The Risky Business of Raising Kids

The risks kids face when they are out in a big city on their own may not be what you think they are.

illustrations by suharu ogawa

My wife and I have broadly similar attitudes when it comes to striking a balance between risk and freedom with our kids. We do our best to err on the side of independence. We’re big on climbing and exploring, taking a fall or three along the way. We subscribe to the “pound of dirt” theory regarding cleanliness (or the lack thereof). Our trampoline has no safety net.

We’re strong supporters of the “free-range parenting” movement, which is built on the idea that the current generation of children is given nowhere near enough freedom to travel around and play without adult supervision.

But we never did agree on the 10th Street N.W. pedestrian crossing.

The crossing, right in front of the Safeway in Kensington at 3rd Avenue N.W., was just two blocks from our house and marked by overhead beacons, with lights that flashed yellow in response to a button being pushed. If you were a nine-year-old and more than mature enough to go to the grocery store and proudly pick up a few things on your own, it was the most direct and logical way to get across busy 10th Street – not too far, and ostensibly a protected zone the whole way.

But I never fully trusted the commuter traffic. I’d seen too many distracted drivers blow through the crosswalk at full speed as a pedestrian came to a startled stop halfway across. I’d actually been that pedestrian a few times. And once, with my kids in tow, my daughter learned a couple of new and not very child-friendly words, howled pointlessly at the oblivious pilot of one of those deadly 2,000-lb. road missiles as he roared under the blinking lights at 50 km/h.

My wife was ready to trust our daughter’s judgment, to assume she was as capable as any other pedestrian of double-checking to make sure the cars were actually obeying the signal. I couldn’t get there in my mind. I wasn’t quite sure what age was old enough, but our daughter hadn’t reached it yet. I suspected this was more about my peace of mind than her safety. Still, we all have our boundaries, however arbitrarily we might draw them. This was mine.

The debate was settled for us earlier this year, rendered moot when the City of Calgary installed a full set of traffic signals at 3rd and 10th, replacing the pedestrian crossing. Today, we regularly send our daughter, who’s now 10, to pick up a few groceries or an after-dinner treat. But the dispute, the confusion, the competing array of risks to be subjectively weighed and parental opinions to be balanced – all this comes back to me first thing when I hear another story in a category I think of as “Risk Assessment Gone Mad.”

Before we get to those moments of madness, though, let’s begin with a statement of general principle: We are not good at assessing relative risk. I don’t mean we as parents – I mean we as a species. As study after study has shown in recent years, human brains are infected with countless biases and misperceptions that warp and scramble incoming information. We overestimate our own abilities at many things (“optimism bias”). We overestimate the value of the things we own and undervalue those we might have instead (“the endowment effect”). We inherently prefer our current state of affairs, no matter how flawed, to unfamiliar alternatives (“status quo bias”). And we also tend to seek out and retain information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs (“confirmation bias”). Add in the heightened state of awareness and investment that is parenthood, and every one of these biases becomes deeper and more distorting.

In particular, contemporary parenthood is a near-universal study in what’s known as “availability bias.” Availability bias is perhaps best thought of as the “heard a news story the other day” bias. It’s the reason we think tornadoes and mass murders are more common and lethal than asthma attacks and drownings. It’s why preventing terrorism is higher on the political agenda than preventing heart disease. And it’s a major influence – maybe the primary one – in pretty much every case of Risk Assessment Gone Mad in the wide world of child rearing. We worry about kidnapping and drugs and rumoured “strangling game” epidemics, because they make sensational news headlines and get traded most readily on the playground or at the dinner party. But, in truth, backyard pools and the family car (and their own hands, sadly) are the gravest risks to our children’s safety.

Because of availability bias, there is almost no action you can’t justify in our society by claiming you are trying to protect children from harm – and almost no real risk we assess properly when we formulate those actions. All of this drives the phenomenon of Risk Assessment Gone Mad.

Here is a textbook case of Risk Assessment Gone Mad from Calgary that made national headlines earlier this year: A father arrived at the Lego Store in Chinook Centre to find his 11-year-old son detained by mall security. The boy had been sent to shop on his own for new Lego sets for his impressive collection, as he had numerous times before. On this occasion, though, the boy shopping solo came to the attention of the store manager. The manager called a security guard to detain the boy until the father came to fetch him.

The father asked to speak to the manager. The manager explained it was store policy not to allow children under the age of 12 to shop alone “for safety reasons.” The father thought this was arbitrary and preposterous. He demanded to know why. The manager, in the father’s retelling – first on his blog, then to a series of media outlets as the story exploded – suggested that someone who needs that explained to him was perhaps not fit to be a parent.

Days later, a more senior Lego manager suggested it could be dangerous if the mall were to be evacuated in an emergency and the boy had no way to contact his father. “I explained the difference between inconvenient and dangerous,” the father noted in his blog, dryly. The scenario, after all, imagined an 11-year-old incapable of asking to borrow a nearby adult’s mobile phone (assuming he didn’t already carry one himself).

But it was all to little avail: Chinook Centre’s Lego Store stood by its policy. The Lego Store still maintains that its core customer base, though capable of assembling a 494-piece remote-controlled Technic off-road racer (“Ages 9-16,” according to the box), lacks the life skills to take it from the shelf and pay for it at a checkout counter without parental supervision.

Another example is the tale of self-proclaimed free-range parents Danielle and Alexander Meitiv of suburban Washington, D.C., in a case of Risk Assessment Gone Mad that made international headlines. It began last December, when a nervous neighbour spied the Meitivs’ children – aged 10 and six – walking by themselves down the street, en route to a local park. The neighbour called the police, who took the kids into custody. The children were returned home, but the Meitivs endured several follow-up visits from child welfare officials.

The Washington Post‘s coverage of their ordeal quickly went global. The first headline said nearly everything many parents needed to hear to know they had a whopper of a case of Risk Assessment Gone Mad on their hands: “Parents investigated for neglect after letting kids walk home alone.”

Parents investigated for neglect because their kids walked home from the park by themselves. This was once commonplace behaviour, even listed in the 1979 parenting guide Your Six-Year-Old: Loving and Defiant by Louise Bates Ames, Ph.D., and Dr. Frances L. Ilg, an M.D., as an essential skill for every six-year-old – the ability, as the old guide put it, “to travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to store, school, playground, or to a friend’s home.” Now it’s a matter grave enough to warrant police and state intervention and threaten parental custody rights.

A few months later, the Meitiv kids were again reported to police for walking home alone from the neighbourhood park. Again the police took the children into custody, this time leaving them with Child Protective Services while their parents searched for them in a panic. In a later statement issued by their lawyers, the Meitivs alleged their kids spent three hours in a police car before being handed over to child welfare officials, endured six hours without food and were kept out until midnight on a school night. Apparently, all of this was deemed less harmful to the Meitiv children than walking a couple of blocks home from a park in broad daylight.

The Meitivs, as I said, are advocates of that parenting philosophy known as “free-range parenting,” itself a response to the preponderance of overprotective, sometimes crazily risk-averse “helicopter parenting.” The term “free range” originates with a Manhattan writer named Lenore Skenazy. In 2008, Skenazy let her son, then nine, ride the New York subway home alone. And then she wrote about it, noting that such a solo trip was commonplace when she was that age – a time in New York, and in nearly every other city in North America, that was markedly more dangerous for children by pretty much every measure.

The story quickly went viral, with Skenazy first pilloried in the mainstream press as “America’s worst mom,” and then celebrated by a fast-growing cult following as a welcome voice of common sense in the midst of senseless panic. The Meitivs are, if anything, even more conscientious and data-driven than Skenazy in their parenting. Both work in the sciences, and were quick to tell reporters that their decision to let their kids walk to and from the park was anything but careless.

“Parenthood is an exercise in risk management,” Danielle Meitiv told the Washington Post. “Every day, we decide: Are we going to let our kids play football? Are we going to let them do a sleepover? Are we going to let them climb a tree? We’re not saying parents should abandon all caution. We’re saying parents should pay attention to risks that are dangerous and likely to happen.” She also noted her kids often carry laminated cards that read, “I am not lost. I am a free-range kid.”

But, just for a moment, let’s take the authorities involved at their word. Let’s assume they only had the safety of these children in mind. If that is in fact the case, and if they were properly assessing the range of risks facing those children, they never would have allowed the Meitivs to carry on home with their kids once the dispute was settled, because surely those kids would’ve then been packed into a car for the ride. And, if walking home alone is so dangerous that it needs state intervention, then it’s hard to imagine the appropriate response to strapping a kid into the backseat and roaring off down a highway home, because there is nothing North American parents do every day that is anywhere near as risky.

This, by the way, was well understood by the Meitivs. “Abductions are extremely rare, car accidents are not. The No. 1 cause of death for children of their age is a car accident,” Danielle told the Post after her first run-in with Child Protective Services. Indeed, according to a Canadian Paediatric Society report issued in 2007, this is true for all children aged one to 19 across North America, and it likely still holds true for every child in Calgary today.

Which brings me back to my daughter and the neighbourhood crosswalk on the way to the grocery store.

As a thinking free-range parent with a high degree of trust in science and data, what am I to make of my decision to go with my gut regarding our local crosswalk?

On one hand, the data (which I only encountered after the fact) suggests my gut instinct wasn’t wholly illogical. According to Calgary Police Service data, the intersection of 3rd Avenue and 10th Street N.W. is an abnormally dangerous one. It saw 11 reported accidents involving pedestrians from 1996 to 2012. Thankfully, only one of these was fatal and only one other resulted in a “major injury.” Still, the intersection was easily the most dangerous for blocks and blocks during that period. My daughter would have to cross the river downtown or wander all the way up to Shaganappi Trail and 40th Avenue N.W. to find a substantially riskier crossroads.

On the other hand, the data I have at hand doesn’t provide accident rates. It could simply be that 3rd and 10th is a particularly busy intersection. After all, we chose our neighbourhood in no small part because it is so highly walkable, because there’s so much life on neighbourhood streets. What matters is how much more likely she was to be injured in that intersection compared to others nearby with four-way signals, not how many incidents there were. (Reading too much into the latter would, in fact, be a case of availability bias.)

I like to think, nevertheless, that I properly identified the source of my daughter’s greatest threat. So much of modern parenting – the data is incontrovertible on this – involves protecting children from cars. There’s no risk we regularly expose our children to that’s even in the same league as the drive down the Deerfoot to Grampa’s house, or out the Trans-Canada for a mountain hike. And the next tier of most serious risks are all centred on the threat presented by cars, as well. A lighted crosswalk driven by a pedestrian push button
is accident-prone because it treats pedestrian safety as an afterthought.

My daughter doesn’t walk or bike to school because the intersection of 10th Street and 16th Avenue N.W., just up the hill from Kensington, was built with turn lanes and isolated concrete islands better suited to a freeway off-ramp than to a pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare. What’s more, her school is hemmed in on two sides by heavy commuter traffic. She can’t ride her bike to baseball practice in Parkdale by herself because there is nothing remotely resembling safe cycling infrastructure at the corner of 5th Avenue and 14th Street N.W. or at 5th Avenue and Crowchild Trail, despite the wishful thinking embedded in the painted lanes and “sharrows” along the way. If I were to map the range of our neighbourhood that I feel safe letting her roam, it is an overly small box whose perimeter is a thick line of four-lane traffic.

The downside of these much more physically circumscribed lives is substantial for today’s kids. Unstructured outdoor play has always been an essential part of child development. It provides children with a vital source of exercise and offers kids a wealth of opportunities to learn about the world and each other, everything from social skills to street smarts. It’s also how children learn for themselves how to properly size up risks and keep themselves safe.

A recent study of the benefits of unsupervised play, led by public health expert Dr. Mariana Brussoni of the University of British Columbia, produced a Position Statement on Active Outdoor Play endorsed by educators, exercise advocates and medical experts across the country. It reads: “Access to active play in nature and outdoors – with its risks – is essential for healthy child development. We recommend increasing children’s opportunities for self-directed play outdoors in all settings – at home, at school, in child care, the community and nature.”

This approach to parenting used to be second nature, and, by most measures, it still should be. The world our kids inhabit is, for the most part, much safer than it was a generation ago. The nationwide rates for every form of violent crime peaked in the 1990s, and, according to Statistics Canada, national homicide rates peaked in the 1970s – a time when even a very anxious mother like mine never thought twice about letting my friends and me pedal off on our bikes unsupervised for hours on end through the neighbourhood and deep into the surrounding woods. (And these were northern Alberta woods that we often shared with bears.)

So what is markedly different today? What significant risk hasn’t declined? The answer: car accidents.

The chief obstacle most parents face in turning the Position Statement on Active Outdoor Play into action is that we live in neighbourhoods and cities – an entire civilization, really – built to the scale, speed and convenience of cars. For 30-odd years, urban growth has been geared almost exclusively to the needs of the automobile. We’ve built thousands of kilometres of curvilinear suburban roads safe to traverse at 80 km/h, retrofitted urban avenues with convenient sliplanes for turning cars and installed all-but-optional crosswalk signals and painted lines to attempt to protect people on foot and on bikes from fast-moving, lethal masses of steel. No wonder our kids don’t play outside as much, don’t walk to and from school or the park or ride their bikes all day from one adventure to another with nary a care.

There’s no doubt whatsoever that the Meitiv kids were more likely to be hit by a neighbour’s car than to be abducted by a stranger. And, yet, it’s a veritable certainty that none of the nervous neighbours or intervening officials were thinking of traffic when they assessed the situation. Beset by availability bias and countless other misperceptions, they were guarding against lightning strikes while the children sat for hours in the back seat of a ticking time bomb.

Many streets – in Calgary and beyond – are more dangerous today than they were a generation ago. They need more properly signalled intersections like the one that makes it safe for my daughter to cross 10th Street today. Until we make it the primary goal not just of parenting strategies but of urban planning and municipal government to design streets that are safe for everyone, no position statement will make much difference. If we intend to raise our children in an environment that strikes the right balance between safety and fun, between risk and adventure, we need to recognize the real threat to their safety. The strangers we need to protect them from are the ones behind the wheel.

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