Out: No Child Left Behind.
In: No Child Left Alone. Ever!
Writing at Bloomberg View, former Reasoner Virginia Postrel tracks the sad shift from a world in which kids could be left to their own devices for larger and larger periods of time as they got older to a culture in which children need more oversight than convicted serial killers in a super-max prison. Snippets:
Only in the past decade or so has "no child left alone" become the social and legal norm in the U.S. A doctoral student in cognitive science at the University of California at Irvine, [Ashley] Thomas is the lead author of a recently published study designed to understand what's going on. After all, under most circumstances, the objective risk to children left by themselves is extremely low. The chances that a stranger will abduct and kill or not return a child—the great fear driving the new norm—is about 0.00007 percent or one in 1.4 million annually. It's much more dangerous to drive a child somewhere, or even to walk with one across a parking lot, than to leave a kid alone in a well-ventilated car.
Postrel writes up Thomas' study, which unearths a particularly awful reasoning process in what H.L. Mencken called the Great Boob Public:
"People don't only think that leaving children alone is dangerous and therefore immoral," the researchers write. "They also think it is immoral and therefore dangerous. That is, people overestimate the actual danger to children who are left alone by their parents, in order to better support or justify their moral condemnation of parents who do so."
The result is a feedback loop that increases the legal and social penalties for leaving kids alone and reinforces the belief that even the briefest parental absence amounts to child abuse. These beliefs don't just affect busybodies. They lead police, prosecutors, judges and jurors to overestimate risks.
The result of such attitudes? More and more government-gone-wild horror stories of the sort reported at Reason by Lenore Skenazy and others (Postrel links to the mistreatment of Julie Koehler that Skenazy wrote about here).
The "no child left alone" attitude, coming soon to a courtroom near you, is the obvious endpoint of what I talked about in Reason as "Child-Proofing the World" back in 1997.
Things sure are different nowadays with the kids, and in a most puzzling way. By most standards, the vast, overwhelming majority of American children are doing better than ever. With some notable, insistent, and tragic exceptions, indicators such as mortality and accident rates, life expectancy, and educational attainment all suggest that the kids are more than all right. In fact, they are flourishing, brimming over with the potential to live longer, to live better, and to be smarter than their parents (just as their parents outstripped their parents).
And yet, the national discourse on children–the way we talk about "the kids" and their future—describes a tableau of unremitting fear and trembling, a landscape marked by relentless risk and deprivation. Although apocalyptic rhetoric in general has diminished in recent years—overpopulation, nuclear war, global warming, and the like just don't pack the same wallop they did in years past—the air remains thick with stories of how children must be protected from a world that is conceived largely as a malevolent presence that seeks only to hurt them, a sort of Mad Max environment for the younger set.
While not exactly new, this trend has been intensifying over the past two decades or so, lurching from isolated scares about poisoned Halloween candy in the 1970s and child abduction in the 1980s to a generalized calculus that places perceived harm to children at the center of seemingly every discussion. The tendency is ubiquitous enough to be fair game for parody. On The Simpsons, for instance, one character routinely asks at any public gathering, "What about the children?"
In that nearly 20-year-old story, I pointed to parenting styles and social obsessions prevalent among baby boomers as informing the bizarre mismatch in kids' better-and-better situations and parents' greater-and-greater anxiety about the safety and well-being of their offspring. Read the whole thing for the detailed causes, though a short list includes a decrease in the number of children per family, an increase in the personal and social investment in children, a warped understanding both of how trauma affects kids and how widespread trauma really is, and a media-informed desire to give your kid an advantage in all sorts of activities.
Snowflakes aren't born, they're made. And now we have entered a phase where our overactive imaginations about threats to children have been institutionalized into really bad legal, educational, and social-work systems.
Bonus reading: No Child Left Alone is a new book about this very phenomenon. I'll be talking with the author, Abby W. Schachter, soon, so look for a Reason interview in the coming weeks. It's a book that's well worth reading.