Why “Worst-Case Thinking” Gets It Wrong

Dear Readers — Oh my god, this is a BRILLIANT essay by security expert Bruce Schneier. He’s a guy who thinks a lot about terrorism, but his words will make sense to all of us who are concerned with the difference between real danger (which we’d like to guard against) and “worst-case thinking,” which over-reacts to unlikely scenarios. Listen to this Schneier-ism:

There’s a certain blindness that comes from worst-case thinking. An extension of the precautionary principle, it involves imagining the worst possible outcome and then acting as if it were a certainty. It substitutes imagination for thinking, speculation for risk analysis, and fear for reason. It fosters powerlessness and vulnerability…”

Just like people who assume if their kid goes out to play, she MAY be kidnapped, so she probably WILL be kidnapped, so why take that awful risk? That’s the kind of worst-case thinking that leads folks to believes they can never let their (soon to be preyed upon) kids out of their sight. And listen to this:

Worst-case thinking means generally bad decision making for several reasons. First, it’s only half of the cost-benefit equation. Every decision has costs and benefits, risks and rewards. By speculating about what can possibly go wrong, and then acting as if that is likely to happen, worst-case thinking focuses only on the extreme but improbable risks and does a poor job at assessing outcomes.

So true! The “cost” of a child going outside is never measured against the cost of staying in. In other words: “Why risk my sweet child’s safety?” is never countered by, “What does my child GAIN by walking to school, and playing outside, and  becoming street-smart and self-reliant,” etc. etc. And then there’s this!

Of course, not all fears are equal. Those that we tend to exaggerate are more easily justified by worst-case thinking. So terrorism fears trump privacy fears, and almost everything else; technology is hard to understand and therefore scary; nuclear weapons are worse than conventional weapons; our children need to be protected at all costs; and annihilating the planetis bad. Basically, any fear that would make a good movie plot is amenable to worst-case thinking.

And that’s the only point I disagree on. Because if a fear would make a good television plot, it works, too.

Finally, regarding our inflated sense of doom, regarding our kids (and everything else):

…worst-case thinking validates ignorance. Instead of focusing on what we know, it focuses on what we don’t know — and what we can imagine.

And then he quotes the venerable Frank Furedi, author of Paranoid Parenting (a seminal book in my house):

“Worst-case thinking encourages society to adopt fear as one of the dominant principles around which the public, the government and institutions should organize their life. It institutionalizes insecurity and fosters a mood of confusion and powerlessness. Through popularizing the belief that worst cases are normal, it incites people to feel defenseless and vulnerable to a wide range of future threats.”

Thank you to so many readers who sent this in. The essay really puts everything in focus: When we jump to the worst case scenario AND assume that because we can PICTURE it, that’s proof enough it could happen,  we are living in a nightmare.

And thank you to Bruce Schneier for helping to wake us up. — Lenore

What if you leave your child at home while you get milk and a bomber comes by?

Remember The Mom Arrested for Letting Her 12-Year-old Take Younger Sibs to Mall?

Hi Readers — Remember that story? A mom let her 12-year-old daughter and the girl’s friend take their combined three siblings to the mall. The kids shopped and had lunch but afterward, when the two older girls went into a dressing room to try on some shirts, they left the younger kids — 7 and 8 and a 3-year-old, who was in a stroller —  in the cosmetics department. Fearing God knows what (an attack by triplet pedophiles who snatch kids in public while nearby adults continue calmly selling cosmetics?), the clerks summoned mall security. Security brought the kids to the Macy’s office and hauled in the mom. The mom was arrested. And this is where the follow-up story, by Spiked Online’s fabulous Nancy McDermott, picks up. Read it here. And weep. — Lenore

The Right Way to Handle A Case of “Negligence”

Hi Folks! Here’s a nice little antidote for despair. A story of common sense, human decency and happy endings, from a reader in Norway:

Dear Free-Range Kids: A 3-year-old was found toddling about on the streets of Tromsø, a city up North in Norway, wearing only his diapers.

The police were called, and they contacted the child protective service. They found the mother after only 45 minutes, reunited her with her little one, and sent them on their way. Operations manager at the local police department told the newspaper that this was in no way a case of neglect.

There was a misunderstanding, which can happen to the best. The mother went out shopping, and the child toddled after her. The babysitter thought the mother had taken the child with her. No lengthy investigations, no treating anyone like a criminal. Just public employees helping out a family after a misunderstanding. 🙂

Here’s a really bad Google translation of the news story. — Marius

Gotta Vent

Sorry Readers — Vent I must. Just got off a long radio interview with Detroit’s “Mojo in the Morning” show, where, after being called a crazy, terrible mom who obviously doesn’t care about her kids, the final comment to me and the listeners was, “Watch ‘Law & Order,’ and you’ll know what New York is all about.”

No. Watch “Law & Order” and you will know what TV is all about. One man once wrote to this site a while back — I wish I could find his note — and said that he lives in a quiet, safe Brooklyn neighborhood where “Law & Order” often films. Of course it’s not a quiet, safe neighborhood when it’s the backdrop for that show. It’s a crime scene! And THAT is the difference between real life and TV: Life is, thank goodness, usually pretty dull. TV is filled with the stuff that keeps us glued to the screen: Murder! Rape! Innocents in peril!

It is really easy to scorn a mom would would put her child into that kind of mayhem and casually walk away.

That’s not what I did. That’s not what I advocate. I advocate preparing our children with skills like, “How to cross the street,” “How to ask for help,”  and then letting them out into the real world. The boring one you don’t see on TV.

And I won’t even get into the whole radio discussion about, “What if something terrible happens?!” which is a question meant to trump anyone who trusts their kid to do ANYTHING. Ever.

I’m glad I stir up controversy because that gets the issue — and me — out there. A lot. But sometimes, the tsunami of scorn, self-righteousness and media-generated terror gets me down.  Off to eat a cookie.  — Lenore

What The “Child Molested at a Library” Incident Teaches Us

Hi Readers — Yesterday, under my post about “Take Our Children to the Park & Leave Them There Day,” someone named Upstate Librarian  wrote: “…why dont you call the mother of the 9 year old that was raped today in the library in New York City. I’m sure she would agree with you on your feelings about leaving children for a few minutes in safe public environments.”

Here’s a response to THAT response, from frequent commenter Uly. Take it away, Uly!

“Dear Upstate Librarian. I’m sure you mean well. No, let me start over. I’m sure you do NOT mean well, that you intend only to shame and scare rather than to educate or learn, but I’m going to act like you mean well anyway.

Stranger molestation does happen. It does. Nobody here has ever claimed otherwise.

It happens very *rarely*, though. The vast majority of child molesters – hell, the vast majority of ALL rapists! – target people they know. For children, that’s almost always relatives.

One nine year old getting raped in a library is sad and unfortunate, but it should not affect your behavior unless, perhaps, there’s been a string of these incidents in your own community.

Likewise, many, many children die in car accidents every year, far more than get raped by strangers (and in fact car accidents are THE leading cause of death for Americans 15 and under), but this simple fact will probably not cause you to stop driving your kid around. (Heck, it doesn’t even convince people to use safer carseats!) Why? Because that would be silly.

When I was a kid I saw a kid get her shoelaces sucked into an escalator and my dad had to help cut her loose. My mother once saw a child fall and get her HAIR stuck in an escalator, which was very nearly tragic. Elevator accidents are more common than most people realize, but plenty of people still use elevators and allow their children to do so. Why? Because you can’t live your life scared of things that occasionally happen to some people.

When your child goes to the park with you, NOTHING is stopping them from being struck by lightning out of the clear blue sky (somewhere around 700 people are struck by lightning in the US yearly) or stung to death by a surprise attack of killer bees (moving northward) or randomly hit by an off-kilter bus. Your presence does not make your child safe. But you go ahead and send your child out in the world anyway, right? Because your kid can’t stay home all the time.

Heck, I bet you even send your child to school with other kids. And why not? That’s what most people do, right? Teachers are far, far, FAR more likely to molest their students than strangers are (although they still come in well under “parents”). Why is sending your child to school without you “safe” when sending your child to the park or the library is “unsafe”?

Because one is something you’re used to doing and seeing, and another is something you’re no longer used to doing and seeing. That’s all.

I don’t mean for you to start seeing the world as the terribly unsafe place it really is, of course. But you have GOT to put these things in perspective. I’m very upset for that poor girl, of course, but I don’t see how an isolated event should make me change my behavior and keep me from doing something that is, in fact, relatively safe. — Uly

“Take Our Children to the Park…& Leave Them There Day” Are You In?

Hi Readers — May 22, a week from this Saturday, is the very first “Take Our Children to the Park…And Leave Them There Day.” The idea behind it is simple: Most of us want our children to play outside and have fun, but this is impossible because there aren’t any OTHER kids outside for our kids to play with. It’s a  problem folks often cite as the reason they won’t be participating in the holiday. But that’s precisely the reason TO join in!

Clearly we are in the middle of a vicious cycle — there are no kids outside so I won’t let MY kids outside, so there are no kids outside, so you don’t let YOUR kids outside, so I don’t let MY kids outside, etc. , etc., etc –which is why the holiday (or whatever it is) is even necessary. It is a day to break the cycle. A day to get kids outside to meet each other and re-learn the lost art of playing! As opposed to PlayStationing.

And once again, let me reiterate that this is not a day to leave our 2-year-olds in the park. It is meant for kids age 7 or 8 and up. And it needn’t be more than an hour or even a half hour. And you can just take a walk around the block, if that’s all you or your child are ready for.  And you can give them cell phones! I just want to get kids out of the house so they can frolick and maybe even plan to do this strange thing where they ask a friend to “come out and play”  again. And it’s a great time for parents to meet each other, too! The way to really make any community safe requires reviving just that — community! Connect with your neighbors and everyone watches out for everyone else.

To that end, I’m going to suggest 10 a.m. as a good time to make it to the park, if you can. Of course, any time is fine (well, maybe not 10 p.m.), but if we have an official “starting” time, there’s more of a chance that several kids will be at the park at the same time.

So — that’s the current plan.  Here in New York City there is some media interest in the day. Yay! So if there’s one particular playground in Central Park that you are heading for, let us know and maybe a bunch of us can head over there together. (I know there’s some big rock my son and his friend love to climb around 64th Street.)

That’s it. Let us be in touch! — Lenore

Wouldn't it be nice?

Outrage of the Week: Girl Gets Week Detention for A Piece of Candy!

Dear Readers — If you ever wondered, “Gee, what would be a really good example of over-reaction?” Or, “Hmm. I wonder just HOW stupid those Zero Tolerance laws are allowing administrators to be?” Or, if you are in third grade, “What’s the easiest way for me to get out of school for a week?” Here is the story for you:

A third grade girl, eating her lunch in the cafeteria, was given a Jolly Rancher (yum!) by her friend. She didn’t even get to pop it in her mouth (choking hazard!) before she got BUSTED for breaking a rule: NO CANDY IN THE SCHOOL.

Now she’s got a week of detention. In this school, it’s not just the candies that suck. — Lenore

THIS JUST IN! TEXAS DEPT. OF AGRICULTURE SENDS SCHOOL A LETTER TELLING THEM, “ONE STUPID PIECE OF CANDY IS NOT WHAT WE MEANT BY OUR HEALTHY EATING GUIDELINES. DUH!” (WELL, ALL WORDS MINE. BUT YOU GET THE IDEA.)

A Story You Will Read Aloud (I Did), About A Cheese Sandwich

Dear Readers: This is not only an incredible story — a boy’s cheese sandwich is confiscated by the food police — it is also the best writing I’ve read in a long time. That’s why I just read it out loud to my husband. It begins:

A Britain in which the cheese sandwich is subject to intolerance and abuse is a Britain that no right-minded rennet-lover would ever care to inhabit. It is a Britain that no one could have imagined possible.

Yet the impossible has happened: staff at a nursery in Pemberton, near Wigan, have confiscated a cheese sandwich belonging to a two-year-old pupil, Jack Ormisher. Its failing was to contain neither lettuce nor tomato.

Enjoy! (With cheese sandwich in hand!) — L

Overprotection Begins with City Planning

Hi Readers — This comment came in response to the blog post below, regarding a Minnesota community up in arms about an Alzheimer’s facility moving in. The people there are worried for their children’s sake. Ironically, it is when we try to make a neighborhood unneighborly that we all suffer. Voila:

Dear Free-Range Kids: The crucial concept here (from my perspective as a native and current Minnesota guy who has also lived in Albany, NY, DC, and Hartford, CT) is zoning and neighborhood planning.

Here in MN, it is presumed that any credible, autonomous, functional person has a drivers license, access to at least one vehicle, and wants to live in a neighborhood where walking to a corner store for milk and eggs is not an option. Protecting your family’s financial future is the same as believing that two- or three-family structures within a block or two are a threat, and that driving your kids to school is the only way.

So, people are convinced that the only way to protect the value of their home is to hope they’re embedded in a wide enclave of exclusively residential single-family, owner-occupied homes with a few ultra-safe businesses on the periphery surrounded by massive parking lots.

I saw similar issues at play in Albany, Washington, and Hartford, as well. But, these circumstances in MN rub me the wrong way in the same fashion that gated and/or contractually-beige housing developments do. If you can’t bear uncertainty about your neighbors, you’d better have a lot of money to buy a chunk of land and build a big fence, if not a moat.

Otherwise, get over yourself. Meet your neighbors. Walk a lot. Make eye contact. Say “hi” to strangers walking by (the next time, they won’t be strangers). Be open to babies and puppies. Poke fun at the silliness in Woodbury, MN and welcome a small-to-medium-sized group home into your own neighborhood. — Bose

Help! Very Old People! They Will Hurt Our Children!

Hi Readers — Here’s a heart-sinker:  A Minnesota community doesn’t want a facility for Alzheimer’s patients to move in, because old people, even though supervised, might hurt  — or even traumatize by their very weirdness — their kids. So much for diversity. So much for community. So much for compassion.

As John Tevlin writes in this great Star Tribune column:

Nearly everyone who spoke against the facility had concerns that their children might be attacked or see an elderly adult do something inappropriate.

But Janelle Meyers, housing director for Prairie Lodge Assisted Living unit, also run by Ecumen in Brooklyn Park, said children are regular guests there. The caretakers of the most severely affected people are highly trained. “They know the residents very well, and can anticipate when problems are most likely to occur,” she said.

Meyers brings her son to work frequently, and there is a day-care center directly across the street.

“They bring the kids here on a regular basis,” Meyers said. “They do crafts and sing. It’s good for both of them to have contact with each other.”

“Some people don’t have respect for older adults,” Meyers said. “They are undervalued, and, personally, I think that’s so sad.”

I think so, too. And the fear of old people seems as misguided as it gets. I guess the same old truth prevails: The more separated we are from any group of people — by race or creed or, now, age — the more we begin to fear them. Even geezers. — Lenore