Civil Liberties

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.