIDS, obesity and poor diet, alcohol and legal/illegal drug abuse, salmonella, or influenza, and they frequently do not make lifestyle changes to avoid these leading causes of death.

    I don’t know why that is but I’m sure there are studies. Sensible lifestyles should be a full-blown movement in this country because people are making really poor, ignorant choices when it comes to their health (and parenting, and finances, etc.).

  4. I got driven around a lot in my suburban youth, but I also did a lot of walking in our small town. My parents have a home movie of me at the age of five, walking down the sidewalk with my Mom, on the way to my first day at kindergarten. Before long I was making the walk by myself, and did so until I graduated from high school. Near the school, I had to cross the town’s four-lane main street, but there was a crossing guard during school-commute hours. When it rained, I would wear a raincoat. When the sidewalks were slushy, I’d wear galoshes. Once in awhile, when the weather was truly foul, the neighborhood mothers would get together and one of them would drive a bunch of kids from the block. But that was rare. Walking was normal. I’m glad I grew up that way — and I’m glad I live that way now.

  5. As much as I LOVE what Skenazy is doing, accepting that some risk is inevitable, that everything is a tradeoff, and that many risks are worth taking, I would like to go beyond a risk mitigation mindset one based firstly on assessment. That is, letting your child do X may not not only be okay if you make some attempt to reduce the risk; it might just be okay period. Risk mitigation, especially if it’s based on rumor and assumption, shouldn’t be a prerequisite to every activity. Some things are just not dangerous, and creeping mitigation is how we got into this mess! If there is something worth doing to reduce risk, human experience should bear that out in significant numbers. And turning that around: maybe a car-centered lifestyle, seat-belts and all, is worth trying to avoid.

    But I understand that it’s much easier to explain to concerned friends that you’re doing X, Y, Z to mitigate an optional risk than to pull out a chart to say there actually isn’t enough risk to worry about. It’s a long path from the over-protective, TV-news-‘informed’ parenting that many of grew up under to a state of emotional health that is at the same time more traditional and more scientific; any movement in that direction is simply wonderful.

  6. t is right, in that today’s subdivisions are designed for maximum automobile speed with little or no consideration for the needs of pedestrians (i.e. kids). One could argue that subdivisions without sidewalks came first, and contributed to parents’ overprotective attitude today. As late as the 1980’s, when I grew up, this attitude did not seem to exist, but subdivisions without sidewalks sure did. I grew up in what would today be called the “inner city” (Rochester, NY), in a proper early 1900’s neighborhood, and I remember riding my bike all over the city (and nearby suburbs). I also remember taking Greyhound by myself to Potsdam, NY (about a 6 to 8 hour trip) when I was 12. Unthinkable today.

  7. What is worrying is that my generation (born 1961) remembers what it was like to travel around on their own. The next generation of parents will not.

    My question for Ms. Skenazy is this — where do you work? At home, something that is possible given your profession?

    It seems that the shift to completely managed children corresponded with the purchase of the SECOND car, which went with the second full-time career. Up until, say, the 1980s, if the second spouse worked they did so in the neighborhood, which is also where they were if they did not work, and where the children were. And that’s where they shopped, too, except on the weekends when the family car was home.

    That described the situation I grew up in in west Yonkers — urban but without transit (aside from the one bus that wheezed up Nodine Hill). My wife as well, in Levittown, after having left Brooklyn. Places developed since then are only possible with, and make necessary, that second car.

  8. Ah the independence of being a city kid.

    I either walked to school since I was 5 or 6 alone (like two blocks and my dad watched me from the door) or walked one avenue down from the bus while my mom stayed on and went to work (divorced parents). Additionally every school I went to before HS let us go out to lunch unsupervised with parental permission.

    By the time I was in JHS I walked (or ran due to my dilatory nature) to school (about a mile) and was allowed to travel on the subway to the city (aka Manhattan) with a friend (prob soon after alone). All the transplants that move here are so shocked by the freedom us city kids had not being tied to cars.

    People in this day and age are moronically scared. Did we get mugged? Yes! Do I know anyone that got seriously hurt or abducted? Nope. There are probably less muggings these days too! We need more people like Lenore.

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