Even though I don’t have kids yet, I’ve started reading Lenore Skenazy’s FreeRange Kids blog. Her goal is to encourage parents to raise healthy, resilient, independent kids, by giving them progressively more responsibility and freedom. This seems unbelievably obvious to me, but apparently, the idea that you can let your kids out of your sight and still be a responsible parent is not trendy these days.
The whole thing started when her then 9-year-old son asked if he could ride the subway alone (they live in New York City). After some careful preparation, she let him, and then wrote a column for the New York Sun about it, figuring that would be the end of it. A week later, she was on talk shows accused of being the World’s Worst Mom. After all, the world is a terribly unsafe place these days. There are child molesters. There are kidnappers. There are terrorists. (Though, as she points out, it’s not entirely clear how your presence is going to keep your child safe if someone blows up your subway car.) Her response is, yes, all that is true and it’s ghastly and tragic and soul-crushing when a child is kidnapped by a complete stranger. But, it’s also ghastly and tragic and soul-crushing when a child is killed in a car accident, and that’s 40 times (her number) more likely to happen, but we don’t run around saying “never let your child ride in a car.” Furthermore, there have always been child molesters, and murderers, and psychopaths, though incidents weren’t reported and recorded so commonly until the recent past, but that didn’t stop parents in previous generations from sending their kids out to play on their own.
Anyway, all of this got me thinking…a lot of what’s going on here doesn’t seem to be that the world is genuinely a more dangerous place than it has, on average, been throughout human history. Yeah, we’re facing some really serious, large-scale threats (mainly climate change and environmental degradation), but our parents faced nuclear holocaust (a threat that hasn’t actually gone away, even though we don’t talk about it so much anymore); their parents faced two world wars, the Holocaust, and the Depression. But on the whole, our lives are generally pretty safe compared to the lives of most humans through most of history. We’d all like them to be more safe (and so we feel unsafe), but life is inherently unsafe, so I think that’s an insatiable urge.
What is different, is that, in addition to our own built in worry instinct that (sensibly) looks for threats and tries to avoid problems, we face a 24-hour, full-color, fear-mongering litany of potential threats coming from our media. Media more or less exists to get your attention, and there’s no better way to get your attention than to give you something to worry about. And so we hear about the one child every few months or year or so who is kidnapped from the park and brutally raped and murdered, but we never hear anything about the tens of millions of children who go to the park and play, learning resourcefulness and independence, and nothing happens to them except maybe an occasional skinned knee. It’s no wonder we want to cower in our McMansions and never venture outside.
So the question is, how do we, as consumers, use media responsibly so that we don’t end up living in paranoid panic? If there were nothing but exaggerated fear-mongering in the news, it would be easy: just turn it off. The world will keep going. Really. But it’s not so simple. Some of the information we get from the news is valuable; there are real threats that we actually can do something to prepare for, and real problems that we actually can do something to fix (if we can sort out which problems are real and which are exaggerated). I have no good answer to this question, but if you have one, please share it.