What 'America's Worst Mom' can teach parents about safetyism

by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff / 23 January, 2019
Photo/Getty Images

Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - America's Worst Mom extract

A New York mother who let her nine-year-old ride the subway alone became a hated villain and a national heroine – both at the same time. This is an extract from Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff's The Coddling of the American Mind.

A few days after Greg Lukianoff and his wife came home from the hospital with their first child, they received an unusual gift in the mail: a shiny red fire extinguisher. Not a toy fire truck. An actual fire extinguisher. What made the gift especially meaningful was that the sender was Lenore Skenazy, an author, journalist, and New York City mother of two. You may know her as “America’s Worst Mom.”

Skenazy’s journey to infamy began in 2008, when she permitted her nine-year-old son, Izzy, to ride the New York City subway by himself. Izzy had been begging her for weeks to take him someplace he’d never been before and let him find his own way home. So, one sunny Sunday, Skenazy decided the time was right. She took him along on a trip to Bloomingdale’s.

Confident that Izzy would find his way home and could ask a stranger for help if he needed it, she armed him with a subway map, a MetroCard, a $20 bill, and several quarters in case he needed to make a call, and then sent him on his way. Forty-five minutes later (right on time), Izzy arrived home (where his father was waiting for him) and was ecstatic about his success – and eager to do it again.

Skenazy published a column about this little experiment in childhood independence in the New York Sun, describing both Izzy’s joy and the horrified reactions she received from other parents who heard what she had allowed Izzy to do. Two days later, she was on the Today show, and then MSNBC, Fox News, and NPR. Online message boards were flooded with posts, mostly condemning her decision, though some applauded it. Soon, Skenazy was decried as “America’s Worst Mom”.

Most mothers would probably be mortified by that nickname, but Skenazy embraced the title. She had given her son the kind of independence that she (and most of today’s parents) had enjoyed back in the 1970s, when the crime rate was much higher. So why had her choice generated so much outrage and condemnation?

Skenazy realised that something was seriously wrong with modern parenting. In response, she created a blog to explain her philosophy and to call attention to the paranoia and overprotectiveness that have become normal features of American parenting. She called it Free-Range Kids. Since then, Free-Range Kids has grown into a fully fledged movement, including a book of the same name, a reality TV show and a nonprofit organisation called Let Grow.

The fire extinguisher was such an apt gift coming from Skenazy (who included a note that read, “See, I care about safety!”), because the gift represents her message in a nutshell: we should all take reasonable precautions to protect our children’s physical safety – for example, by owning a fire extinguisher – but we should not submit to the pull of safetyism (overestimating danger, fetishising safety and not accepting any risk), which deprives kids of some of the most valuable experiences in childhood.

Nassim Taleb’s concept of antifragility explains how the well-intentioned project of keeping kids “safe” from peanuts backfired; it prevented many kids’ immune systems from learning that peanut proteins are harmless, which ultimately increased the number of kids who are allergic to peanuts and who could actually die from exposure to them. Yet modern parenting practices may unwittingly induct children into the new culture of safetyism.

A parent’s worst fear

On May 25, 1979, a few blocks south of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, a six-year-old boy named Etan Patz persuaded his parents to let him walk the two blocks from their apartment to his school bus stop. He never came home, and his body was never found. Anyone who lived in New York at the time probably remembers seeing signs all over the city and the distraught parents on the evening news, pleading for anyone with information to come forward.

But it was a second highly publicised murder, in 1981, that changed the course of American childhood by initiating a sustained movement to protect children from strangers. Adam Walsh was also six years old. His mother took him shopping at a Sears in Hollywood, Florida, and let him play at a kiosk promoting a new Atari video game system. The kiosk had attracted a gaggle of older boys, so Adam’s mum let him stay there to watch while she went off to the lamp department for a few minutes. A scuffle broke out among the boys over whose turn was next, and the Sears security guards kicked all the boys out of the store. It seems that the other boys then left the scene, and Adam was too shy to speak up and say that his mother was inside.

Standing alone outside the store, he was lured into a car by a drifter and serial murderer, who promised him toys and candy. Two weeks later, Adam’s severed head was found in a canal 200km away.

Adam’s father, John Walsh, has since devoted his life to trying to save other children from suffering a similar fate. He created the Adam Walsh Child Resource Center, which advocated for legislative reform and succeeded in prodding the US Government to create the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in 1984. He worked with producers to create the made-for-TV movie Adam, which was seen by 38 million viewers when it first aired. In 1988, Walsh launched a true-crime TV show, America’s Most Wanted, which presented cases of unsolved crimes, including child abductions. Walsh was instrumental in a novel method of disseminating photographs of missing children: printing them on milk cartons, under the big all-caps word MISSING.

The first such cartons appeared in 1984, and one of the first photos was of Etan Patz. By the early 1990s, the programme had spread, and photos of missing children were reproduced on grocery bags, billboards, pizza boxes, even utility bills. Norms changed, fears grew, and many parents came to believe that if they took their eyes off their children for an instant in any public venue, their kid might be snatched. It no longer felt safe to let kids roam around their neighbourhoods unsupervised.

The abduction and murder of a child by a stranger is among the most horrific crimes one can imagine. It is also, thankfully, among the rarest. According to the FBI, almost 90% of children who go missing have either miscommunicated their plans, misunderstood directions, or run away from home or foster care, and 99.8% of the time, missing children come home.

The vast majority of those who are abducted are taken by a biological parent who does not have custody; the number abducted by a stranger is a tiny fraction of 1% of children reported missing – roughly 100 children a year in a nation with more than 70 million minors. And since the 1990s, the rates of all crimes against children have gone down, while the chances of a kidnapped child surviving the ordeal have gone up.

Missing-children notices on milk cartons first appeared in 1984. Photo/Getty Images

Missing-children notices on milk cartons first appeared in 1984. Photo/Getty Images

Real and imagined risk

The cities and towns in which the parents of iGen were raised were far more dangerous than they are today. Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers grew up with rising rates of crime and mayhem. Muggings were a normal part of urban life, and city dwellers sometimes carried “muggers’ money” in a cheap wallet so they would not have to hand over their real wallet. Heroin syringes and later crack vials became common city sights.

When you combine the giant crime wave that began in the 1960s with the rapid spread of cable TV in the 1980s, including news channels that offered round-the-clock coverage of missing-child cases, you can see why American parents grew fearful and defensive by the 1990s.

The crime wave ended rather abruptly in the early 1990s, when rates of nearly all crimes began to plummet all over the US. In 2013, for example, the murder rate dropped to the same level it had been at 60 years earlier. Nevertheless, the fear of crime did not diminish along with the crime rate, and the new habits of fearful parenting seem to have become new national norms. American parenting is now wildly out of sync with the actual risk that strangers pose to children.

The dangers of safetyism

Increased use of seat belts has saved many lives; bicycle helmets lower the risk of traumatic brain injuries; not smoking around children confers many health benefits on the kids; and removing lead from paint and gasoline has prevented untold numbers of medical problems and deaths. Putting it all together, from 1960 to 1990, there was a 48% reduction in deaths from unintended injuries and accidents among kids between five and 14, and a 57% drop in deaths of younger kids.

The success of childhood safety campaigns helps explain why modern parents often take a concern about safety to the extreme of safetyism. After all, if focusing on big threats produces such dividends, why not go further and make childhood as close to perfectly safe as possible?

A problem with this kind of thinking is that when we attempt to produce perfectly safe systems, we almost inevitably create new and unforeseen problems. For example, efforts to protect forests by putting out small fires can allow dead wood to build up, eventually leading to catastrophic fires far worse than the sum of the smaller fires that were prevented. Safety rules and programmes – like most efforts to change complex systems – often have unintended consequences.

We believe that efforts to protect children from environmental hazards and vehicle accidents have been very good for children. Exposure to lead and cigarette smoke confers no benefits; being in a car crash without a seat belt does not make kids more resilient in future car crashes. But efforts to protect kids from risk by preventing them from gaining experience – such as walking to school, climbing a tree, or using sharp scissors – are different. Such protections come with costs, as kids miss out on opportunities to learn skills, independence, and risk assessment. (Keeping them indoors also raises their risk of obesity.)

In Bristol, Connecticut, in 2014, a woman left her daughter alone in her car while she went into a pharmacy. This might sound bad to you, especially when you learn that it was summertime and the car windows were all closed. A passerby called the police, who were able to open the car door. The police reported that the child was “responsive” and not in distress.

But here’s the thing: the girl was 11 years old and she had told her mother that she preferred to wait in the car rather than come into the store. Before the rise of paranoid parenting, 11-year-olds could earn money and learn responsibility by babysitting for neighbours. But the mother was issued a misdemeanour summons and forced to appear in court.

The police chief of New Albany, Ohio, now advises that children should not be allowed outside without supervision until the age of 16. It’s no wonder that so many American parents simply don’t let their kids out of their sight any more, even though many of those same parents report that their fondest memories of childhood were unsupervised outdoor adventures with friends.

THE CODDLING OF THE AMERICAN MIND: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff (Allen Lane, $55).

This book extract was first published in the January 12, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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