We all know that when someone is entering into a complicated and difficult situation, the advice that they appreciate most is that which comes from people who have never been in that situation.  Try telling a woman with three kids that childbirth couldn’t possibly be worse than the papercut you have right now, and watch how she lights up with glee.

The reason I’m bringing this up is that some (most) parents are worried about dangers to their child that are ridiculous, statistically improbable, or plain old preventable, and that’s stupid.  Parents’ judgements are clouded by the emotional attachment they have to their child, and while that attachment is reasonable and even encouraged, it cannot be objective.  And so in order to avoid the remote chance of autism, parents are forgoing vaccinations that cut the measles rate from hundreds of thousands a year in the 40s to mere dozens in the 90s.  All this despite the fact that there is no evidence whatsoever that the two are connected.  And now measles is coming back.  Mumps is coming back.  Polio is coming back.

Another example is asthma.  It’s generally agreed that asthma has less of a chance of developing in adults who are exposed to germs, allergens, dust, etc. as a child, but since parents are now so focused on cleanliness that they keep their kids from eating dirt, playing outside, or touching any surface that hasn’t been sterilized with a blowtorch and hydrochloric acid, allergies and asthma are on the rise.  Asthma in kids under five almost tripled between 1980 and 1994, and you can bet your ass it wasn’t because there was more dirt in the world.

Putting actual shit in your mouth: the first step to a healthy immune system.
Putting actual shit in your mouth: the first step to a healthy immune system.

On that note, NPR recently published the top five fears that parents have for their children versus the top five actual causes of injury and death.  And here they are.

1. Kidnapping

That kinda makes sense, because after all, they’re kids and once in a while, they’ll get napped.  No matter how much you tell them not to get in the van no matter how much candy the man has, no matter how many times you explain exactly where a man’s family jewels are and exactly how incapacitated he will be if they are punched (or headbutted, if you have a young child and that’s more convenient), kids get grabbed, whether for money or whatever.  But let’s look at the numbers.  In 2008, the FBI says that 6,094 juveniles were both “missing involuntarily” and in physical danger.  At that point, there were roughly 74 million juveniles in the US, making your child’s chances of being hurt by a kidnapper around one in 12,500.  Keep that number in mind.

2. School Snipers

Yes, seriously.  And not the douchebag in Battlefield: Bad Company that hangs out in a tall building and shoots your virtual child under the alias “xxXNoobTube2TheMaxXxx” on XBox Live, real actual snipers.  Now I’m not going to be pedantic and draw a distinction between kids killed at school by rifles versus other weapons, but again, here’s the math for that.  Note: the math here is very rough, so I’ve outlined the rounding off I’ve done.

  • I’m calling the population today 300 million, and the population in 1966 (the year of the first shooting) 195 million (census data).  That’s about 2.38 million more people a year.
  • At any given time, 15% of the US population is both in school and a minor (also census).
  • I’m also counting each year that each child is in school as an opportunity to get shot, so each child will have roughly 12 chances.
This is what my computer looks like right now.
This is what my computer looks like right now.

So, crunching through all that, we get a total of 1.67 billion child-years in the last 44 years, and do you know how many have been killed at school in that time?  225.  Chances of your child being shot in a given school year?  One in 7.4 million.  Probably not a cause for serious concern.

3. Terrorists

Which is just ridiculous.  Even if we grant that there were probably some kids in the WTC and the Oklahoma City bombing and such, there weren’t very many because they were office buildings.  And no one’s bombed a school, at least in this country, for almost 50 years.  Even if those are all taken into account, we’re talking maybe a few hundred, generously speaking.  Chances: one in millions.

4. Dangerous Strangers

This one’s interesting, since in a sense, all strangers are dangerous. It’s also damn near impossible to quantify, because we’re talking about injury as well as death, so every time some insolent 17-year-old gets himself punched in the face at the food court, it should count.  Obviously that’s very hard to keep track of.  Other than that, strangers can either molest, injure, or kill kids, and it’s very hard to draw a line at what constitutes injury and molestation, plus a lot of kids don’t tell anyone when it happens, so I can’t help but throw up my hands and admit that there is no way to put a number to it at all.  Sorry.

5. Drugs

Again, it’s hard to determine what constitutes an injury from drugs (throwing up drinking?), and even harder to determine how many teens are using drugs (a recent survey showed that teens were 52 times more likely to test positive for cocaine that to report using it, even anonymously), so this is kind of shady math too.  What we can do is find out how many juveniles die from drug use, since people who die from drugs usually die in hospitals, and if there’s one thing hospitals do right, it’s write shit down.  In 2007, only one in 14,000 deaths was from drug- or alcohol-related causes.

Approximately zero deaths were from bludgeoning by giant gummy worm.
Approximately zero deaths were from bludgeoning by giant gummy worm.

Now, let’s get into what actually kills kids.  I’ll give you a hint: none of those things is on the list.

The number one cause of death among juveniles is car accidents.  They account for forty percent of deaths under the age of 18.  Forget diseases, forget snipers, the drive to school in the morning is what’s most likely to kill your kid.  And the NHTSA found that 75% of child safety seats and such are being used wrong.  I don’t care how complicated the instructions are, FIGURE IT OUT.

It's a chair.  How hard could it be?
It’s a chair. How hard could it be?

The second leading cause of death in minors is homicide.  Now, this is mostly in teenagers (toddlers don’t join gangs or deal drugs), but there’s not a lot that you, as a parent, can do about it.  You know what you can do?  Not be in a gang or deal drugs yourself.  That might help.  It’s worth knowing that this could fall under the “dangerous strangers” category, but most homicides are committed by people the victim already knows.

The third cause is abuse.  Think about that.  That’s your fault.  Most people abusing kids are related to the kid.  Don’t shake babies.  Don’t hit kids.  Easy.

Cause number four is suicide.  Absolutely the best thing you can do to prevent that is talk to your kid.  Don’t make them talk, just be there.  Be available.  Ask.

And the last one is drowning.  Also an easy fix.  If your kid can swim, fine.  If they can’t, keep them away from the goddamn pool.

The point here is not that your kids aren’t in danger.  They are.  The point is that maybe you should worry a little less about bleaching everything your kids touch and a little more about paying attention to your actual kids.

That’s really it.

2 Thoughts

  1. Thank you for this. As a father of three children under 8 who is regularly trying to keep my wife from freaking out about infinitesimally small risks, thank you.
    Dirt's not going to hurt anybody, especially on the carpet. There's no good reason the boy has to be driven the 1/4 mile to school, along with a hundred other kids in separate cars. Vaccination is simply one of mankind's greatest achievements. The car does not move until everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, is buckled in, because while I am very good driver (definitely), other people are distracted idiots. And installing car seats is not rocket surgery – read the damn instructions. Failing that, call or stop by any police, sheriff, or fire station – they'll help you out.
    Don't make your kids afraid of the world. Teach them to be smart about the world. And love them as much as you possibly can.

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