The Roots of Concern about Kids

Response Essays
February 13, 2013

I agree with Lenore Skenazy: there are lots of examples of overblown fears about child safety. Certainly many of her examples illustrate officious do-gooding by bureaucrats. Nonetheless, I do not share her conviction that the primary cause of these fears is excessive government.

My interest in threatened children began with the stories about Halloween sadists who distribute poisoned candy and razor blades in apples to trick-or-treaters. This contemporary legend is widely known, but it has spread by word of mouth. Halloween sadism has received minimal news coverage: there’s nothing to cover, because serious incidents are virtually unknown, and it has gotten next to no government attention.[1] Some of the most prominent child-protection campaigns—such as the missing children movement in the 1980s or Mothers Against Drunk Driving—were launched by activists, not officials.

People’s anxieties about children’s safety need to be understood within their larger cultural context, as do the responses—governmental and otherwise—to those concerns.

Part of this context involves demographic shifts. One hundred years ago, life expectancies were much lower, primarily because lots of infants and young children died from infectious diseases. In 1912, about 28 percent of those who died were younger than 15 years old; in comparison, in recent years, young people account for just over one percent of all deaths.[2] This is an astonishing transformation. A century ago, children lived in a relatively hazardous world; everyone would have known people who had lost a child. In contrast, we inhabit a world where childhood death is quite rare.

At the same time, people now have fewer children than in the past. One hundred years ago, the typical woman bore more than three children; in recent years, the average has been hovering around two. This means that today’s parents probably have a bigger emotional stake in each child than their counterparts in the past. I’m not suggesting that people didn’t used to love their kids as much as we now do, but they were more likely to view losing a child as a terrible but real possibility, rather than as something remarkably rare and perhaps completely avoidable.

The evolution of the media is another element in way the cultural context has changed. The past century witnessed the emergence of radio, TV, cable, and the Internet. News now travels further, faster, in greater volume, and along far more channels. It has never been easier for an individual to make claims about some putative problem and to gain an audience for those claims. Of course, not all claims have equal chances for success. It helps to tap into widely shared cultural understandings—such as concern for children. There is general agreement that children are vulnerable and deserving of protection, and campaigns for children’s welfare have a long history. The media share those understandings and are interested in publicizing claims that address threats to children.

The modern media are a key element in our social problem-producing apparatus. Beginning with the successes of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, electronic media coverage has been vital in relaying emotionally compelling claims to mass audiences. On TV, this involves not only news coverage, but talk shows and other infotainment genres, and even dramas that feature plots “ripped from the headlines.” The endangered child often figures into this coverage; in fact, almost any concern about what the future might hold—nuclear proliferation, climate change, economic uncertainty, epidemic disease, whatever—can be packaged in terms of the uncertain future that confronts our children and grandchildren.

Activists learn from this coverage; anyone who has logged even a few hours watching news programs or talk shows can come away with a sense of how to arouse concern about a new social problem. With hundreds of TV channels and millions of websites competing for attention, the media have a colossal appetite for fresh material. It is a poorly packaged cause that cannot command at least some coverage.

In short, concern about kids—even exaggerated concern—has its origins in the broader culture: in helicopter parents and tiger moms determined to steer their offspring onto the fast tracks to success; in those parents who have suffered tragic losses and remade themselves into activists, campaigning to make people aware that something needs to be done; in the media that use endangered children for compelling stories; and so on. While it is possible to rattle of lists of government child-protection programs (mandatory education, child-labor laws, etc.), plenty of claims—and most of those programs—have their origins in private calls to do something to protect kids. Obsessing about child safety doesn’t always—or even usually—start with petty bureaucrats.

The dramatic drop in the proportion of deaths involving young people over the last hundred years reflects a lot of important changes, many of which we’ve come to take for granted, such as purifying the milk supply; vaccinations (typhoid fever, diphtheria, whooping cough, and measles were all significant causes of death in 1913); and antibiotics.[3] But notice that there is what we might call the paradox of proportion: solving your biggest problem turns what used to be a smaller problem into a big problem.[4]

Consider how this works. Early in the twentieth century, contaminated milk was viewed as a big problem, responsible for many childhood deaths, and this led to a successful effort to improve the milk supply.[5] Bad milk went from being a big problem—let’s say, just for purposes of argument, that it was the biggest single problem—to being under control, so that people can take it for granted that the milk they buy is not likely to kill their children outright. But eliminating that #1 problem means that some other problem is now the biggest problem. Over time, as bigger problems get solved, smaller ones come to the fore, so that having antibiotics to treat infections lets attention shift to requiring seat belts or child-proof bottle caps on medication. And, incrementally, childhood death becomes less common.

But this also means that our biggest problems become smaller. As this happens, the tradeoffs become more apparent, as in Skenazy’s example of rules for crib designs, where the benefits don’t seem to outweigh the costs. And we can also suspect that officials will continue to attack the newest big problem, even after things improve to the point that that problem ain’t all that big.

In other words, it helps to view child safety more broadly. Overreaching officials cannot be held responsible for all our anxieties about endangered kids; they are merely part of a larger cultural context. It also helps to consider how we got where we are, to remember all of the things that had to improve before we could have the luxury of focusing on our current concerns.

Notes

[1] Joel Best, “Halloween Sadism: The Evidence” (http://www.udel.edu/soc/faculty/best/site/halloween.html).

[2] U.S. Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1913. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1914, p. 70; Donna L. Hoyert and Jiaquan Xu, “Deaths: Preliminary Data for 2011,” National Vital Statistics Reports 61, no. 6, October 10, 2012.

[3] Susan B. Carter, et al., Historical Statistics of the United States: Earliest Times to the Present, Vol. 1, Part A (Population). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006, pp. 463–64.

[4] Joel Best, “Social Progress and Social Problems: Toward a Sociology of Gloom,” Sociological Quarterly 42 (2001): 1-12.

[5] E. Melanie DuPuis, Nature’s Perfect Food: How Milk Became America’s Drink New York: New York University Press, 2002.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • Smothered by Safety by Lenore Skenazy

    Lenore Skenazy argues that when it comes to children, we have gone too far in the pursuit of safety at all costs. This isn’t just a cultural phenomenon, either; it has serious implications for public policy, in the form of consumer product regulations and family and even criminal law. She suggests that it’s time to start learning to relax about children’s safety. In particular, allowing kids to take controlled risks is one of the ways that we introduce them to the real world, which is not and should not be risk-free.

Response Essays

  • Child Safety: More than Tree Stumps and Toe Mold by Anthony Green

    Anthony Green argues that child safety is nothing to joke about. It is not an overreach to call the police if you see a child alone in a locked car; on the contrary, you should certainly do it. Real progress has been made in child safety in recent years, even as new threats emerge, including toppling television sets and poisoning among older children. The child protection community has done tremendous good, and safety enables fun rather than inhibiting it.

  • Child Safety: The First Priority by James A. Swartz

    James A. Swartz argues that the multibillion dollar corporations that make children’s products have a responsibility to deliver them without any safety hazards. Recalls and labeling are not enough, and a close examination of many such cases reveals a disturbing trend: Corporations are often indifferent to children’s safety. We ought not to excuse or make light of such behavior.

The Conversation

Letters to the Editor