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June 18, 2008


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I only half-agree with the point made about letting children go out on their own. Obviously it is quite wrong to keep children indoors all of the time and some of my happiest childhood memories are of playing in the street until dusk. However, child pedestrian fatalities were much higher in the 70s, even though there were fewer cars. I would feel very unhappy letting my sons go out unaccompanied near main roads. Part of the answer is to create more car-free areas and have restricted speed limits in residential zones.

As far as child molesters go, it's probably true that the number of paedophiles hasn't changed over the years and that you're more likely to be assaulted by someone you know. However, as far as 'stranger danger' is concerned, it is much easier to abduct a child than it was 100 years ago, so parents aren't being completely irrational.

However, a society in which children spend most of their time playing computer games, watching television and eating junk food seems too high a price to pay for safety.

See also: The Blessing of a Skinned Knee by Wendy Mogel. She discusses the paradox - that we have both much higher and lower expectations of our children. For example, that they must get into Harvard but at the same time they don't have to do dishes if it interferes with their schoolwork. So while parents these days have extremely high expectations of their children, these same children aren't given the challenges on a day-to-day basis (eg: juggling household chores with school work) that would give them the strength to achieve these high expectations. As a result, many children end up depressed because they can't achieve what is expected of them and have don't have skills to deal with life's daily disappointments and struggles. It is probably more relevant in the American context but still very interesting.

I was born in 1970 too. I have a real bee in my bonnet about this, although I have no children of my own - my other half is a primary teacher and I have 2 young nephews.
I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment of the book (I also love Gladwell's books Blink and Tipping Point btw).
I find it most disconcerting that there are never any children playing on the grass outside the home I grew up in despite the street being full of young families. When I was a kid there were always at least 2 soccor games and one round of 'Block' or me and Flea Bag (now an ccountant)would be playing Doctor Who or Starsky & Hutch.
At age 10 a gang of us would re-enact 'the Eagle Has Landed' in the woods.
The Golfers were in far more danger than we were.

I have to say Steerforth - this time I just can't see your arguments.

Everyone was probably driving drunk in the 1970s which probably accounts for a large slice of the fatalities, plus road deaths have stabilised due to a steady stream of varied road management over the years and how on earth can child abduction (an extremely rare occurance) be easier if children aren't leaving the house?!
Children are at most risk from folks in their own family/social circle and where (as we constantly told)is the most dangerous place to be as far as accidents are concerned?

Re: child abduction, it's easier in the sense that 100 years ago, it would have been hard to spirit a child away from an area quickly and without attracting a lot of attention from neighbours and friends.

Apologies - I thought we were comparing 70's to present day there.

Have any of you come across 'The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things' by Barry Glassner?

It covers some similar ground.

Hmm, I'm not so sure Steerforth. Cairns has calculated that if you actually grew tired of your kids and wanted them to be abducted you'd have to lock them out of the house for 200,000 years before they'd get taken, and even then you'd get them back safely within 24 hours. An extreme way of illustrating the statistic but it makes you think.

No one wants their kids to be in any great danger but we are, as a nation, quite possibly too protective. I recall someone being amazed that I let my son go to the loo by himself in a restaurant when he was about 7. I was amazed that they were amazed.

Every child is different of course. When Ethan wants to climb a tree my gut instinct is that it is dangerous but I'd rather he climbs a tree than plays a computer game. Room for both, of course.

I reckon they can cope with a few cuts and bruises.

I love the traffic examples though, they really make you think.

"Freakonomics" has a lot of fun stuff like this too. For example, let's say your child has two friends (let's hope your kid has more friends than this but that's not important right now, pay attention) and you know that the parents of one of these friends owns a handgun while the parents of the other have a swimming pool. Statistically speaking, which friend's house would you feel safer letting your child visit?

Apologies for wheeling out the cliche about lies, damned lies and statistics, but I think the 200,000 years figure is nonsense. I was an undergraduate at Lampeter - the smallest university college in Britain, with only 750 students. In a country with a population of around 58,000,000 the chances of me bumping into any of my fellow students outside the immediate area was miniscule, but time and time again I kept meeting people in the most improbable places: Boots in Richmond, Bristol, my friend's next-door neighbour's house, Winchester (he was a Geordie) etc. The worst case was when I sneaked off to Paris with a girl and was spotted outside the Louvre. Statistically, these encounters shouldn't have happened.

I don't think I'm paranoid about paedophiles. I remember the anti-paedophile riots a few years ago and they were a sorry spectacle (a woman's house had 'Pedos Out!' sprayed on her wall because some chav didn't know what a paediatrician was). However, I think our children live in an unnatural environment.

I let my sons climb trees and frequently take them to the beach or woods, where they can run around and explore. However, I don't feel confident about the urban environment. The sorts of communities where everyone knows each other are rare these days and I can't feel confident that other people will be looking out for my kids. Also, where I live there are quite a few chavvy boy racers who love skidding around the corner. A few years ago one of them wrote my car off, so I'm not willing to expose my sons to people like that.

There is an answer. Every year the road next to mine has a street party and it's closed to traffic. People come out of their houses, children play in the street (including my boys) and the world suddenly seems a better place. I've worked out that the road could be permanently closed without buggering up the traffic, but no-one in the local council is interested. What a shame.

So to conclude this rambling post, I agree that the odds of children being abducted or run over are low, but it's not enough to tell parents to be more rational. I think that most people would be happy if we were provided with the sort of spaces that children enjoyed 100 years ago. If I was a dictator I would ensure that no child was further than 5 minutes' walk from a green space where they could climb trees, find tadpoles and do all of that 'jumpers for goalposts' stuff.

This is turning into one of those conversations where I basically agree with everyone. I love books like HTLD (it's fast approaching on my reading list) and statistics are fun and enlightening, but then I agree with Steer, although I'd quote Homer Simpson's "People can come up with statistics to prove anything, forty percent of people know that." Statistics have almost no relevance to the individual. For a number of reasons. One of which is that it's always possible that you'll be on the strange end of the odds.
And then there's the notion that the choices of the individual can start to effect statistics. I've read this post and the comments a few times now, and if road deaths are down in recent years, isn't it possible that overprotective parents are the reason why? In other words, something is influencing these numbers. It's like if everyone took the statistics on being struck by lightning to heart and decided that, since the odds of being hit by a lightning bolt were so low, they could safely stand on the roof during every thunderstorm and wave a golf club in the air. Eventually these actions would change the statistics about getting struck by lightning.
In the end, I'm not real big on overprotection, statistics are fun, and the Friesland experiment is very interesting (if only because, for an American, the name of this region has a Wonka-like air of whimsy, like if it were called Icecreamville). But Friesland might only be proof that the Dutch are terribly good drivers compared to the rest of us.

Very interesting post, Scott. And an interesting book I'm sure.
I've been thinking about this and, as an Irishman who also became an American and live here now, I think this all boils down to the Americanization of Europe, really.
It's happening in so many things. Parents here are overly anxious and I see them meeting their children at the ends of their driveways after school. (The house is twenty yards away as often as not.) Now it's come to Britain, etc. It's a bit of a shame really.

The next thing you'll be dealing with over there are what's called "helicopter parents" over here. That's the next phase when the overprotected children go off to Harvard, Georgetown or wherever and the parents want to be totally involved in their studies and, I joke not, their careers. Some companies even have open days for parents now just to get them off their backs.

Glad to see this post, and this book, has sparked a bit of debate. I don't think Cairns is putting forward his statistics in a cold, hard scientific sense; he is using them as illustrations and making those illustrations as amusing as possible. They certainly get you thinking, which is the whole point.

It is also a very balanced picture, as he offers plenty of examples of life's dangers but tries to put them into context.

It really is a thought provoking read and watch out for quite a bit of publicity in the coming weeks.

Well we couldn't have f*cking Soreen hogging ALL the blog limelight could we?!

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  • Lawrence Wright: Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief

    Lawrence Wright: Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief
    A study/expose of the Scientology 'religion'. I think it tries to be even handed but it is hard when the founder is quite clearly a con-artist and the beliefs are so fucking daft. Mind you, not much different to all the other religions out there. An absolutely riveting read. (****)

  • Charlie Hill: Books

    Charlie Hill: Books
    Patchy, and sometimes very silly, satire of the book world but I couldn't help but enjoy it immensely. (****)

  • Plato (translated by Walter Hamilton): The Symposium

    Plato (translated by Walter Hamilton): The Symposium
    A bunch of Greek blokes, nursing hangovers from the night before, decide not to get pissed and chat about love instead. Quite sweet really. Nice accessible translation too. (****)

  • Ray Robinson: Jawbone Lake

    Ray Robinson: Jawbone Lake
    Robinson seems to reinvent himself with each book. This time he has written an exemplary literary thriller. The clever bastard. (****)

Currently Reading

Kindle Sampled

One You May Have Missed

  • Benjamin Parzybok: Couch

    Benjamin Parzybok: Couch
    Three flatmates try to dump an old couch but the couch has other ideas. Bonkers but brilliant.

Big Mouth at the Movies

  • : 20,000 Days on Earth

    20,000 Days on Earth
    Quite wonderful. Witty, insightful and beautifully shot. I am not a huge Nick Cave fan but this is one of the best music documentaries I have seen. (*****)

  • : A Single Man

    A Single Man
    Every bit as beautifully heartbreaking as the book. Quite brilliantly done. (*****)

  • : Behind the Candelabra

    Behind the Candelabra
    It is, essentially, a straightforward TV-movie biopic but elevated above the norm by two wonderful central performances. (****)

  • : The Great Gatsby

    The Great Gatsby
    A really terrible movie. Stupid choice of framing device, ridiculous over-acting that doesn't even work as a bit of camp fun and none of Luhrmann's usual witty pizazz. Painfully dull. (*)

  • : The Way, Way Back

    The Way, Way Back
    Bittersweet coming of age movie packed full of great performances. Do watch this if you can, it is great stuff. (****)

  • : Jaws

    Watched this for the first time in years. At night. On a beach. A great evening of open air cinema. Glad it stayed dry. (****)

  • : Twilight

    I have not read the book but watched this with Martha, who has. It's OK, nothing special but not terrible. It totally failed to convince me of that there was any chemistry between the two leads, though, which rendered most of the plot a bit tepid. (***)

  • : Boyhood

    Rarely has a filmmaker taken on such an ambitious project and produced something so subtle. A genuine masterpiece. (*****)

  • : Under The Skin

    Under The Skin
    Fucking weird but highly effective. (****)

  • : Greetings From Tim Buckley

    Greetings From Tim Buckley
    A reasonable attempt to tell the story of Tim and Jeff Buckley which got better as it went on, and the concert scenes are great, but it lacked a strong enough narrative to really work. (***)

  • : Stoker

    Directed by the bloke who made the original Oldboy and written by the chap from Prison Break. Very dark story. Looks and sounds amazing. (****)

  • : Lifeguard

    Off-beat, somewhat dark indie movie about a women who quits her job as a journalist to go home and be a lifeguard. Great soundtrack. (****)

  • : Bel Ami

    Bel Ami
    Occasionally threatens to be good but ends up a somewhat diluted and antiseptic version of what is actually quite a dark and spiteful book. Shame. The story is great though. (***)