Free-Range Kids

Why We Don't Need Helicopter Parenting: Our Children Are Fundamentally Safe

Against worst-first thinking



The Washington Post ran a fantastic myth-debunking piece by Christopher Ingraham pointing out the undeniable fact that kids are safer today than ever before in human history. First of all, there's the decline in child mortality that we almost take for granted: In 1935 there were 450 deaths for every 100,000 kids age 1-4. Today? Less than 30.

But we don't actually have to look back nearly a hundred years to see amazing gains in child safety. Among children of all ages, Ingraham writes, mortality rates have fallen by nearly half since 1990:

Part of that decline is a drop in child homicides. As of 2008, the homicide rate for kids under the age of 14 stood at a near-record low 1.5 cases per 100,000, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. And the homicide rate for teens ages 14 to 17 plummeted from 12 homicides per 100,000 in 1993 to just 5.1 in 2008, another near-record low.

Long story short: for a kid between the ages of 5 and 14 today, the chances of premature death by any means are roughly 1 in 10,000, or 0.01 percent.

But parents typically aren't thinking about disease or general morality when they fret over unattended kids — we're worried about all the terrible things that could theoretically happen to a child out on his own. Chief among them is the threat of abduction, or of the child simply disappearing without a trace.

The FBI has several decades of data on missing persons now, and those numbers show that the number of missing person reports involving minors has been at record low levels in recent years. Overall, the number of these reports have fallen by 40 percent since 1997. This is more impressive when you consider that the overall U.S. population has risen by 30 percent over that same time period, meaning that the actual rate of missing person reports for children has fallen faster than 40 percent.

And of those "missing persons" (both adults and children) he adds, 96 percent were runaways. Just .1 percent were victims of kidnapping.

Of course, people who are determined to be afraid will still usually default to this: "Well, even if the chance is 1 in [insert absurdly huge number here], it doesn't matter if it's YOUR kid."

This "worst-first thinking"—dreaming up the worst case scenario first and proceeding as if it's likely to happen—is not what my mom or yours was required to do before letting her kids go out to play. She didn't have to replay a list of terrible tragedies (the way Nancy Grace did before interviewing me), as a sort of concerned parent catechism. Worst-firsting has simply become a cultural default, brought on by maddening media and the idea that if anything bad happens to a child, it's because an adult just wasn't paying enough attention.

We must make ourselves aware of this pessimistic reflex so it stops taking over our lives—and laws.

NEXT: Martin O'Malley's Lousy Record on Overpolicing

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  1. The degree to which minors’ time and resources are monitored by authority figures in modern society is just staggering, to say nothing of how minors are insulated from consequences and real-world decision-making. The parallels to government’s own close surveillance of its citizens are impossible to miss, and may indeed be why the legal apparatus of society is stacked in favor of helicopter parenting over more reasonable approaches to guardianship.

  2. You sound like the world’s worst mom. It’s a shame it’s deaf ears for those that need to hear you most.

    1. Wait, Lenore is Nicole’s mom?

      1. *recoils in shock and horror*

        1. I might’ve misread that. I thought he said “world’s worst’s mom.”

  3. I couldn’t find footage of the Nancy Grace/Lenore Skenazy interview. Do I have to pay for it or something?

    1. What kind of sick bastard would pay for something like that?

      1. people watch MMA on PPV all the time..

        1. I would pay to see a Nancy Grace/Ronda Rousey MMA PPV.

  4. I’m very excited to hear Lenore speak at my library today! (well, I don’t own it, I just run it!)

    I’m hoping the home-school crowd will be receptive.

    1. Let us know how it turns out. My experience with home school parents would indicate they’ll love it.

      1. I’m not so sure… I’m hoping they don’t bring tomatoes! The parents of the younger ones will appreciate it- the parents of the teens… not that I’ve met.

        1. I bet it’s a huge success

  5. I bet Hansel and Gretel’s parents regret engaging in free-range parenting.

    1. The witch said free-range kids are delicious, you just have to fatten them up a little.

      1. If memory serves, they came out of that experience pretty well.

        1. If by well you mean murderers!!!!

          1. In reality, the witch died of overeating.

            1. she went into the oven of her own volition… self defense… she was a witch and cannibal… accident…

              What justification/defense do you need?

              1. The only eye witnesses are the killers. This sweet little lady, who gave these savages shelter in the woods after their alcoholic father abandoned them, had her kindness repaid with one of the most painful deaths imaginable!

                1. that’s how the prosecution would tell it to a jury.

                  However, their defense claims they were abused and forgotten- only to be later victimized and exploited by a monster who probably had a history of such abuse. What could they do? From neglect to abuse- they only had each other to rely on. That fear of losing the only person you have is equal to fearing for your own life… what is your life without your loved ones?

                  It was not only justified, but the RIGHT action, when you look at all the evidence (and the lack of the prosecution’s evidence- no DNA. No blood spatter…)

                  1. *waits expectantly for falsified CSI evidence to get slam dunk conviction*

          2. Teach your children not to kill.

            1. that’s asking a bit too much, don’t you think?

            2. kill != murder

              1. Teach your killers not to children.

            3. #teachyourkidsnottorape

      2. Do you always reply to yourself because nobody else likes you?

        1. It’s because sometimes I like to have an online conversation with someone intelligent.

          1. the real question is does your low self esteem lead you to overeat, or is it boredom?

            1. What?

              1. either way you admit to over eating.

                1. Is this like have you stopped beating your wife?

          2. Well you sure have a strange definition of intelligent then.

            1. Then I bet you don’t want to know my definition of stupid.

              1. I’ll bet you and Ken could run up a couple hundred posts just by replying to yourselves.

                1. I bet you could pick up coconuts with your prehensile toes.

    2. Right! Plus, how do you know the numbers aren’t getting better BECAUSE OF helicopter parenting. Huh, prove they aren’t! You can’t! Arble Garble!!!11!!!1!

      1. Exactly what I was thinking!!!! 11!!!! More cowbell!!!!

    3. “I bet Hansel and Gretel’s parents regret engaging in free-range parenting.”

      Reread the story: the stepmother convinced the father to abandon the kids in the woods since she didn’t want to starve and there wasn’t enough food for four people.

      1. Another unintended consequence of child labor laws.

  6. “those numbers show that the number of missing person reports involving minors has been at record low levels in recent years. Overall, the number of these reports have fallen by 40 percent since 1997.”

    1997…isn’t that around the time helicopter parenting came into vogue? That fact plus that statistic reinforce helo parenting’s supposed importance rather than refutes it, for those so inclined to do it. Better find another argument.

    1. 1) Helicopter Parenting is not the style of all parents.
      2) All parents face the same dangers for their children.
      3) The drop in rates indicates that it’s not only helicopter parents who are seeing a safer world for their kids.
      4) The country is safer for all children, independent of non abusive parenting styles.

      1. Spencer,

        Your comments seemed cogent at first glance, but then I realized that “Helicopter Parenting” clearly makes the world safer for all children everywhere, at all times, no matter where the few “Helicopter Parents” are actually doing more than their fair share of keeping the children safe (TM).

        Now I’m off to read another one of Paul Krugman’s wonderfully insightful works.

        1. What is the minimum number of Helicopter Parents we need to sustain, and increase, these fantastic reductions in threats to our children?

          1. No less than 57 card carrying members, Seve.

            The answer to these types of questions is always 57, as per the original “The Manchurian Candidate” movie.

            1. As per Heinz too, when they adopted their slogan at a time they already had more than 57 varieties, but “57” looked & sounded good.

              Can’t beat the 23s & to a lesser extent 17s, though. That one’s got some serious mojo behind it.

              1. Hey, 57 = 23 + (2 * 17) . Just realized that.

                If I’m getting light-headed, am I vaping too much nicotine? Still doesn’t seem to be cutting my appetite, though.

    2. Your statistic doesn’t show whether the parents of those tragically-stolen children were not, in fact, helicopter types.

    3. I remember references to helicopter parenting back in the 1980s.

    4. All crimes are down over that time. Is helicopter parenting somehow responsible for decreased burglaries, auto thefts, muggings, etc.? I guess if those helicoptered kids were the ones previously responsible for all of those crimes, it might make sense.

  7. As soon as Melissa Harris Perry gets out of prison for not paying her taxes, she’s going to disagree with this. And tell you that you should pay more taxes.

      1. Wishful thinking.

  8. Security has become a billion-dollar business driven by adult insecurity. Is it any wonder that the adult masses consider their offspring (and yours and mine) as easy pluckings for poltergeists, savages, and fringe humans? This is the age of ultra-precaution to the point of generalized anxiety disorder.

  9. Speaking of helicopter parenting: says we don’t know whether the Baltimore woman seen on video smacking around a young would-be rioter is actually the kid’s mother.

    Maybe he’s just a kid who likes being beaten and berated by strange women.…..-the-year/

    1. What I thought when I saw this was… great. let’s solve the problem with violence. Being beaten in public won’t have any repercussions.

      1. The head cop who would normally throw a woman in prison for smacking a child around like that directly lauded her approach and begged for many more parents to break the laws and smack a bunch of other kids around in similar fashion so they would stop stealing vicodin, vodka, and Dissizit! shirts. An interesting.

        1. I’m going to guess that Baltimore police don’t spend a lot of time or energy on policing parents disciplining their children.

    2. Well, we don’t know, do we? Seems likely.

  10. My parents were drone parents. Watched from a distance with intermittent, and often unexpected, strikes.

    1. I laughed. (probably because I can relate)

  11. Maersk Tigris post, or no? Actual thorny FP question…

    1. Such questions rarely have an obvious libertarian answer. Not that that means Reason shouldn’t mention it.

      But your wish has been granted.

  12. Chief among them is the threat of abduction, or of the child simply disappearing without a trace.

    It is understandable that this fear is well-embedded in the minds of all parents around the country especially because one can only guess the gut-wrenching horrors that abducted children may suffer in the hands of an evil person. The sense of helplessness and especially of impotence by not being able to be there for the child is the stuff of nightmares that would make the maker of the movie Audition cower in fear. Nobody would want to go through such suffering.

    However, the fact is that those cases of child abduction are extremely rare. What is NOT rare is the sensationalism with which the media treats these cases and the exaggeration with which tales of abduction are told by television movies and serial dramas. Indeed there ARE cases of horrible and despicable things done to children besides the simple taking from their homes (most abductions are mostly done by divorced parents or by wanna-be parents). But to ask people to live by a SIEGE MENTALITY because of a few sensational cases is absurd and irresponsible. Who can live like that?

  13. I always felt that the helicopter parent shit started as a way of competing with the neighbors. I watched it begin in the late 80s and early 90s, and what I saw was “look at how much I care about my kids! Don’t you all see how much I care by being way, way too controlling and in their face all the time? See?!?” They were all over them because it was a way to socially signal how great of parents they were by being WAY too involved in the minute details of their kids’ lives.

    And it just spiraled from there, taking on a life of its own and becoming a thing to do for its own sake. But I distinctly remember seeing the beginnings of it and thinking “this is pure competition with the Joneses and nothing else”.

    1. Part of it might be smaller families. I was the third kid and I got hassled a lot less than my older siblings. It seems like most people want 2 or less kids now and so have more energy to devote to fucking them up.

      1. There could definitely be something to that, but even so, in the past, they should still have been helicopter parents for the first kid or two, but they weren’t.

        There’s been an increase over the past 20-30 years of the value people place on social signaling for some reason. It’s become more important to let everybody know how “good” you are, even if that “goodness” is utterly hollow. Not sure why, but it’s there.

        1. I don’t think the value people put on social signalling had changed. I do think that WHAT they think is a signal of goodness has.

          100 years ago: going to chuch every sunday, refraining from vices like drinking, gambling, and whoring, serving in the military, displaying patriotic symbols.

          Today: displaying politically correct bumper stickers, participating in protest marches, not eating meats, GMOs, hormones, antibiotics, processed food, etc., helicopter parenting.

      2. I’ve been saying that for a long time. Consider how kids are treated in China w their 1-child policy.

    2. Your mom started helicopter parenting. And she only did it so you would be in the room to get tips from all your weird “uncles”. And by get tips she meant hold the tip jar.

      1. Just the tip?

        1. Sperm bank?

    3. That sounds plausible, but there also seemed to be a lot of stories about kids getting abducted, so there might’ve been some actual fear. But weirdly, in my experience, it wasn’t the parents who were in the neighborhoods where kids got abducted who were fearful, but parents in the surrounding suburbs.

      I even knew a little girl (when I was also little, so didn’t really know her that well) who was kidnapped about a half a mile away from us and found in pieces in a box in the Mississippi river. Another kid was kidnapped a few blocks away. My parents still didn’t try to control us. But all of my suburban friends’ parents did.

  14. Semi-related: Public Skoolz Employee: Opting out of school lunches not an option for middle class kids.

    1. School districts can achieve economies of scale, which means they can buy better quality food at lower prices because they buy more of it.

    2. You bring more federal funding to your district because every school meal is reimbursed by the federal government.

    3. Any stigma along the lines of “only poor kids eat school lunch” will disappear because school lunch will be so good, all kids (and their parents) will want it.

    1. I can relate. Both of the high schools my kids went/go to gave free lunch to all students. And still at the beginning of every school year they send home a form for the parents to list their income.

      1. So, do you? Tell them your income, that is.

        1. I told them my income once. Once.

          I don’t bother with the form anymore because everyone gets lunch free anyway. And we’re strongly encouraged to not send our kids to school with their own premade lunch. So my son picks over what he likes from the school lunch, then eats when he gets home.

      2. Q: State your annual income:

        A: “Adequate for my needs, thanks for asking.”

    2. Number 3 is weird to me, because when I was a kid, the poor kids brought lunches – or went home for lunch (we had an hour in my grade school). Only the rich kids could afford to buy lunches at the school.

  15. Increased safety just becomes the new baseline. In a thread elsewhere someone’s complaining about the “baby-mild” version of Dr. Bronner’s liquid soap being called that, because it stings eyes. Ivory Snow was advertised as “baby-mild soap” too, & people just understood that soap still stings eyes; this “baby-mild” soap is milder than that, but now that there’s baby shampoo some people don’t remember when babies were washed w soap.

  16. Helicopter parenting is necessary to protect children from Common Core, Child Protective Services and other oppressive government programs and agencies. Who is going to stand up for the child to protect him / her from excessive psychiatric drugging or school testing that labels children for life? School age children are generally not experienced enough in life to perceive the oppression of government programs and agencies.

    Who else will stand up for your children if you don’t? Government? I don’t think so.

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