A Couple of Thoughts on Parental Fear (and Tempering It)

To Anyone New Just Joining Us Here: Hello! Welcome! Glad you’re here! The Free-Range Movement is dedicated to the idea that our kids are safer and smarter than our society tells us they are, so we don’t have to worry quite as much as we do. That’s why I’m often asked:

Haven’t ynztznshty
parents always worried about their kids?

Of course they have! I’m one of the worriers! Parents have always worried, because our job is to try to get our children all the way to adulthood, safe, reasonably happy, and ready for the real world. There are giant potholes brimming with worry on that road.

But what has really changed over the past generation or so is the new idea that our kids are in CONSTANT danger, from almost everything and everyone. Nowadays, many of us believe we can never take our eyes off our kids, because supposedly they can’t do anything safely or successfully on their own. And the reason we’ve come to believe this is because we have been “trained” to think about all childhood activities in terms of what terrible thing COULD happen.

No matter how unlikely.


This is what I call “worst-first thinking” – thinking up the WORST case scenario FIRST and proceeding as if it is likely to happen. It’s the reason why upstate New York pre-schools no long allow liquid soap in the bathrooms. Kids MIGHT drink it.

Sure, it’s unlikely. It’s even a WEIRD thing to worry about. But thinking about the WORST case you can dream up is now considered prudent. (It’s the same reason another pre-k got rid of pencils. Kids COULD stab each other. And the same reason an advice columnist recently told parents to hire a babysitter for their 14-year-old: Just in CASE there was an emergency, the sitter could drive her to the hospital. Really, you can dream up a disaster for almost any occasion.)

But, on a more serious note, that’s what parents are now expected to do. So if you say, for instance, “I’m going to start letting Ava wait at the bus stop by herself,” it’s likely that someone else (perhaps even a spouse) will respond, “But what about Jaycee Dugard? Wasn’t SHE on her way to the bus stop when she was abducted?”

Regaining Perspective 

That she was. Horrible story. But in the 20 or so years since that fateful day, millions upon millions of kids have gotten to and from school without any incident whatsoever. Maybe they even got some exercise. Made friends. Brought home a stray dog. Those are all stories you will never hear. Jaycee’s story was so outrageously rare WE ALL KNOW HER NAME. So to use it as a parenting  benchmark is to seriously distort the odds.

A commenter to this blog came up with a great way to get some perspective on the fact we are living in very safe times. Safer, even, than when we were kids. (Here are the stats on that. And here’s a piece about how it’s not because  kids are cooped up that they’re safer. Adults are safer now, too, and they’re not cooped up. Crime is just down.) Anyway:

To live with the fear of your child being abducted – a fear that a majority of Americans share – deal with it “the same way you deal with the fear of him falling in the bathtub, or being struck by lightning: You admit that it’s something that could possibly happen. But it’s not likely and you’re not going to have much of a life if you spend all your time trying to prevent any situation where anything like that could occur.”

Do try to make your children safe. Do not aim for a 100% risk-free life, lest you somehow actually give it to them.

And take away everything else.  – L


Kids can entertain themselves some of the time.


40 Responses to A Couple of Thoughts on Parental Fear (and Tempering It)

  1. Natalie August 5, 2013 at 6:27 am #

    Heh, kids come up with the best games when left to their own. This picture could easily be my two girls.

  2. Catherine Mustico August 5, 2013 at 8:11 am #

    Hi Lenore – what about gaining some perspective using those horrendous and rare example? When someone starts to tell me about danger by starting with “Jaycee Dugard…” I usually interrupt them and say, “Elizabeth Smart..”

    Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped from her bedroom. And not because the doors to the house were unlocked either. Hot summer night and an open window…the scariest reality of it all is that there is nothing you can do to prevent it.

    So the lesson here is that 99% of all tragic stories are the result of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. It wasn’t negligence in vigilience.

  3. Uly August 5, 2013 at 8:31 am #

    I never hear about Jaycee Duggard. People inevitably say “Don’t you remember Adam Walsh!??”

    Well, no, I tell them, I don’t. He was dead before I was even born. If you want to convince me to be scared of everything, you should really pick an event that happened within my lifetime. (I could help them out with that, as I can think of several child abductions and disappearances and murders that a. have happened with my lifetime and b. were not committed by the parents, but I don’t think I should have to help them formulate their own arguments. Besides, I know I only remember these cases precisely BECAUSE they are striking and unusual.)

  4. lollipoplover August 5, 2013 at 9:13 am #

    “Haven’t parents always been worried about their kids?”

    Yes, but for different reasons and extremes. I think it’s the constant pounding of safety information on parents and the belief that this information can prevent ALL accidents. Human error cannot be erased! The new belief that if a parent is forever supervising their child, abductions would never happen doesn’t account for custody disputes and runaways.

    Every activity we choose involves risk. But we don’t need to go overboard with misplaced anxiety on a constant basis. This weekend, I was told if I wanted to coach soccer this fall, I need to take a mandatory concussion awareness class. There were also pamphets given out about a sports expo:


    “A lot of parents don’t know what they don’t know”

    And safety *experts* don’t know much about parenting either.

  5. Warren August 5, 2013 at 10:14 am #

    There is a severe lack of experienced coaches in many sports, due to the over active imaginations of parents. Like the concussion awareness class, the coaching techniques dictated, the mandatory proctective gear, background checks, and so on, are driving good coaches out.
    They are being replaced by parents that have no real experience in the sport, but have taken the courses, spent the money, so they can put coaching down on their resume.

    The fear so many have for their kids is irrational, no different than the fear of spiders, fear of the dark, fear of heights. These fears can be overcome with the help of therapy. Why is it, just because it is a fear of abduction, that it is not considered a phobia, or irrational fear?

  6. Natalie August 5, 2013 at 11:45 am #

    I heard that there have been a lot of concussions recently (don’t ask me to define “a lot” because I don’t know what that means statistically), among young kids playing tackle football in Texas in leagues. And neither coaches nor parents were recognizing the signs, and kept pushing them.
    So now you have concussion awareness. Because soccer players get tackled ALL the time. We do the same thing in tennis. Did the other player call the ball out? Tackle her. See? Potential concussions everywhere. I bet you thought golf was a non-contact sport eh? Think again.

  7. Caleb August 5, 2013 at 11:52 am #

    Kids do make mistakes. That is how we learn. Most of the mistakes kids make, the scratched knees and bruised shins, are actually beneficial and lead to better balance and coordination. However some parents are over protective to a degree where they stunt growth.

    We see this all through society. In terms of hunters and deer, it is known as the “Bambi syndrome,” where people’s desire to be loving to cute baby deer and soft-eyed older deer results in over-protective laws, over-populations of deer, and deer starving to death. This proves that it is not only children who make mistakes. Adults make mistakes too, and need to learn from their mistakes.

    I humorously (I hope) describe adults learning from their mistakes, concerning deer, in this essay spoofing both those who hunt and those who dislike hunters.


  8. Natalie August 5, 2013 at 12:07 pm #

    @ Caleb
    I thought that it was common to hunt deer to cut down on overpopulation. Also, that guy’s tale of roping a deer was hilarious. I hope he’s recovered!

  9. Mason August 5, 2013 at 12:26 pm #

    I don’t think I’ve posted this here before, but I find that a good way to make a reasonable evaluation of any risk is to only look at things that have happened to people you personally know in your day to day life, rather than news reports or people who have become famous due to something happening to them. If it hasn’t happened to somebody you personally know at some point, then it isn’t worth worrying about.

    This goes into how the news media has a tremendous power to make things that are fantastically rare seem common. In a nation of 300 million people, all sorts of things that are extremely rare for any individual happen to somebody routinely. If the news media picks any category of rare events and broadcasts it to the world any time it happens, then it now seems common to everybody. It’s a lousy deal for us – they get ratings and ad dollars, we get needless worries and silly safety products. Ignore them, and focus on what happens to people you know in your community.

  10. Caleb August 5, 2013 at 12:29 pm #

    Try walking about the wealthy suburbs of Boston with a deer rifle. I don’t think it will go over too well.

    Besides problems with deer, there are problems with beaver in the suburbs, now:


  11. Natalie August 5, 2013 at 1:04 pm #

    I live in the area, we see wild turkeys a lot. One in our backyard. We all poked our heads out the window to watch. My husband’s first comment was, “that’ll taste good on the grill.”

  12. Donna August 5, 2013 at 2:05 pm #

    I don’t really think the fear of abductions has anything to do with the fear of abductions as much as it does the blame game. Abductions is just something we think about because it is shoved in our face all the time, but it is really just a symptom of the problem. We simply live in a society that views childhood death as 100% unacceptable and a dead child as a failure in parenting.

    I just read an article about a toddler who died after drinking a bottle of baby oil (who knew?). Half the comments afterwards are attacking the parents. “Where was the mother?” “You never take your eyes of your children.” “Don’t have more children than you can take care of (because the family was hispanic, of course).” A few were calling for the parents to be charged and put in prison.

    Society has simply lost any grip on reality in this area. It seems to have lost a healthy chunk of it’s compassion too.

  13. JJ August 5, 2013 at 2:43 pm #

    @Natalie, concussions in youth/hs soccer are very common. And lacrosse, not football has the most Track has the least. Yes I am a font of concussion knowledge. You are welcome.

    I do worry about concussions and traumatic brain injury. I won’t get into my personal anecdotes but I’ve seen plenty in my family/friends and some with tragic consequences some immediate and some long-term. Ask any high school football player how many concussions he’s had–he will probably say “how many they (coach/parents) knew about, or how many I had?” Most have had at least one a year and probably more. In the past most youth and many high school concussions were going unrecognized and untreated. Doesn’t mean I don’t let my kids do sports (god knows–we are a heavy sports family) but I feel way better knowing the coaches know how to recognize them.

  14. Papilio August 5, 2013 at 2:48 pm #

    @Donna: A whole bottle? It tastes *that* good??

  15. Natalie August 5, 2013 at 2:50 pm #

    Wow, okay JJ.
    I’ll take back everything I said.
    But I can still be snarky about tennis and golf concussions, right?

  16. JJ August 5, 2013 at 2:54 pm #

    Natalie, of course! Beleive me, I heart snarkiness.

  17. K August 5, 2013 at 6:14 pm #

    When I was a freshman in high school, a classmate and my best friend from 5th grade was murdered on her way to school. Advances in DNA testing eventually identified her killer, who was already in jail for murder, and also implicated him in two other unsolved murders from the 1980s.

    So I get it. I get it, why despite the stats, people are afraid. Because if it IS your child who is that statistic, your life is forever altered.

    After that child in NYC was killed and dismembered, I lost sleep over that one. Partly because he must have suffered horribly, but also because his parents will live with guilt for the rest of their lives, even though they don’t deserve to.

    This is why I put myself in a self imposed news blackout from time to time. If you follow the media too closely, you’ll end up convinced that you can’t walk down the street or do anything at all without being harmed. I know better, but the media coverage can be hard to put out of your mind.

  18. BronxGirl August 5, 2013 at 10:12 pm #

    I have to share — in Costco yesterday, in a suburb close to NYC. We were on the return line. My 5 year old daughter was thirsty and I let her go to the water machine just beyond the register to buy a water (a treat in and of itself because I HATE buying bottled water!). The employee at the register AND the person ahead of me in line both did the eyebrow-raising thing at me. I asked, What, you think it wasn’t a good idea? And they both said, you never know, she could get snatched. Y’know, kidnapped. I calmly answered: there’s only one way out of the store and it’s RIGHT HERE, where we’re standing. They shrugged and said, you never know. UNBELIEVABLE! I didn’t pick a fight with them, just remarked, I want to teach her to be confident and street-smart in public places.

    It’s pressure like this that makes people insecure. I didn’t want to lecture but should I have said more?

  19. hineata August 5, 2013 at 11:05 pm #

    @Lollipoplover – Wow! Thanks for sharing the link. Fascinating, in a sick sort of a way. For my kids’ sports, the qualification for being a coach consists of saying they’re willing and available to do it.

    I do wonder, seriously, how many of the sports you play in the States would lead regularly to concussion? The gridiron players seem to wear that much protective gear it must be a mission just to move out of the changing rooms. I guess you could get donked on the head with a baseball or a hockey ball. Or get kneed in soccer. Or fall of a horse playing polo. Or get a tennis racket in the head….

    Okay, forget I asked :-). However, I still think classes on concussion are a little over the top. In my experience here there is usually a parent or first aider watching the game who can handle that sort of thing. No need to have special classes for coaches. Or conventions either, for that matter. Guess there are advantages in being a small country :-).

  20. Warren August 6, 2013 at 8:18 am #

    Concussions are the new trend. Some high value pro players have had concussions, and now there is a big push on to save the children.

    They now treat all concussions the same, no matter how minor or serious. They now automatically assume a hit to the head caused a concussion until proved otherwise.
    Worst first at it’s finests.

  21. lollipoplover August 6, 2013 at 8:54 am #

    @Warren and Hineata- Kids get lumps and bumps all the time and sometimes concussions. I had one as a child ( after a death spin on a giant tree swing, I was so dizzy I ran into another tree) and my oldest got one falling on ice. Rest and a few days off do wonders. I don’t need to pay for concussion training to know what one looks like- and they occur in sports just like they can occur in everyday childhood (and adults too!) Have them checked by a medical professional if you have symptoms-how is this hard? What’s next- a breathing workshop? Blisters?

    @Natalie- “I bet you thought golf was a non-contact sport eh? Think again.”
    My 12 yo (and his 13 yo buddy) were told to shut down their drink/golf ball stand yesterday (which they’ve successfully run for 5 years now) because they might get hit by a golf ball (said the ranger). The boys stood their ground and moved to the sidewalk but were pestered repeatedly to leave. Ironically the day before, they worked the same stand for 2 hours making just enough to pay for two rounds of golf on this course- which they got in just before dinner.

    The sight of children playing or doing things alone anymore makes certain people extremely uncomfortable- usually ones who don’t have to watch children all day. The “anything can happen” works both ways- they *could* get hit by a golf ball (as could any pedestrian, car, or golfer)or they could earn money to go play some great golf with friends….it’s really not a hard choice for a kid or a rational adult.

  22. Natalie August 6, 2013 at 9:29 am #

    Now GOLF is dangerous? Now I’ve heard everything.

  23. JJ August 6, 2013 at 2:08 pm #

    Lolliplover, no offense because I usually agree with your comments. But you are missing the point with concussions. Sure if you see signs of a concussion you can get it checked out by a medical professional. IF. But if you have a kid who plays lots of sports there is no way you are going to be there to see your kid every time he or she is conked in the head and even if you are there at least in football you can’t always see what is going on. As for recognizing the signs? My 10-13 year olds act dopey a good bit of the time as it is. It would be hard to tell without knowing that their head bounced off a helmet earlier that day. Kids blow stuff off. Football players were notorious for going back in the game with concussions and coaches weren’t taking concussions seriously because they didn’t realize how dangerous they were and because–shocking–they wanted to win. Football pllayers from the 90’s and earlier will tell you their war stories. You can say “but they turned out ok.”. Not really. Now we know that many degenerative neurological conditions and depression are linked to concussions in sports early in life. Or the more common chronic headaches that former soccer and football players get not to mention the devastating results of having a second concussion too soon. I will not let my son play football unless I know his coaches understand concussions and take them seriously. Winning the 80-pound xx league championship is not a good enough justification for my son to have chronic headaches or ALS later in life like former youth players that I know.

    Warren it is not a trend it is new research and the fact that football players are getting bigger and bigger making it an even bigger problem and bringing the matter to the forefront.

  24. Warren August 6, 2013 at 2:30 pm #

    It is the new trend. Coaches have always known about concussions, and the signs. At least any coach that has worthwhile experience.

    The coaches that do not know what they are doing, are the coaches that coach for appearance sake, and not for the kids or sports.

    And yes it becomes trendy the moment they start demanding volunteer coaches take even more time out of their lives, and more money out of their pockets, to take even more courses.

    So JJ, if you are that OCD about concussions, you best get a helmet on your kid full time. More concussions occur in the home and on the street than they do on a football field.

    I am all for taking reasonable steps to prevent injury, the key word is reasonable. And let’s face it, with concussions symptoms can present immediately or hours or more later. So JJ, what do you want, everytime the football players go head on, they are automatically pulled for safety sake?

    The big blitz on concussions is the new trend in sports. If it hadn’t been for a few high profile players being injured, it would have been business as usual and JJ that is a fact.

  25. JJ August 6, 2013 at 2:41 pm #

    It is too bad Warren isn’t it when nuisances such as evidence and research get in the way of uniformed opinions and the need to be right all the time.

  26. JJ August 6, 2013 at 3:29 pm #

    PS Warren, wanting my son’s coach to understand concussions makes me OCD but you also say any good coach knows about concussions. Huh? So what is your point again? Besides the fact that neurological research has nothing to do with anything?

  27. Warren August 6, 2013 at 3:47 pm #

    The point JJ is good coaches do not need concussion training. But you are insisting on it. That is what makes you OCD, overthetop paranoid, and a pain in the rear to coach.

    What research? It does not take millions of dollars, lab techs, killing animals, and a bunch of doctors to know that repeated blows to the head may have immediate, or long term effects.

    Athletes and their governing bodies have known about, and dealt with concussions, and their long term effects for decades. The only things that have changed is now is the athlete is no longer in control of when he or she is ready to play again. That authority lies with the doctors, and insurance companies.

    Look into it JJ………..how long has the term PUNCH DRUNK been around.

    JJ been in and around sports long enough to see the trends come and go.

  28. JJ August 6, 2013 at 4:19 pm #

    Easy Warren. Take a deep breath. I never said anything about coaches needing training or “insisting in training”. I said I want them to understand concussions and take them seriously (basically the same as you). Why are you inventing conflict? Slow day?

    Also as for me being a pain in the ass to coaches my son has played tackle football for 8 years and I have never ever spoken to any of the coaches beyond a “hi” to a coach every year or two. They wouldnt even know my name and probably wouldn’t even recognize me. Not that it’s any of your business.

  29. lollipoplover August 6, 2013 at 4:20 pm #

    @JJ- I just want to clarify that I am a VOLUNTEER coach, not a medical professional. Of course if a kid took a spill or banged their head it would be mentioned to the parents-that’s a no-brainer. I have a healthy respect for head injuries and know they are best treated by a medical professional, not a volunteer coach. Not all head injuries are concussions though.

    To volunteer to coach (after the 5 e-mails begging me because *shockingly* there are not enough coaches for the season), I have to get a background check (and pay for it) to prove I’m not a sexual predator, complete 4 coaching worshops, and now a concussion workshop (and pay for that). All to coach 7 yo girls! I am not getting paid for this and just want my daughter to have fun playing a sport she loves. I cannot believe how complicated we made this to coach and volunteer. THAT is the outrage- not that concussions shouldn’t be taken seriously.

  30. JJ August 6, 2013 at 4:29 pm #

    @lollipoplover, I hear ya. I think the courses are crazy too for volunteers who are just coaching a few hours a week for a season. My kids sports clubs have mostly all been coached by “lifers”–non-paid coaches who have dedicated decades of their life to youth sports (or for puposes of recruting to their high school program). They don’t take parent volunteers. So this has never come up for us. I get to sit back and relax.

  31. JJ August 6, 2013 at 4:31 pm #

    Ps lollipoplover I think you live in suburban Philadelphia? Move to the city and a lot of your problems like that will go away. (Though you’ll have others).

  32. Natalie August 6, 2013 at 4:42 pm #

    What a mess. I coach soccer, simply because they needed volunteers. I don’t think I would bother if I had to jump through those hoops.

  33. Natalie August 6, 2013 at 4:56 pm #

    You mean you’re not one of those parents that yells at the coach, their kid, the teammates, the referee, and the opposing players? Could have fooled me, being all civil and all when you disagree.
    Seriously though, I played tennis back in highschool and some parents were more competitive than their kids. This one girl’s father insisted that he could call the balls better than me (through the fence, at an angle, off to the side, and up high) and kept complaining. Loudly. Until my match got two line judges. One from my team, one from the opposing team, to stand at the net poles. My coach said in his 25 yrs of coaching tennis he’d never had to do anything like that before.
    The girl I played kept questioning my calls. The line judges kept agreeing with me. And every time, I could hear this girl’s father complaining.

  34. JJ August 6, 2013 at 5:38 pm #

    Natalie, wait for Jeff Garlin’s new movie Dealin With Idiots. It is about crazy youth sports parents. Can’t wait.

    Personally I keep to myself at most kids sports stuff. Sunglasses, headphones, a seat away from bleachers, no team short. There is a lot of jealousy among some parents especially when it comes to pitching and QB’ing and I don’t want to hear it. Also I have witnessed fights sometimes physical between parents of teammates, parents of opposing teams and–wait for it–between players of one team and parents from another. Classy! Track is the exception I guess because you compete as individuals and when there are selections it’s based on the best time.

  35. toconnor August 6, 2013 at 6:05 pm #

    A great line from Kahil Gibran’s “The Prophet” :
    “What is fear of need, but need itself?”
    It’s so much the same for scared parents. Living in fear of the worst leads to living your Iife as if the worst is imminent, or has already happened. So much life lost, either way!

  36. Puzzled August 6, 2013 at 8:10 pm #

    I have nothing to say on concussions, but I do have comments about the idea of parents being pains in the asses to coaches – any coach who is annoyed by parents who have questions or concerns outside of ultra-competitive insistence on their kid having more playing time (I give everyone on the team equal playing time, but I respect other coaches doing it differently) has no sympathy from me. As coaches, we work for the kids and their parents. It’s the same as when I teach – if a parent wants to exchange long emails every week, that’s great; if they want to talk at parent teacher conferences beyond the time allocated, I’ll come back in the afternoon; if they’re visiting town, I usually reach out to them to ask if they want to meet. My approach to coaching (tennis) is the same. I owe them whatever they need from me, to feel comfortable with the game and my coaching.

  37. pentamom August 7, 2013 at 12:14 am #

    “Athletes and their governing bodies have known about, and dealt with concussions, and their long term effects for decades.”

    And only now are we beginning to learn that retired professional football players are subject to early-onset dementia at an alarmingly disproportionate rate, despite the belief that they had “healed” from their various concussion events. So maybe, previous generations of coaches and governing bodies didn’t actually know everything there was to know.

  38. Natalie August 7, 2013 at 5:49 am #

    It looks good. And Nia Vardalos! Where has she been all these years? I haven’t seen her since My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

  39. Natalie August 7, 2013 at 9:07 am #

    You coach tennis? That’s great.
    Our tennis coach was really rough on us. But one of those coaches that, in the process, taught us more than tennis, cliched as that sounds. He brought out the best in all of us. He didn’t take any crap from any of our parents.

  40. Warren August 8, 2013 at 9:22 pm #

    The effects are not new news. In the past, for the most part an athletes return to play after a concussion was left up to the athlete. And they always lied and came back sooner than they should.

    Now the doctors are making the return date, and a player cannot play untill the doc says so. Even with all the info out there, every player would still push the limits, and return too early. I guarantee you that pro athletes know exactly what to tell the doctors in order to get cleared asap. It is in their nature.