The Paranoid Parent

Parenting today is much harder than it was 30 years ago.  In fact, all of the things we used to do as parents would be considered irresponsible today.  No car seats, left the sleeping baby in the car to run into the store for milk and kids were unsupervised much of the day. Our kids ate dirt, fell down and hurt themselves daily, argued and fought without adult intervention and were shooed outside after school.  We were really bad.

They also walked barefoot through the clover, ran with sticks that could poke their eyes out, built unsafe forts in the woods and ran around with unvetted neighborhood kids.   They played in the snow in wet clothes and walked to the store by themselves.  They were lured into the bushes by big fat juicy berries and grabbed by thorny vines.  If you drove through any neighborhood, you saw kids outdoors.  Lots of them. 

Today parents know that child molesters patrol their neighborhoods, that poison oak and bee stings are deadly and that unsupervised kids do drugs, have sex and rob liquor stores.  Or something like that.  So we keep our kids safe by signing them up for organized after school and summer activities, make sure they are always supervised and don't let them go outside without an adult.  Mostly good things.  But what are we protecting our children from?

Child Abductors.  There are about 100 child abductions by strangers in the US every year.  With 75 million American children, the chances of your child being abducted are 1 in 750,000.  The chance your child will be struck by lightning is nearly three times higher at 1 in 280,000.  The chance a stranger will solicit your child sexually on the internet is just 1 in 25.  Would you rather have her on your computer or playing outside?

Bees, Spiders and Snakes.  There are 40 deaths (adults and children) in the US each year from bees, wasps, yellow jackets and all other venomous insects.  In a four year period, there were ZERO deaths from spider bites.  There are 5 deaths from snake bites each year but nearly all were to adult men.  So all together, there are 45 deaths from these dangerous little critters each year with a 1 in 7 million chance of it happening to your child (or slightly better than the chance of winning the lottery).

Cougars, Bears and Wolves.  There were ZERO deaths from cougar attacks in 2010.  There were 3 deaths from bear attacks in 2010 but none were children.  There was 1 death in Alaska in 2010 due to a suspected wolf attack but it wasn't a child.  So no children died from these scary outdoor predators.

Poison Oak and Falling Down.  No known deaths from poison oak.  140 children die each year from falls.  Not sure where they're falling from or whether it's indoors or outdoors but that amounts to a 1 in 500,000 chance.

All of these are tragic and our hearts go out to the actual victims and their families.  But should you worry?  The combined chance that sending a child outside to play will result in abduction or death:  260 incidents per year (including all those falls) or a 1 in 300,000 chance.  Compare this to childhood deaths from car accidents at nearly 1,500 per year.

Compare the risks of going out into nature with the risks of staying home, going for a ride in the car or childhood obesity and nature fares pretty well.  Why the big scares about this big mean world?  I think we can thank the media for its saturation coverage of every bad thing that happens to a child.  Parents believe people are meaner and crazier than they were in years past.  Probably not.  We believe that crime is up though FBI statistics show every category of violent crime in the US declining year after year since 1994.

Sadly, we communicate this fear to our kids.  Fear of strangers.   Fear of nature.  Fear of bugs.  Richard Louv wrote a landmark work called Last Child in the Woods that I would recommend for all parents.  He coined the term "nature deficit disorder" to describe the many ways that lack of unsupervised time in nature is depriving our kids -- intellectually, emotionally, physically.  It's a great read.  Or just take my word for it.

See also:  Educational Toys?


  1. AMEN!!! Well researched. The book is on my list, but I'm too busy snow shoeing and hiking on the weekends to get through my pile. I need a vacation where I can be outdoors during the day, and snuggle up with a book at night.

  2. I think it's forgivable to postpone reading a book about getting outdoors and doing stuff while you're outdoors doing stuff.

  3. My dad is a retired engineer--turned naturalist who bought me this book, but I haven't had a chance to read it yet! You've inspired me to make the time to read it.

    I encourage my own children to explore outside, pick up worms, frogs and just play. I also teach alternative high school students, and we do an annual wetlands study. I agree that it is extremely important to expose kids to nature and give them time to explore.

  4. Your piece inspired me - I can never give in to the paranoid anxiety that seems to have taken over North America... I wrote a piece on my blog that you might find incredulous - but it is true, and completely backs up your observations. Thanks for such a great resource.

  5. An amazing tale, Elaine. Hard to believe police would be so incensed by a 12 year old simply walking in town!

  6. "We believe that crime is up though FBI statistics show every category of violent crime in the US declining year after year since 1994."

    I also believe that the media instills fear. But lets also question why crime is declining in the US since 94, could it be that we have become more aware as parents and because of it have become more responsible?

  7. Found some interesting stats here, Sandra:

    The crime stats refer to all violent crimes, not just those involving children. Juvenile-on-juvenile assaults though are a large category.


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