What Happens When We “Dangerize” Childhood

Hi Readers. Here’s a slightly updated column I wrote for my syndicate, Creators, this week.

What Happens When We Dangerize Childhood

This has been a big week for pointing fingers … including at me.

As the lady who started “Free-Range Kids” after letting my 9-year-old take the subway solo,  I’ve spent a lot of time explaining that crime rate is actually LOWER than it was in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, which means our kids should be able to enjoy the same kind of childhood WE had — playing outside, riding their bikes, even walking home at age 8.

But then a madman murdered 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky, who was  indeed just walking home from camp in Brooklyn. And suddenly, the idea of Free-Range Kids sounds about as sensible as letting children ride their trikes along the interstate. As the headline on one of the big “mommy blogs” read, “Boy Abducted Walking Home Alone: Is Free-Range Parenting Dangerous?”

To which I would like to pose a different question, based on the fact that 25 times more children die as car passengers than as abduction victims (that is, about 1,300 children younger than 14 die in cars annually, whereas about 50 are murdered by strangers): “Is Putting Your Kid in the Car Dangerous?”

I ask only because, as a society, we have decided to focus on the least likely, most horrific, most TV ratings-garnering child deaths and base a lot of our parenting decisions on them. Gever Tulley, an author and educator in California, coined a term for this: dangerism. (And he wrote a book about it, too.)  We decide, irrationally, which dangers are worth obsessing over and which we will shrug off as small, unavoidable risks.

So when I get a letter such as this one — “That little boy’s parents should have known better than to let him walk alone at such an early age” — I have to stifle a scream.

The parents should have “known better” than to trust their city — my city, too — where we are enjoying the lowest murder rate since 1961? Known better than to trust their neighborhood, which the state assemblyman described as a “no-crime area”? Known better than to trust their 8-year-old when, in most countries of the world, kids start walking to school at age 7? This is like saying the parents of the baby killed by a falling tree branch in Central Park last year should have known better than to stand under a tree.

We have yet to dangerize a walk in the park. But we are in the process of dangerizing any walk by any kid in any neighborhood, no matter how safe.

It is hard to get a grip on how uncommon a crime like the Kletzky murder is, because it is precisely those uncommon crimes that are exceedingly common on TV. They start out on the news and then get recycled in the crime dramas and “special investigations” and, eventually, on the anniversary shows (smarmily marketed as “tributes”), to the point where the story becomes indelible. Then, when we ask ourselves whether it is safe for our kids to walk outside, up pops Lieby Kletzky’s photo, like the top story in a Google search. And just like that top Google item, it seems the most relevant, even though actually it is the least. It is so easily accessible because it is so rare. If it were happening all the time — like kids being killed in car accidents — we’d search for an iconic image and draw a blank.

So the next time someone tells me, “I would NEVER let my child walk outside, because it’s just too dangerous,” here is how I will reply:

“I hope you NEVER put your children in a car. How could you ever forgive yourself if, God forbid, something terrible were to happen? It is YOUR RESPONSIBILITY to keep your children safe! Personally, I would rather have my kids stuck at home, unable to go anywhere, than take the TERRIBLE RISK of putting them in the car. Maybe at 13 or 14 they can start riding in a car, but seven or eight? Too young! Parents should know better! It’s just not worth a lifetime of regret.”

That’s how wacky — and stifling — we can get when we dangerize everyday life, so let’s try not to. (And let’s keep the blame-the-parents impulse in check, too.) — L.

50 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kids Do — Endorsed by the NY Times!

Hi Readers! My friend and inspiration, Gever Tulley, just got this GREAT write up in The New York Times by the lyrical Lawrence Downes. Allow me to lift it in full:

Playing With Fire


Rearing a child is already a journey through self-doubt and guilt, and now here comes Gever Tulley to say we’re doing it wrong, and that what we really need to do is hand our young ones power tools and let them lick nine-volt batteries.

Mr. Tulley is a pedagogical theorist, though not an academic one. He wrote a book, soon to be out from Penguin, and founded the Tinkering School, near San Francisco, whose students do their work with PVC pipe and two-by-fours.

His argument: Children should get out more. They should learn to work with their hands, not just their Nintendo thumbs. Because if they don’t, they risk stunting their independence, ingenuity, curiosity and competence.

Mr. Tulley’s book, “Fifty Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do),” is a rebuke to a world of blunt-edged scissors, insipid molded-plastic playground equipment and perpetual parental anxiety. He believes parents don’t recognize what is most likely to endanger children (car trips, corn syrup). And he says that by engaging in seemingly (or mildly) risky exploration and play, children can become better problem-solvers and judges of risk. Children who don’t get acquainted with trivial danger (No. 5: Stick Your Hand Out the Window; No. 28: Climb a Tree), he says, don’t recognize real danger or can’t handle it when it comes.

Mr. Tulley has no children. His theories probably make more sense in edenic suburbs than in cities with crime. I would not endorse all his 50 things, some of which — like No. 36: Poison Your Friends (with super-salty cookies) and No. 1: Lick a Nine-Volt Battery — are inexplicable or gross. But it’s easy enough to think of good replacements: Dig a hole, roll down a hill, row a boat.

His book reminded me of David Samwell, ship’s surgeon to Capt. James Cook, the British explorer. In 1779, transfixed by the sight of Hawaiian children on surfboards, Samwell wrote: “We saw with astonishment young boys & Girls about 9 or ten years of age playing amid such tempestuous Waves that the hardiest of our seamen would have trembled to face. So true it is that many seeming difficulties are easily overcome by dexterity & Perseverance.”

Mr. Samwell, meet Mr. Tulley, today’s keeper of your nice insight. Some danger can dissolve into fun, if you know what you’re doing.

“Dangerism” — How A Society Decides What’s Dangerous

Hi Readers! Many of you are already familiar with Gever Tulley, the guy who runs the Tinkering School and did the famous TED speech on the “5 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kids Do.” (Recently expanded into a book, “Fifty Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Children Do.”)

Now he’s come up with a very cool new term, “Dangerism,” which is the idea of looking at the things a particular society at a particular time considers dangerous. He gives some great examples of, for instance, a mom who lets her kids spend the day roaming the countryside behind her house with rifles, because, “There’s a lot less trouble to get into out there in the woods than there is at the mall.” Another example: Many American kids won’t own a knife until they get their first apartment. But Inuit kids start using knives at age three, because they’re expected to learn how to cut themselves some blubber.

So I started making a list in my own mind of things we have newly decided are dangerous — many of them documented on this blog: Recess when it’s cold out. Running on the playground. Walking to school. Waiting at the bus stop. Crawling. (Hence, baby knee-pads.) Boy Scouts whittling with knives. Girl Scouts toasting marshmallows without first putting one knee on the ground. (Yes, that’s the rule now: One knee on the ground or the dangers of keeling into the fire are far too great.)

I’d love to expand this list — or maybe make two: One list of the things that our culture is “dangerizing.” And maybe another of the things that are NOT considered overly dangerous in other, less scaredy- cat cultures. Got some ideas? Add ’em! Thanks! — Lenore

Kid Safety Labels We WANT To See

Hi Readers! Here are three great — nay, profound — “safety” labels, including:  “CAUTION: REDUCTION OF EXPANDED PLAY OPPORTUNITIES.” That one is to be affixed to any high-tech toy that is nowhere near as fun to play with, in the long run, as its box.

These labels come courtesy of Make Magazine, courtesy of one of our heroes, Gever Tulley, who runs the Tinkering School, and did that great video, “5 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kids Do.” (Think that’s enough links?) — Lenore