“If Something Happened to My Child, I Couldn’t Live with Myself” — Unpacking That Statement

Most fascinating letter of the week (boldface and headings, mine):

Dear Ms. Skenazy: I am the mother of four young children and a reader of your blog, which was introduced to me about a year ago by several unrelated people. I hope you don’t mind that I have a response to your recent post,  “The Cult of Kiddie Danger.”

I agree with your assertion that a component of your alleged “crime”  in allowing your son to ride the NYC subway alone (and writing about it) was a sort of apostasy from the state religion of fear and helicopter parenting, but I think there’s something else to it.

Ultimately I think the furor about your parenting approach is that it contains an implicit suggestion (I’ll explain below) that you could live out the rest of your life if one of your children died. 

Forbidden Thoughts

In 2005, a columnist named Ayelet Waldman was similarly criticized when she wrote that her husband was more important to her than her children, because her children would eventually leave her, but (she hoped) her husband wouldn’t. Indeed, she explicitly talks about how she would survive if one or all of her children died. And she was taken to task for it publicly.

Here’s the reason for my proposed analysis: Whether we are good at math or not, we use an “expected value” calculation to decide whether to perform an activity or not. For each potential outcome, we multiply the “value” of that outcome to us (from negative infinity to positive infinity) by the probability that that outcome occurs. Then we add each of those results together. If the sum is greater than zero, we would be rational to perform that activity. If the sum is less than zero, we would be rational not to perform the activity.

A Literal Belief

When I discuss allowing my kids to go to the park alone when they’re a little older, friends and acquaintances say to me: “If something happened to my child, I couldn’t live with myself.” They mean that they literally couldn’t live. (Whether that’s true is another matter, but that’s what they mean.) They mean that the “value” to  them of a dead child is negative infinity of the units that we use to measure value. Since it’s the worst possible value, it would necessarily be the same value if all of their children died, if their children and their spouse died at the same time, or if the universe imploded. It is the worst possible outcome. Game over.

To gloss over the math a bit here, what I’m saying is this: When the only infinite part of this calculation is the value of a child’s death (and it is), that part becomes the only part that matters. It doesn’t matter how unlikely a child’s death is or how many other benefits there are of going to the park (fun, increased independence, what have you). The infinitely negative value of the death overwhelms the rest of the calculation, and no rational actor could send a child to the park because the expected value is negative and infinite.

Reframing Parental Terror

The only way for a rational actor to allow her child to play alone at the park is if the “value” of the death is terribly negative but finite. Only then can we multiply by the tiny chance of something bad happening and still come to the conclusion that it’s rational to send the child to a park alone within appropriate constraints.

What anyone who sends her kids alone to the park (or to do anything remotely risky) is saying is this: if something bad happened to one of my children, our lives would be tragically altered forever, but we would find a way to go on. We could live with ourselves.”

And I think this statement is what people find offensive and nearly criminal. They want to believe that if something happened to their children, they could not go on. And they want you to believe that, too. They find any other position offensive to the point of criminality. I think that’s the problem.

Lydia in Houston, TX

A parent's worst fear.

A parent’s worst fear.


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46 Responses to “If Something Happened to My Child, I Couldn’t Live with Myself” — Unpacking That Statement

  1. Jill November 26, 2014 at 12:17 pm #

    I don’t mean to be a downer, but something bad will happen to all of us, sooner of later. The only way to be sure your children will never suffer physical pain or emotional anguish or death is to never have children.

  2. Jill November 26, 2014 at 12:20 pm #

    I meant sooner or later. The claw of the sea puss gets us all in the end, as F. Hopkinson Smith long ago pointed out.

  3. fred schueler November 26, 2014 at 12:23 pm #

    well, there’s lots of aspects to this, and it’s an interesting argument. I think the infinite value of the child comes from lives that don’t have any higher purpose than “being” as a consumer of whatever – at least a child has the darwinian aura of fitness, so it gives the parent some point of reference. Some religious parents conceive children in order to provide more souls for salvation, which gives their parents a motive for their existence.

    I once wrote: “Since about the mid-1950’s (Daniel Janzen’s ‘Bulldozeric Era’) it has been apparent to reasonable People that excessive human population (coupled with lifestyles of debauched consumerism and the exploitive search for wealth) is the great peril of the Earth. As parents, therefore, such reasonable People have conceived the small number of children it was appropriate to bring into an over-crowded habitat only in the hope that their children, growing up in a home where the welfare of the Earth had first or high priority, could work disproportionately effectively to harmonize humanity’s tenure on this planet.”

    We’ve lost a daughter, a brother, and a father in the course of biological field work, and while the life and understanding of the world is less for their absence, life goes on. There’s some peril in everything – perhaps the children shielded from every possible peril in their youth are more prone to suicide, which is a major form of youthful mortality?

  4. Doug November 26, 2014 at 12:25 pm #

    This is a bit of a corruption of the economic concept of value (or, as we call it in economics classes, “utility”). It is a theoretical construct, but the theory assumes that nothing is infinite in value. Otherwise there is no possible way to make difficult tradeoffs. This becomes a bit clearer when very painful decisions need to be made: If a child were in extreme pain or in a permanent vegetative state, do you value his or her life so much that you would insist on keeping him or her alive indefinitely regardless of his or her quality of life? If you value your child’s life at infinity, there is no possible situation that would cause you to choose to let go. It also assumes that you would be willing to trade all of your other children to save a life of one child whose life is valued at infinity. Again, an ugly hypothetical, but what I am trying to say is that you can’t really value anything at infinity, even your own child.

    Once we get beyond that, it is important to consider not only the benefits of allowing our kids to go to the park, but also the costs of not letting them go to the park. Will my kids know how to cross the street without getting run over by a car? Presumably they will face that situation at some point. And if I put a high (albeit finite) value on my kids’ lives, that level of societal functionality should also enter into the equation.

  5. Kenny Felder November 26, 2014 at 12:44 pm #

    I *love* seeing someone analyze these things mathematically! But in this case I don’t think the numbers tell the story. If it were that–mothers valuing child death at “negative infinity” and then calculating “expectation values”–then we would see mothers refusing to ever allow their kids to go to school or the movies (might be a shooter), ever ride a bike (even with a helmet), etc etc. Above all they would never let their kids ride in a car for anything less than a dire emergency, because that is by far the most risky activity we allow our children. Why take such a risk just for a day at the park, or a grocery shopping trip?

    So why do parents allow such risks, while disallowing others? I don’t think the answer is in the math.

  6. Warren November 26, 2014 at 1:05 pm #

    You can dress it up with equations, values, and whatever jargon you want. In my opinion, it comes down to being narcissistic parents.

    1. They think they can control the uncontrollable. Nature.
    2. They are afraid of how people will judge them.
    3. They believe they have the right to impose their will on others.
    4. Their children are not members of the family, they are pets/accessories that can be controlled.
    5. They are not raising adults, they are molding little replicas of themselves.

    No animal born comes with a guarantee of living. That includes humans. And once we again understand that not everybody gets to live to 100+, and that we cannot save them all, things will only get worse.

    If you cannot forsee surving and being able to live after the death of a child, then you should never have had one in the first place.

    This whole thing of loving your spouse more or less than your kids is sick and needs to stop. They are two different types of love, and alwasy should be. For one thing, I do not ever go and plan a romantic weekend away for me and my kids. I do for me and my bride.

    People say it is not natural for parents to outlive their kids…………says who. It happens everyday in nature. Look at certain species that lay hundreds of eggs in hopes that a small percentage hatch, and then a small percentage does not get eaten before they mature.

  7. railmeat November 26, 2014 at 1:37 pm #

    “If you cannot foresee surviving and being able to live after the death of a child, then you should never have had one in the first place.”

    This is exactly what I was thinking while reading this post. People who truly cannot imagine how to live after a tragic event, never will. Existence does not equal a life.

  8. Donna November 26, 2014 at 1:47 pm #

    “If a child were in extreme pain or in a permanent vegetative state, do you value his or her life so much that you would insist on keeping him or her alive indefinitely regardless of his or her quality of life? If you value your child’s life at infinity, there is no possible situation that would cause you to choose to let go.”

    Some parents do actually feel that way about their children. Terri Schiavo is the most famous example of this, but certainly not the only.

  9. Jen G. November 26, 2014 at 2:00 pm #

    Interesting analysis. What about the thought of not leaving a legacy- not having you genes passed on? Passing on our genes is a biological imperative that most of us feel. Of course we could have more children, in most cases, but our higher working brains don’t seem to think of this when it actually matters. And society shuns the idea of ‘replacing’ a child with another, as we do with pets.

  10. Lara November 26, 2014 at 2:55 pm #

    So, here is a question, how many helicopter parents have obese children? That will most certainly cause health problems and and a death at a younger age. A much higher chance of problems from obesity than the boogey man grabbing a child from a park.

  11. David Kennerly November 26, 2014 at 3:06 pm #

    This assumes entirely that there are no risks to the child by staying at home but, of course, there are. Some are also very negative and include the possibility of death and then there are the issues of isolation, loneliness, being sedentary, not exercising, under stimulation, under socialization, degraded sense of independence, impoverishment of life skills. These already, and demonstrably, take a toll on children.

    So your assumption that keeping them at home avoids all risk is completely erroneous.

  12. Warren November 26, 2014 at 3:09 pm #

    Passing on your genes, is imperative? Just like I said, narcissisitic. What is it about your genes that are so special the species absolutely needs it?

    Considering the fact that there are far too many of our species on the earth, maybe a few less gene lines would be a good thing. And no Jen G. that is not directed at you. It is a general statement.

  13. anonymous mom November 26, 2014 at 3:26 pm #

    “So why do parents allow such risks, while disallowing others? I don’t think the answer is in the math.”

    I don’t think this is just about pain. It’s also about guilt, and maybe even more about reputation.

    I think it’s important that, when parents make these “I couldn’t live with myself” statements, the focus is on the “I”. This is not really, I don’t think, about the infinite value of a child. It’s about the parent. It’s about feelings of guilt that they don’t want to feel and that they especially don’t want others assigning to them.

    That’s why, I think, the same parent who would never let their child play in the front yard alone because they simply could not live with themselves if anything happened have no problem taking their child on a car ride. If they had a car crash and their child died, they would not feel guilty and, perhaps more importantly, nobody would hold them responsible. When a child dies in a car crash, people don’t say, “OMG, how could they have taken their child for a drive?” But if a child is kidnapped walking home from school, everybody starts asking why the parents would have ever allowed that and how they must be terrible, irresponsible people who don’t care about their kids. Nobody wants to put themselves into that position, no matter how unlikely.

    Of course no parent wants their child to die. However, more than that, I think what parents really don’t want–the thing that is absolutely intolerable, the thing they simply could not deal with–would be having their child die AND having people blame them for it for the rest of their lives.

  14. Elin November 26, 2014 at 3:32 pm #

    My gut reaction is this, that I would die if I didn’t protect my child well enough and she was hurt or killed from me letting her do something dangerous (or even safe but what others might see as dangerous). However, I go beyond my gut reaction. I want my child to be able to take care of herself and assess risks so I fight that urge and let her have some freedom and experience things.

  15. Donald November 26, 2014 at 3:59 pm #

    “So why do parents allow such risks, while disallowing others? I don’t think the answer is in the math.”

    I don’t either. It’s completely irrational. That’s why I love it! It does a great job of showing the logic in worst first thinking.

  16. lollipoplover November 26, 2014 at 4:16 pm #

    “If something happened to my child, I couldn’t live with myself.”

    If nothing happened to my child, I couldn’t live with myself.

    A proper childhood, one with lots of play, friends, and life is what good parents want their kids to experience for their overall physical and mental health. This cannot be accomplished on an ipad.

    I did not receive a superhero cape when I gave birth to my children. All of the bad things that happened to my kids…I was right there. I couldn’t stop the accidents or falls. Now they have cool scars and good stories to write about in school. I think parents who think they are in control of their children and somehow can stop anything bad from ever happening are in need of some mental health services. We are raising a generation of anxiety-prone youth who will not have the coping strategies to deal with adversity .

  17. Jenny Islander November 26, 2014 at 4:51 pm #

    My son received an injury that required a medevac while I was, literally, five feet away. I am all feared out.

  18. Emily November 26, 2014 at 4:58 pm #

    I think part of the problem is that people live in the here and now. Child plays at the park alone, falls off the monkey bars, and breaks a bone. Visible injury, cast, cue the “Oh, what a shame” chorus, and it’s either “Don’t let your kids play unsupervised,” or “Take down the monkey bars,” usually the latter, because kids break bones while being supervised–one of them was my brother, who broke his foot during recess on his second day of grade two, when another kid pushed him off the monkey bars. Child gets abducted from school, or some extra-curricular activity, so a “sign your child in and out” policy is instituted for all participants under eighteen, or some other ridiculous age. Child takes the wrong bus home from somewhere, and gets lost, and panic ensues, and people start saying that no child should be unsupervised in public, at all, ever.

    So, supervision gets tightened up, playground equipment gets dumbed down, and everyone’s supposedly happy, because the kids are all present and accounted for, and looking a bit less banged up, as they vegetate in front of their screened babysitters. What people don’t see is the emotional crippling that’s bubbling beneath that “idyllic” surface, and since people don’t see it (at least not until later, when their helicoptered child is eighteen years old, it’s time to cut the apron strings, and Kiddo just melts down.

    P.S., The “wrong bus” scenario is actually an episode of the wonderful, free-range children’s television show “Arthur,” and of course, it has a happy ending, because Arthur uses his brain and his communication skills, and gets himself safely back home. First episode, link here:


  19. no rest for the weary November 26, 2014 at 5:06 pm #

    “If something ever happened to that kid, I couldn’t live with myself.”

    This is what my ex said when my son, then 7, walked to school alone while in my care. Insisted I never allow it again or there’d be a call to protective services.

    I tried to unpack it, and guessed that it was about safety. I explained why my version of safety included keeping the boy at the edge of what he could manage so he became a leader, and less likely to harm himself, others, or property. That coddled kids, once “of age,” go a bit wild to prove how “grown up” they are, while kids were were afforded opportunities to make independent decisions once in a while (and more and more as they mature) would keep a level head and turn away from friends who went wild with anxiety to prove themselves.

    Interestingly, ex never said anything like this about our daughter. Son is adopted, daughter is biological, so have to rule out the genes thing. I do believe ex is a bit of a misogynist, and probably wouldn’t miss daughter as much as son anyway.

    Son wants to go to boarding school next year for freshman year of high school. Ex is opposed, wants the boy close, has already attempted a guilt trip, has come up with ideas to put in the boy’s head about getting raped by evil coaches, older students, house residents, etc.

    “I couldn’t live with myself” is, in my view, a supremely selfish thing to say when limiting the activities of another human being. If the kid wants to grow, experience things, do the simple stuff of life, whether that’s walking down the street in broad daylight to school or heading to Europe after they graduate, I see it as my job as a parent to support those impulses, not shut them down.

    And certainly not to dwell inordinately on my own possible losses “if the worst happens.” What kind of life is it for anyone, to dwell on that stuff? It’s definitely a mental illness.

    Ex is a lawyer, makes a living dreaming up “worst-case scenarios.” Definitely think it’s crossed the line into madness, and at least one of our kids suffers for the ego-driven strategies that stem from trying to run interference against fate.

    Let the children LIVE.

  20. Mark November 26, 2014 at 5:41 pm #

    As no rest for the weary said: “I couldn’t live with myself” is, in my view, a supremely selfish thing to say.

    I think this is an excellent observation, relevant to the post. You’re basically saying “I would be very sad if something happened to you; you will have to suffer instead so I won’t be sad.”

  21. SOA November 26, 2014 at 5:51 pm #

    I think it goes back to how society has changed over the years. People used to have around 10 kids or so. 6 kids was considered about what we consider 2 kids now. So if one or two died from accident or disease or whatever, people were sad, but they moved on and got over it most of the time. Their other 7 kids needed them.

    Now people only have 1, 2 or 3 kids on average. So if you lose one, it is way more devastating because that is it. You are no longer a parent if your one and only child you have and are ever going to be able to have is dead. This also relates to parents waiting longer to have kids. Women used to get married at 16 and have kids from then till whenever. That is a lot of fertile years.

    Now women don’t marry to mid 20s to 40s. So way way less time to have kids. So you get less kids and then those kids are more valuable than if you had 10 to spare. I know people will say that is callous, but I really feel that is what has happened to our society at to how we view this and our actions and morals and laws reflect this.

    As an only child I felt this. I was expected to be perfect because I was the one beacon of whether my parents were doing a good job or not. There was not 5 other kids to fall back on. It was just me. I was also raised very free range when it comes to being allowed to run around alone outside from a very young age. I was walking alone to school in Kindergarten. A pretty child model blonde haired little girl. Nowadays people would jump my parents for that and go on about how dangerous that was and oh I am prime pedophile bait blah blah blah.

    So they were pretty free range, but even then I felt that pressure of “You are all we got and its all on you”.

    I think it has just slowly shifted to this over time.

  22. Emily Morris November 26, 2014 at 9:06 pm #

    “If nothing happened to my child, I couldn’t live with myself”

    What was that great line from Finding Nemo?

  23. Puzzled November 26, 2014 at 10:05 pm #

    I agree with those pointing out the selfishness here. Suppose I did place an infinite negative value on my child’s death – so what? That’s the value I place on it – and you can’t say my subjective values are wrong, just what follows from it. In this case, nothing really follows, because the child is a person too, and my subjective values don’t trump everything else. The fact that I want nothing else but them to live doesn’t entitle me to cause pain, suffering (as in the example another poster gave of a persistent vegetative state or extreme pain from a condition that will not end), or even to restrict their growth.

    Honestly, if you can’t imagine living if something happens to your child – and you only have one – make a back up plan. I won’t say a person is wrong for not wanting to live if something really unlikely happens. In the case that the really unlikely happens, don’t live with it…and once you realize you can do that, you can live your life here and now without all that fear and control and restricting. You’re in control of you – and once you realize that, you don’t need to control them so much.

    If you do have other kids, then the statement itself is profoundly egotistical and should be called out as such – the rest will still matter if something happens to one of them.

    By the way, your kids are going to die. They are. What this mindset really comes down to is “my kids should bury me.” Which, yes, is the way things are supposed to go. Sometimes, things go differently – regardless of how we act. But if you act controlling, then if the worst happens, you can feel like you did what you could to prevent it, instead of “what if.” So this is just another way that it’s all about them, not about the kid at all.

  24. Alan November 26, 2014 at 10:19 pm #

    I have to consider this in the light of how my parents raised me. When I was 10 I went on a youth hiking trip traveling by bus from California to the Grand Canyon and then hiking the Canyon for a week. On the second day I took a tumble and broke my arm. After two days of hiking we finally reached the rim, took a police car ride to local hospital and had my arm set. I then called my folks and got mom on the phone and let her know I broke my arm and and had just had it set at hospital. Her only comment was that’s nice, do you want to talk to your dad? She instantly understood that I was just fine and the real crisis of the accident and reaching aid was over. I love my parents for their true understanding of the word and what to be concerned about. If I had died instead of just breaking bones my parents would have been devastated but never would have regretted letting me go on this trip. even more remarkable by today’s standards is that I then waited until the rest of our party hiked out of the canyon and we then took the bus back home!

  25. Jenny Islander November 27, 2014 at 12:57 am #

    @Emily: Arthur, yes! The dialogue, characters, and guest stars kind of annoys me because I’m not a tween, but it’s really awesome about kids learning new skills, exercising responsibility, and living with consequences. They also sneak in some anti-commercial digs. Like the time Buffy, the rich kid in the neighborhood, goes all squirrely because she just has to have the latest character in this awesome wholesome educational doll line, and she ends up visiting the factory, where she discovers that the only difference between that doll and about a dozen others is the head.

    (My daughters are fans. I’ve seen every episode.)

  26. bsolar November 27, 2014 at 3:44 am #

    The loss of a child is not “negative infinity” in value. Were this the case, as the articl itself states, losing 1 child would be the same as losing 2, which is clearly not true.

    To make the “could’t live with myself” statement true the value doesn’t need to be infinity, it merely needs to be a number large enough to be greater than what one values his own life. Most value their life a lot, but not infinity.

    If the value is not infinity a small enough probability can make the outcome acceptable. Not to mention that these probabilities are evaluated by the parent himself, which tends to undervalue some risks (possible accidents at home) and overvalue others (possible accidents when outside of my control). In some cases they could even think a risk doesn’t exists.

  27. SOA November 27, 2014 at 8:09 am #

    Oh yeah to support my its because we have less children I present Exhibit A “The Fault in Our Stars”. Huge movie and hugely popular book. SPOILEr ALERT DONT READ FURTHER IF DONT WANT IT SPOILED

    Hubby noticed this and pointed it out-every character was an only child. The main character was an only child and was dying of cancer. Her boyfriend was also an only child and had cancer. I think even their friend that went blind was an only child.

    And there was a scene in which the girl almost died and her mother said “I won’t be a parent anymore”. Because there were not other kids to fall back on and she was probably too old at that point to have more kids. This is kinda what our society has fallen into. The whole time the main character is obsessed over what will happen to her family after she is gone because she knows that she is all they have and their lives revolve around her. But it does have a happy ending and she finds out her mother is going to be a social worker and help other families.

  28. Vicki Bradley November 27, 2014 at 8:58 am #

    The quote from FInding Nemo is so apt:

    Marlin: I promised I’d never let anything happen to him.
    Dory: That’s a funny thing to promise.
    Marlin: What?
    Dory: Well, you can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him. Not much fun for little Harpo.

    Now there’s a free-range quote if I ever heard one!

  29. Donna November 27, 2014 at 9:52 am #

    I think the number of children has less to do with it than other things. Yes, in prior generations, SOME families were large, but many families were no bigger than they are today. Going back many generations, one side of my family (the catholics) had huge families; the other side maxes out at 4 kids. In reality, farming families and catholics had large families, but the city dwellers tended to have much smaller families.

    I think a big issue is that so few kids die today. Back in the days when more children died, people experienced childhood death their entire lives. It wasn’t just some poor tragic person several states away. It was their own siblings, cousins and classmates. They had personal experience in, both handling their own grief, and watching families they knew handle their children’s deaths. The idea that you don’t live after a child died never entered their minds because they KNEW that most actually do survive the death of a child and eventually go on to live normal lives.

    Today the vast majority of us will never know a minor child who dies. Miscarriages, yes; but not the death of born children. In fact, due to extended life, many of us will not experience the death of ANYONE until adulthood. We can’t imagine life after the death of a child because people who have experienced it are not part of our everyday lives. Things which are unknown are highly feared.

  30. Donna November 27, 2014 at 10:12 am #

    I wonder if this general view that a child’s death is so much more tragic than anyone else’s death existed in previous generations. Maybe I am weird, but I get annoyed when in every news story involving multiple deaths, any children who die get so much of the emphasis and everyone else is largely a second thought. Think back to the Oklahoma City bombing. Everything was all about the daycare kids, even though they only made up 19 of the 168 people killed. It seems ridiculous. (I feel the same way about the heavy media coverage of the police officers and fire fighters who died on 9/11 largely to the exclusion of everyone else and don’t even get me started on soldiers).

    There is certainly a point in life where death becomes less tragic. I am not going to be devastated when my now-84 year old grandmother with dementia dies. In fact, I hope it comes soon as her quality of life is low. But I don’t really think there is something magical about turning 18 that suddenly makes your death more acceptable. There are A LOT of years in there where death is way too soon.

  31. Carmel November 27, 2014 at 10:43 am #

    Im going to strongly concur with Warren down below. I lost my firstborn daughter in a most sudden and horrible way when she was 5. I am still here today living a full, happy and blessed life. Many of those blessings came into my life specifically because of the profound upheaval that was my tragedy. I am thankful and honoring of that each and every day. I am a better mother to my two children now than I ever would have been.

    Giving up completely from the loss of anyone, child or otherwise, I have always felt is ones inability to accept ones own “acceptance”. They fear judgment from others, they fear a labeling of “failure”, they fear what acceptance will do to them personally. So they carry the torch. Its sad and unfortunate, but not the healthy approach to grief and loss.

    You can most certainly go on, and you can do it spectacularly. I know this.

  32. Warren Pacholzuk November 27, 2014 at 11:15 am #

    People today just never let go. Annual memorials, and such only serve to ease survivors guilt. Whatever happened to rest in peace? Bury the dead, and take care of the living.

  33. Donna November 27, 2014 at 3:33 pm #

    I agree Warren. Several of my friends post maudlin speeches on Facebook about long departed relatives every couple months. It makes me want to respond “Dude if you really miss the grandmother who died 10 years ago as if it was just yesterday, you need some serious grief counseling. Actually, the fact that you even remember your grandparents’ anniversary years after they have died to be able to wish them a happy one in heaven probably says you need grief counseling.”

  34. Chuck99 November 27, 2014 at 6:34 pm #

    I think the problem most of the posters are having here are that they’re treating this like it’s a rational idea. Kenny says it can’t be a negative infinity, because (several examples). What he ignores is that this is covered by the same reason people feel safer driving than flying – if they’re with their child, they feel safer because they assume they’re in control.

    The other aspect to consider in the various examples listed is that – there are things that were every day events just generation or two ago, and now people are having the police or social services called on them (latch key kids, kids walking home by themselves, kids left at home by themselves). What’s going to change in the next two generations – what things that are common now will be ‘unacceptable risks’ in another 40 years?

  35. EB November 28, 2014 at 10:29 am #

    Death of a child by accident (or even crime) is a big, one-time, visible tragedy. Restricting a child by never letting her or him be alone, independent, responsible for reacting to puzzling situations, etc is not so visible, but just as harmful, especially when you consider that in an effort to avoid that death for the very small number of kids so affected, you harm hundreds of others by squelching them.

  36. Papilio November 28, 2014 at 11:54 am #

    “If something happened to my child [child reference 1], I [parent reference 1] couldn’t live with myself [parent reference 2]”
    There you go… even on linguistic level the parent talks more about themselves than about the child 🙂

    It also again comes down to what I said in a previous thread: that it’s about quantity (IS the child alive) rather than quality (is it a good life).

    What SOA says about only children is one of the reasons I always silently (because it sounds so cold) think you shouldn’t just have one child… 🙂 At least IF something happens, you’re still a parent, and you have to carry on for the other(s). And SOA: I notice the same thing in crime series I watch: far more often than I’d expect a murder victim, even when they’re only in their twenties, has no family at all (usually the parents died in a car crash). I’m in my twenties and have 50+ family members…

    @Donna: “due to extended life, many of us will not experience the death of ANYONE until adulthood”
    But… Life expectancy is still like 80 or so (wasn’t it 78 for the US?), but people have children later in life, so they will also be older than they used to when becoming grandparents.

  37. Donna November 28, 2014 at 12:30 pm #

    Papilio – Yes, parents are getting slightly older, however, the average age for first time parenthood is still only 25, not 40.

  38. Lydia November 28, 2014 at 1:58 pm #

    For the math folk: I’m the author of the above-referenced letter. I sent Ms. Skenazy an edit to make it clear I meant “infinity or, for all practical purposes, infinity,” but it didn’t get to her in time. Sorry for glossing over the math.

    Having said that, I truly believe they feel it’s negative infinity for those people who use that phrase.

  39. Puzzled November 29, 2014 at 12:48 am #

    This particular math folk is a set theorist and perfectly happy with actual infinities…

  40. Alex November 30, 2014 at 5:46 am #

    As someone who studied mathematics and a little bit of economics, I find this interesting.

    People unfortunately aren’t completely rational agents. Or, in cases like this, they prefer to maintain an irrational belief, and so by maintaining that you could say they still remain rational in some sense.

    Math and economics aside, most people who live through the death of their child do continue to live some life that they still find some value in. It might be that the world is incredibly worse and less satisfying than it was before, but there are still usually things they choose to live for.

    They want to avoid being in this state, but they could with it just as anyone can “live with” any other tragic event that happens to them. There’s not a magic “make everything better” option and so living with it is the only choice other than death.

  41. Warren December 1, 2014 at 3:41 pm #


    I was thinking about your example with the 16 out of 168. Not only do the kids get the media sympathy frenzy, but they are treated like all 16 lives lost, are those of would be saints, leaders and great humanitarians. When statistically speaking, out of that 16 there would be x amount of criminals, x amount of below average, x amount of average and statistically speaking of 16 kids in daycare, you might, just might see 1 exceptional individual.

  42. Heather December 1, 2014 at 5:07 pm #

    When you consider the Madeline McCann Story, you see this attitude in spades.

    The parents were initially comfortable leaving their kids to sleep while they crossed the road to a restaurant with friends. But afterwards, they couldn’t give up. Their whole life got turning into a circus designed to keep the story going and going forever. By the end, it really upset me, because they have two other children. How must those two feel, seeing how little value their parents placed on them, compared with their sister? Even if they don’t know now, they will.


  43. Susan December 2, 2014 at 10:31 am #

    My son has had an interest in race cars all his life. He follows the careers of favorite drivers and can spout race results going back to the 70s. When a driver he admired was injured in a race near us and taken to the local hospital, I took my son to visit him several times. Three years later, when my son was 15, this same driver was racing at a track about 50 miles away. I allowed my son to spend the weekend at the track, camping out in the infield. I dropped him off at the track entrance and picked him up 3 days later. He had the time of his life. He approached the driver, who recognized him and invited him to dinner in his motor home. When the driver found out my son was camping out, he told him to bring his stuff back to the motor home and sleep on his patio furniture instead. You can’t buy experiences like this.

    Too many parents say a knee-jerk no to new experiences for their children. I always tried to say yes if I could. As a result, my kids were labeled “born leaders” all through school and on into college. If children never get to experience being on their own, how can they ever get where they want to go?

  44. Katie December 2, 2014 at 10:32 am #

    This is the most brilliant analysis I’ve ever read on the subject. Lenore, get this woman on staff!

  45. JuliaZ December 2, 2014 at 11:06 pm #

    My daughter is 14 and has been riding horses in the dressage discipline for 6 years. She is an excellent rider, bold and graceful. She went to England this summer to see her grandparents as she does each year (flying alone from Seattle from age 7 on). Her grandfather always arranges a dressage outing for her, and this summer, she got to go ride at the UK’s biggest Olympic trainer’s barn in a day-long riding clinic. She called me the day after the clinic to say that she had a great time in the lessons but her horse tripped himself and fell on her. My first question: “Did you hurt the horse?” She laughed and laughed, said she was glad I loved her, and yes, she AND the horse were both OK because she reacted quickly as she felt him falling and she managed to get out from under him except for her knee, and he didn’t land hard on that part of her. After we stopped laughing, Joanne said, more hesitantly, “are you going to make me stop riding?” And I said, “of course not.. you’re a great rider, and horses and people both fall sometimes. It doesn’t sound like you got hurt badly, so it’s not a big deal.” I am a free-range parent through and through, and my daughter is a smart, capable young woman. I knew that she was fine because she was talking to me from Grandpa’s kitchen, there’d been no middle of the night phone call, and she was laughing. Why freak out? It was long over by the time we talked.

    Would I be crushed if she died? Of course I would! I can imagine life without her, and it chokes me up and makes me a bit of an emotional mess to consider it in too much detail, but we’re both going to die eventually and if she is going to die young, I hope it happens while she’s doing something that she loves (not in a stupid death like a car crash). True love of your children to me means letting them fly and sometimes letting them fall. Just be there to help pick them up when they’re little. 🙂

  46. Caroline December 8, 2014 at 12:03 am #

    I don’t think that people’s opposition to FRP is just based on the fact that they think we’re all callous people who could survive without our kids. I think the problem behind it is that most people simply have their probabilities completely screwed up.
    Probability of death happening when:
    – at home, with a parent – 0%
    – left in the car alone for 30 seconds – 30%
    – holding Mom’s hand in Walmart – 0%
    – walking to school alone – 50%
    – being driven to daycare without being buckled into their car seat properly – 0% (because it’s just a couple of blocks)
    – riding the subway alone – 99% (OMG, it’s amazing he came home alive!)

    I’m in total agreement with parents who think that they absolutely couldn’t go on if anything happened to their kid – it really would be universe-ending magnitude for me. However, the theory that it’s that which prevents people from letting their kids go to the park doesn’t hold true. If that were the real reason, no-one would ever let their kids go anywhere or do anything, because the minute probability that they would get hit by a meteor would prevent it. The math of anti-free-range parents is screwed up because they think that their kids have only a 50/50 chance of making it to school alive if they’re allowed to walk alone.

    I’m also puzzled about the letter writer’s personal view on the subject. “They want to believe that if something happened to their children, they could not go on. And they want you to believe that, too.” It sounds like Lydia thinks that people CAN live on without their kids, and that that’s a common feeling among FRP. I COULDN’T live without my kids, but I choose to handle that terror differently than the helicopter parents.