The Risk of Avoiding All Risk

In the town of Milford, Connecticut, in 2005, a grandma named Una decided to build a pool. That way her 14 grandchildren could play in it. Except, she worried: One couldn’t.

He was allergic to nuts and there was the possibility that if he and a nut happened to be in the pool at the same time – a tree nut, that is – he just might have an allergic reaction. So to keep him from sitting out the fun, grandma did what any modern-day American does.

She demanded the mayor chop down all the hickory nut trees near her house.

Yes, these trees shaded the street, the neighborhood, the neighbors…. But still, she said: What if? 

Which is exactly how the mayor framed it: What if  that boy did take a swim and did have an allergic reaction? “It really came down to taking a risk that the child might be sick or even die,” he said. And that is why there are now three stumps where the stately hickories used to be.

In his impossible-to-read-without-steam-shooting-out-your-ears book, Life Without Lawyers, Philip K. Howard explains why thinking this way is wimpy and, worse, wrong. In the name of eliminating one possible risk to one possible person, the mayor was blinded to the greater good: Shade for a whole street. Beauty. Oxygen. Home values!

Howard, a lawyer himself, points out that if the mayor followed his own zero risk policy, he would have to start eliminating all the other nut trees in town, too. And all the bees, because some people are allergic. And any kind of public pool or lake because, of course, someone could drown.

If that sounds outlandish, consider the myriad ways in which fear of risk – even tiny risk – is reshaping society every day.

Last year, for instance, after that whole recall of lead-painted toys from China, Congress passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act. This law requires manufacturers to prove that almost every part of every single product they make for children under age 12 contains less lead than a Frito. That includes things like socks, bikes, the insoles of shoes – things that very few kids lick, much less munch whole. Rhinestones got banned – they contain an eensy bit of lead. And the sale of pre-1985 children’s books was banned, too – even in thrift shops – because before that date, some printing ink contained lead. So if your child was an avid book-eater, Congress was there to protect ’em.

Like that Connecticut mayor, our lawmakers took a giant chain saw to a tiny risk and didn’t care what they felled in the process. Like, say, reading.

But it’s not just the government that’s gone safety-crazy. It’s us, too. Us grown-ups who used to walk to school, ride our bikes, or sell Girl Scout cookies door to door. Sure, there was some risk, even back then, of kidnapping, rape and murder. But reasonable parents found the risk reasonable, too: The danger was so small that they weren’t going to organize our lives around it. Walking meant active, healthy kids. Selling cookies meant independent, responsible kids — and extra Thin Mints around the house.

But today, even though the chance of danger is still very small (crime rates were actually HIGHER in the ‘70s and ‘80s than now), those same fun things have become “crazy risks” to a lot of parents. That’s why so many neighborhoods are so empty, even in summertime: The outside world is one big risk!

It’s not that I am a fan of unnecessary risk. I love helmets, car seats. I give fire extinguishers as baby shower gifts. But our overreaction to very unlikely dangers is turning us into a nation of nutjobs who see a 1982 copy of The Pokey Little Puppy on par with a loaded pistol.

All life involves some kind of risk – of boredom, disappointment, danger. Try to avoid it and you’ll end up inside, staring out a street lined with stumps. And by the way, your kids will be inside, too. Driving you nuttier than a hickory tree. — Lenore

34 Responses

  1. Yes! Yes! Yes! LIfe is filled with risks and that in part is what makes it worth living. Riding a bike on the street is so much more enjoyable than a stationary bike in a gym. Everyone has some kind of allergy. Not everyone can be safe all the time. The good of the whole has be weighed against the need of the individual.

  2. Ooh! Let me take a crack at this one!

    Situation: pool built underneath trees that produce nuts. One child for which poll is intended is allergic to nuts.

    Problem: nuts could possibly fall in the water, and the newly nut-ified water could produce an allergic reaction in the one child (I’m no expert in this, but is it possible that skin contact with such a small amount of a food allergen could provoke a reaction? I’m honestly asking if anyone knows. Maybe the problem is him swallowing the water, but how much allergen is required to produce a reaction?).

    Solution: build over the pool some kind of covering that will prevent the nuts from entering the pool.

    Solution advantage: nuts are prevented from entering the pool without demolishing the trees that provide benefits to the entire neighborhood. As a bonus, if the covering is only partial, not as many leaves will enter the pool, leading to less cleaning. A full covering should keep most noticeable foreign matter away.

    Solution disadvantage: may prevent sunlight from entering the pool. Nullified in the case that the covering is a screen that allows sunlight to enter. Might not match up to the house.

    Worth it? I’m voting “yes”.

  3. They make screens that are meant to shade pools. It’s YOUR grandkid. It’s YOUR responsibility, not the city or mayor’s. Sheesh!! What a loss of common sense!

  4. Nut allergies are serious. BUT, the child will have to live in the real world at some point, where there are nuts out there, so will have to learn to DEAL with said nuts.

    And yes, I am aware of the double meaning of the above sentence 😀

    “Zero tolerance” equals zero thinking.

  5. I have my own business sewing and the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act has seriously limited me from being able to sew anything for kids because of the “testing” for lead that has to be done.

    I’ve made some stuffed animals and I am debating on tagging them with “not intended for use by children”.

    ~sighs~ seriously the government should deal with more important issues than whether or not we’re going to let out kids chew on a book from the 80’s.

  6. A close friend has severe nut allergies and figures that she can either act like everything could potentially kill her or she can just trust that the world has been made safe for her. When she lived as if everything was safe she was repeatedly hospitalized and nearly died, when she stopped trusting things and took precautions, her life improved.

    Those “nut-free” schools, “nut-free” baking, “nut-free” potlucks and “nut-free” breads are really forms of Russian roulette dressed up as pretty flowers. She says that the way to keep kids safe isn’t to try to eliminate all dangers but to reduce the egregious ones (e.g.: please don’t throw peanuts at me) and teach kids that everything is dangerous. You can’t change the world, but you can change one child’s behaviour. The one way to guarantee that children will die is if you convince children that the world is safe when it isn’t and they let their guard down. It’s not fair and it means some kids won’t get to enjoy all of the activities that other kids do but that’s just the life they’ll have to lead.

  7. This law requires manufacturers to prove that almost every part of every single product they make for children under age 12 contains less lead than a Frito.

    And ironically, the people most hurt by this are the smaller toy companies which do not have the funds to have every little gadget and device tested; those companies are the ones that have been promoting themselves as having better, smarter, safer toys. Wyngdlyon has hit on the obvious solution: sell the toys, but label them as adult products.


  8. A lot of people worry about overblown fears here in Milford, Connecticut. The police warn against stranger danger with the result being they having to investigate a rash of false reports of attempted kidnappings. (Then they complain they need a bigger budget.) I spoke out about a cell phone tower proposal not because I want one but that those opposing it based their view on the false fear of a health hazard. I’ve survived that health concern and had worked on a radio transmitter 20 years ago, so I know what the risks are both from experience and from having to know a subject over believing something because it was an unknown. Across the street from where the original tower proposal was, children on bikes are forced into the road by cars parked for baseball games. We can be too safe by safely living our lives in bomb shelters but drown when the basement they are in floods during a storm. Why worry about what is unlikely to happen but ignore the commonplace? I’m afraid that the hypochondriacs are scaring me.

  9. This is akin to buying a house near an airport and then filing complaints about airplane noise. THE AIRPORT WAS THERE WHEN YOU BOUGHT THE HOUSE.

    The trees were already there. There are a bazillion other options (just read the comments above!)

    The word of the day, folks, is “ENTITLEMENT”. Don’t bother teaching your child/grandchild how to overcome the obstacles placed in the paths of their lives. Instead, make those obstacles everyone else’s problem and make their lives less rich by having to cater to the entitlement of one person.

    Spock had it right: The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. Note the word “needs”, not wants, not wishes, not dreams, NEEDS.

  10. For those curious, yes, a very small amount of nut protein can make a senstive person very sick, even kill them, even if they only touch it. I’ve heard differing opinions though on nuts directly from a tree. One allergist told me they were safe raw, another said to turn around and walk the other way. A chemist told me the protein changes when they’re cooked, so raw nuts could, theoretically, be safe.

    As a parent of two food allergic children, I find it very hard to walk the line between safety and free range. I’ve had a kid lifelined to a children’s hospital from a regional one because they couldn’t keep her breathing. I know how scary it can get. There are reasonable precautions to take, but I can’t see myself demanding that trees be cut down.

    I could write for days on how I decide, in each instance, where to strike that balance. How I work hard to make sure the people around me are inconvenienced minimally or not at all while I try to keep my kids alive. It’s that serious. But it can be done. And as I do it I tell my kids what I’m doing and why. They remind me to bring safe food if I forget. They’re starting to read ingredient labels. It’s my job to teach them to keep themselves safe. I still have to back them up a great deal at their ages.

    My children are entitled to survive just as anyone else’s children are. But I wouldn’t ask for something that fundamentally diminishes the lives of other people (oxygen! shade! something to climb!) unless there really, truly was no other way.

  11. I know nut allergies can be serious. Got it.

    But cutting down the trees in my yard, because of something you installed in your yard? That’s a bit extreme, isn’t it? Well, I guess not. It was done.

  12. Excellent insight. A friend sent me this after reading my post on parent nuttiness/overprotectiveness on my blog a few months ago.

    Go kids out and about and discovering their neighborhoods once again!

  13. I bet her neighbors just LOVE her now…. *eyeroll*

    Would it not have been more responsible to just tell the kid “Look, sorry, you can’t swim in the pool when the trees are dropping nuts”? It would not have been fair, but unfortunately this is largely the sort of thing that kid will have to do when he’s grown – learn to avoid the nuts of this world. Like his grandma.

  14. @Blake: But… but… but that would mean that Grandma would have to… *gasp*… take responsibility, and shell out her *own* money to fix things. This way the city pays for it.

  15. teach kids that everything is dangerous. You can’t change the world, but you can change one child’s behaviour. The one way to guarantee that children will die is if you convince children that the world is safe when it isn’t and they let their guard down.~Tyro

    I’m hoping that you’re arguing that ‘everything is dangerous’ only for kids with certain kinds of nasty allergies, and not that ‘everything is dangerous’ to every kid. Teaching kids who have nasty allergies to food products to read labels and make others around them aware of their allergies is a parent’s duty and responsibility. For a child with a severe allergy, yes, everything IS dangerous and they need to be aware and vigilant.

    All the other kids out there without a severe allergy don’t have to be hyper vigilant; just aware of their surroundings, their own limits and comfort zones, and not to have their ‘guard’ so completely up they miss out on life.

  16. That sound you hear is the grinding of my teeth. What ever happened to saying, “Tough nuts, kid! Life isn’t always fair, and you need to learn to deal with it cause there isn’t always going to be an OCD grammy around to kill the flora and fauna for you.”

    I might be lactose intolerant but I don’t go around shooting cows.

  17. Oh, don’t even get me started on the lead heads who lobbied for the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act. I ask you, WHO didn’t see it coming? (Them, that’s who. Too much lead exposure clouded their big picture thinking?) I was outspoken about it before the law was enacted, warning all of those safety-sanctimommies on the chat boards and on Twitter that trying to legislate safety (instead of just taking personal responsibility and making smarter purchasing decisions) was going to paint everyone into a stifling little corner. Of course they all accused me of being sent by the devil, or worse, the plastics industry, but nevertheless my prophecies came to pass. Now, the same bloggers that were proponents of legislating to keep us all “safe” are complaining that the CPSIA makes it too expensive for them to get permits to manufacture handmade elves in their garage to sell on Etsy. Hmm, we can no longer sell/buy unique handmade toys so we must rely even more heavily on the foreign imports the law was designed to protect us from. OY and VEY! And the book burning! Ugh! As a lover of antiques, I could just faint.

  18. My oldest son is allergic to the cold (cold urticaria). Here in Michigan, there is maybe one or two days a year where it would be warm enough for him to swim in a pool, and it’s never warm enough for him to swim in the lakes or rivers. He does take swimming lessons, but only after being dosed up beforehand with Benedryl and being rushed into a warm shower after (even indoor pools are cold up here!), and he still breaks out. No, I can’t let him play in the hose with the other kids, he had to sit on the beach and play in the sand when we went to Lake Michigan, he can’t run outside and sled very much in the winter (starts wheezing). Gee, based on this grandmother’s thinking, I wonder what kind of accommodations I should be asking for? Heat the Great Lakes! Stop the snow! Promote Global Warming!

    Or just continue with my plans to move back to Texas, where I wanted to be anyway. 🙂

  19. Before the pool was in, how did that grandma keep the child safe while the nuts were dropping all over the garden? The steam is still coming out of my ears after reading this. Why are some parents so intent on raising a generation of victims instead of teaching responsibility?

  20. I wanted to know more about the nutty grandma and found this article in a newsletter about lawsuit abuse (see:

    A Real Nut Case

    The city of Milford, Connecticut decided recently to cut down three hickory trees because they tower over a property owner’s swimming pool, the New York Times reported. According to the Times, the homeowner’s three-year-old grandson is allergic to nuts from the trees, she cares for the child three days a week, and the child would enjoy the pool but for the nuts.

    The mayor told the newspaper the city wanted to avoid the risk that hickory nuts from trees on city- controlled property could make the child sick or even cause his death.

    Neighbors objected, telling the newspaper the property owner’s assertions about possible risk to her grandson were a ruse. Her real motivation, they said, was to eliminate the shade cast by the trees over her swimming pool. “There are hickory trees all around the house, and it’s just the three trees over the pool she wants out,” one neighbor reportedly said at a public hearing. They noted, and the owner acknowledged, that she previously asked the city to remove one of the three hickory trees because it “interfered” with her swimming pool, the Times said.

    But the owner called the issue of getting rid of the trees “a matter of life and death,” the Times reported. She said she hoped “something pretty” could be planted in place of the trees. “I’m all for beautification,” the Times quoted her as saying. She denied her previous membership on the city’s Board of Aldermen and the Pension and Retirement Board provided her with the clout to get the city to remove the trees.

    Hickory trees are “ubiquitous” in Milford, according to the president of Milford Trees Inc., a local not-for- profit civic group. “I don’t know how you’re going to protect them from everything,” she said. From the New York Times

  21. Can we pleeeeeeease ship them to the Isle of Stupid, Mom? Can we? Pleeeeeeeeease????

  22. Uly had it exactly right. This grandmother chose to do something on her own private property, and now the town is paying the price. Was this kid allowed to play outside at Grandma’s BEFORE the pool was there? Seems to me that might’ve been a bigger concern, because it’d be harder to see the nut lying on the ground than floating in a pool.

    Why are we letting other people give away OUR rights? We just keep rolling over and letting these crazy helicopter parents (and grandparents) give control of our lives to our government officials. I agree with the basic premise that it takes a village to raise a child, but the village should not have to assume complete responsibility for raising that child. That’s what we are becoming: A society where parents don’t have to take responsibility for raising their children, because the rest of us have to make it as easy as possible for THEM while making it difficult for the rest of us.

  23. Jen,

    I’m hoping that you’re arguing that ‘everything is dangerous’ only for kids with certain kinds of nasty allergies, and not that ‘everything is dangerous’ to every kid.

    Yes, you’re right, I was especially talking about how kids with nasty allergies deal with foods & their environment. The friend that taught me that wasn’t just allergic to nuts but also shellfish which was another layer of fun. When we went to a restaurant, she would only ever order steak and then it had to be a place where they wouldn’t cook surf & turf or mix the seafood with the meats. She had to bake her own bread, mix her own ice cream and would never, ever share someone else’s food, no matter how much they said they were careful. More work but her deserts were great!

    At times I wondered if she was just paranoid but while backpacking, we played a game of cards in a ranger’s cabin and she had a strong allergic reaction, we think because someone had had some nuts at the table before us which then got onto the cards. When I saw just how little exposure was required and how even benign objects such as strange picnic tables could be a real threat, I came to understand. These people simply cannot rely on faith and god intentions, they must learn what special dangers they face and be on their guard.

    It’s not all bleak. She wasn’t timid and spent months backpacking solo through Turkey, Egypt and France and went on to compete in the Olympics. My point wasn’t that people need to live in fear but just as it’s harmful to see dangers where they don’t exist (e.g.: “stranger danger!”), it’s harmful to see safety and security where it doesn’t exist (e.g.: unknown food).

  24. *nod* It sounds like your friend has an especially severe reaction and needs to be that careful when it comes to her health. I’m glad she’s the type of person who takes care of herself and doesn’t rely on the world around her to become safe for her benefit. 🙂 Thanks for clarifying.

  25. As always, there is more to the story than meets the eye, in this case her pool was being shaded and she was too cheap to have them cut down so she went the scare route, isn’t there always more to these stories than meets the eye, even if published in the NY Times? Seems to me the folks in that town just ought to vote out the idiot mayor.

  26. I’m peanut allergic. I can have a deadly reaction by touching a surface that contains traces of the protein. We suspect I’ve had 2 reactions from airborn particles (found out after the mystery trip to the ER that peanut oil was being used in multiple deep firers at the fair in question.

    I remember 3 times growing up my parents had words about this with someone.

    1. Preschool – decided mom was over reacting and made me make one of those peanut butter and pinecone birdfeeders.

    2. Elementary school – bully smeared peanut butter on me and I was punished for “over reacting” they only called mom because I was Hyperventaliting (actually my throat was closing) – it was my Dr. that had the words with the school on that one.

    3. Football game – punk kids were throwing shells down on us. My father asked them to stop. They continued and asked “is the little #*%#& dead yet” Dad stood up ordered them to stop. They asked who is going to make us – and Dad’s frat brothers stood up along with several other people that had shared that area with us for several seasons. The punks were removed from the stadium by security.

    I learned to protect myself.

    Planes/trains closed toe shoes, pants, baggy jacket over short sleeves. I carry baby wipes and wipe down the try and arm rests. I warn my seatmates to avoid things like the foil from the packet being tossed my direction. I don’t put thing in the pocket in front of me (because people use it to hold trash). I always tell the attendants I’m carrying an epi – because other people have reported it as illegal before. If flying southwest I tell them I’m PA to avoid flying packets of Peanuts.

    Restaurants – I call ahead of time and trust my gut feeling if I’m being lied to or given half truths.

    General public behavior. I don’t touch surfaces like tables. I love the new style handles meant to help people with mobility problems because I can grab the end and avoid touching the center.

    I ask friend and family – especially those that tend to touch while talking to be careful. I demand that restaurants tell the truth. Other than that it is my look out.

  27. While I’m sure the woman in question wouldn’t have succeeded if she had tried to sue the town regarding the trees, maybe the town didn’t want to give her the opportunity to try? I do think the culture of suing others for accidents, rather than taking responsibility ourselves is to blame for a lot of “risk-elimination” efforts. For example, at my kids’ summer camp, the monkey bars were removed after a kid broke their arm. When I asked the camp owners about this, they told me they had no choice – their insurance company insisted, since this was the second broken arm from the monkey bars in 5 years.

  28. Man, this kid is going to be MORTIFIED when he’s old enough to realize what his grandmother did and why.

  29. you’ve got to pray to God to protect your kids, that’s how it’s done. only through prayer and keeping a watchful eye out for our children can we protect them adequately in this world.

  30. you’ve got to pray to God to protect your kids, that’s how it’s done. only through prayer and keeping a watchful eye out for our children can we protect them adequately in this world.

    Thank you. I’m sure we’ve all been refreshed and enlightened by your unique point of view. Tell me, did you mean to imply that people whose children are harmed in tragic (but, fortunately, rare) ways simply didn’t pray enough to get on God’s good side, so he decided to punish their children?

  31. […] The Risk of Avoiding All Risk In the town of Milford, Connecticut, in 2005, a grandma named Una decided to build a pool. That way her 14 […] […]

  32. Just keep grandma out of the pool…problem solved!

  33. Lenore, i’m baffled why you say “It’s not that I am a fan of unnecessary risk. I love helmets…”

    Bike helmets are where it all started. They took an activity that kids had been doing for 100 years with no big problems and they claimed it was a huge source of serious head injury. They used all the usual scare stories and weasel words, like “UP TO 300 kids die each year” and “a simple fall off a bike COULD make you hit your head and DIE.”

    They don’t tell you that just like when we were growing up, _serious_ head injuries from biking are vanishingly rare. They don’t tell you that 99+% of head injury deaths have nothing to do with bikes. They don’t tell you that bike helmets haven’t reduced serious head injuries at all. They’re a scam.

    As a journalist, you should look for data. Check out the New York Times article, summer 2001, “A Bicycling Mystery” about how helmet use has risen, and head injuries haven’t dropped a bit.

    Check what happened when Australia and New Zealand made it illegal to ride a bike without a helmet. Quick summary: About 30% to 40% less biking, and no drop in serious head injuries per remaining biker.

    Google and get information on both sides of this issue.

    Bike helmets are just like foam corners stuck on coffee tables. They “solve” a problem that never existed. Oh, except they’re less effective and more expensive.

  34. This story jibes nicely with the wussification of America. Dodgeball anyone?? Sorry, not allowed here folks!

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