“The Cult of Kiddie Danger” — How Fearing for Our Kids has become Our National Religion

Readers, afhraiznaz
here’s a piece I wrote for The Weekly Wonk that got picked up by Vox. My thesis: It is considered good, even holy, to imagine danger all around. The more perils you point out, the better a person you are.

The Richland, WA, school district is phasing out swings on its playgrounds. As the district’s spokesman recently told KEPR TV: “It’s just really a safety issue. Swings have been determined to be the most unsafe of all the playground equipment on a playground.”

Ah yes, those dangling doom machines. All they sow is death and despair.

But while this sounds like yet another example of how liability concerns are killing childhood (seen a see-saw anywhere in the last 20 years? A slide higher than your neck?), it’s deeper than that. Insurance underwriters are merely the high priests of what has become our new American religion: the Cult of Kiddie Danger. It is founded on the unshakable belief that our kids are in constant danger from everyone and everything.

The devout pray like this: “Oh Lord, show me the way my child is in deathly danger from __________, that I may cast it out.” And then they fill in the blank with anything we might have hitherto considered allowing our children to eat, watch, visit, touch, or do, e.g., “Sleep over at a friend’s,” “Microwave the macaroni in a plastic dish,” or even, “Play outside, unsupervised.”

This explains everything from cops arresting parents for letting their kids wait in the car a few minutes, to TV specials on the “dangers” of posting a picture of your kid. Over and over nearly non-existent threats are treated like invitations to doom. I used to think it was just one-upsmanship, this crying of “Danger!” But now I really believe there’s a mystical element. It’s either that we secretly believe the more we worry , the safer we’ll be. (Worry is our way of appeasing the Gods.) OR it’s that we feel our job is to be all-seeing, omniscient beings when it comes to our kids. In other words, our job is to BE God, which means trying to predict and prepare for every eventuality. 

Either way, there is some subtext of religion, which is one reason it’s so hard to convince anyone that our kids can be outside unsupervised: People feel we are trying to “convert” them. (We are…to rationality.) – L


Satan's idea of fun?

Satan’s idea of fun?


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35 Responses to “The Cult of Kiddie Danger” — How Fearing for Our Kids has become Our National Religion

  1. Doug November 24, 2014 at 3:08 pm #

    I’m proud of my church. Sure, we need to have stickers with our kids’ names on them (not that anyone ever checks to make sure we’re the right parents or not – the kids yelling “Daddy!” seem to sort that out for themselves), but they installed a gigantic playground tree-slide-ladder thing. The first level is about 5 feet off the ground, accessible by stairs or metal ladders, and the second level is 10 feet off the ground, accessible only via ladder.

    Now, the floor surrounding the playset is some sort of dense foam so if someone does fall the injury will be minor (I want this in the kitchen when I’m cooking! So comfy!), but I look at this thing, with kids climbing up a 10 foot metal ladder, and I’m happy.

    I even get to sit for a few minutes and relax. “Where’s Patrick?” I get asked. “Eh, somewhere over there.”

  2. Donald November 24, 2014 at 3:52 pm #

    Sung to the tune of the hymn
    Amazing Grace

    the safety board that keeps us safe
    and keeps me breathing life
    its selfless act to keep us safe
    is worthy of our praise

    T’was OSHA that taught my heart to fear.
    I tremble without their grace
    They scrutinize all walks of life
    so danger cannot hide

    insurance rates increase with risk
    no hazard can be too small
    seek out and destroy potential peril
    no matter how minuscule

    Through many dangers, toils and snares
    tis luck I’m still alive
    how grateful I am that they exist
    or else we can’t survive

  3. BL November 24, 2014 at 5:24 pm #

    “Swings have been determined to be the most unsafe of all the playground equipment on a playground.”

    Well, gee. What does that prove? Barring the unlikely possibilities of absolute safety or absolute equality of unsafetiness, *something” has to be the least safe piece of playground equipment.

    So swings are now banned, and something else (teeter-totters?) is now the most unsafe. Ban that and something else will be. Until all is banned.

    I think banning should be banned.

  4. SOA November 24, 2014 at 6:06 pm #

    Typically by school age most kids (barring special needs) know not to run in front of swings. They are typically only dangerous to little kids that have not learned that lesson yet.

    Or do they mean being hurt but like jumping off too high from them? In that case, just tell kids no jumping out from high heights and leave it be.

    Our school still has lots of swings as do all of our local playgrounds.

  5. Stacey November 24, 2014 at 6:54 pm #

    On my son’s elementary school playground, it was the goofy new-fangled climbing structure that was the most unsafe. Multiple kids every year broke their arms and legs on it, but the swings never had an injury occur on them that I was aware of. A standard metal climber would have been safer than this odd climber with spinning disks to walk on while holding onto metal bars over your head. It was something that looked good on paper but not in real life. The school ignored requests to remove it though. Interesting how some districts over react and others not… I wonder if there is a regional difference?

  6. CrazyCatLady November 24, 2014 at 7:26 pm #

    This is my school district. My particular kids go to a hybrid k-12 public school/homeschool program. Our school is making money for the district and is currently housed in a church next to two public school programs. But, we are outgrowing our space and the district has agreed that we need a new building. Currently we share playground with the elementary next door – only if they are not on the playground themselves. (Can’t mix the kids!)

    The elementary school has/had some swings dating from the boom era of the 1950s. Big old, and go REALLY high. The elementary kids love them. The homeschool kids, love them, the high schoolers the most. Our program has a bunch of kids who couldn’t make it in regular school because of their special needs…some of them movement. Those swings are a wonderful thing for the school. Even for the special needs classes in the elementary school…when they bring those kids out…the kids only go to the swings. Never the climbing toys.

    Our school is growing, and we will be getting new space, which is wonderful. And, we will get a playground. I was on the planning meeting, and was floored when I heard that they were fazing out swings (before the news release.) They gave us 4 different designs to choose from….and they all suck. They are too babyish. My kids were all very disappointed. The lack of swings, used by all ages, will be the most missed.

    But…we hope to have better stuff when we get there. Teachers and parents are plotting to have tubs and a pile of stuff that the kids can play with. Things like…oh, boards, electric wire rolls, cinder blocks….stuff. Stuff that is not nailed or put in place on a permanent basis. Things that the kids can make a see saw if they want…or an outline for a house…make a shaded tent…or whatever. We have hopes that we can do it for a while, anyhow. Worse comes to worse, we can walk a half block to a park with swings. Tiny, low, not so much fun swings. But still swings. Because at least the city hasn’t totally decided to get rid of swings yet.

  7. Andre L. November 25, 2014 at 5:37 am #

    While I agree with many of the observations made on this blog, I think this nonchalant attitude of preemptively dismissing any concern because “in the past it was done and most people survived” is overbearing and incompatible with honest scientific risk-assessment.

    I’m all for having active playgrounds, and for letting young kids have some unstructured play time. This is a positive outcome to long for. Yet, I don’t think this is antithetical to making playground fixtures safer, and maybe redesigning and removing some that are particularly dangerous. If not for reasonable product safety concerns, we’d still have angled metal sliders, the type that often caused open wounds and scars. Same goes for old iron door design that amputated many a child’s finger.

  8. MichaelF November 25, 2014 at 8:09 am #

    Sadly the overreaction and removal of playground equipment done in a way that is “overbearing and incompatible with honest scientific risk-assessment” seems to happen more often than the hand waving here. In general most School Administrators or Town Planners have no real reason why certain equipment is phased out, other than for potential lawsuits. Complain if you must about the old fuddy duddy’s, like me, who say if it was good enough for me its good enough for my kid but don’t think we are the only ones not practicing good risk aversion.

  9. Crystal November 25, 2014 at 8:37 am #

    I think you’re on to something, Lenore. Humans are designed by nature to worship SOMETHING, and if not a “normal” God, then protecting your kid will fill the bill. Temporarily, anyways.

  10. Jill November 25, 2014 at 8:40 am #

    I have special childhood memories of getting my fingers pinched in swing chains at the playground. As dangerous devices go, though, swings couldn’t hold a candle to seesaws. The idea was to lure your victim onto the seesaw, and once they’re up in the air, keep them there, laughing cruelly while they beg to be let down. After they’ve cried and screamed for awhile, the sadist seated comfortably on the ground would quickly jump off, sending their victim plummeting to earth.
    Once she recovered, the victim would go in search of another child and do the same thing to her.
    That’s the way kids used to play in the olden days. It was great. No adults intervened. It was survival of the fittest, and it taught us a lot about life.

  11. serena November 25, 2014 at 9:31 am #

    If they get rid of the swings because they’re the most dangerous, then in a few years won’t they be getting rid of the next most dangerous thing? Then the next most? And so on?

  12. lollipoplover November 25, 2014 at 9:45 am #

    “Yet, I don’t think this is antithetical to making playground fixtures safer, and maybe redesigning and removing some that are particularly dangerous.”

    But they aren’t any safer. You just transfer the risk to something else. New equipment is not accident-proof. Kids are remarkably good at injuring themselves on almost anything. Cars have been redesigned *for safety* every year yet there are still car accidents every day.

    My son got a concussion at school when he collided with another student running on the blacktop. It was winter and the recess aides told the kids they were not allowed to play on the snow-covered grass that makes up 3/4 of the recess yard. “It’s slippery” and “You’ll get wet and your parents will yell at us” were the reasons given. So they had 200 kids running in circles on a postage stamp space which is more dangerous than wet snow. See how the risk just transfers, it never goes away?

    Does anyone ever ask the kids for THEIR input on what they like to play on? We should be designing playgrounds and parks geared towards children around the number one risk to children in our country: Obesity. In my state, 1 in 4 children has it. Please make playgrounds attractive to kids to help fight this deadly, pervasive risk to our youth. A state-of-the-art safety playground that no children play at is not the answer.

  13. Stacy November 25, 2014 at 11:40 am #

    My daughter actually fell off a swing and broke her elbow in kindergarten. This doesn’t prove that swings are dangerous, but rather that freak accidents can happen and breaking a bone is not the end of the world but rather a story to remember for the rest of your life, especially the part when the doctor called her braver than most adults. I’m proud that she still flies high on the swings and jumps off when the recess teacher isn’t looking.

    Freak accidents tell us that, while we can use common sense measures like soft surfaces under climbing gyms, we can’t get rid of every danger. My school playground had a high metal slide, teeter-totters, and many different metal climbing structures. The only real injury I ever had was from being pushed off a low structure and hitting my head. Twenty years later, everything was gone for safety reasons except that low structure. We can’t protect our kids from every danger, but people do seem to have the feeling that if we just follow certain rules and remove certain dangers, we can make them be safe. One major example — If we can just follow the always changing carseat rules we won’t have a fatal crash, so parents who have forward-facing toddlers must be terrible parents.

  14. Kacey November 25, 2014 at 12:15 pm #

    The thing that bothers me about banning the swings is that the reasoning is self-perpetuating. Swings are being taken out because they have been found to be the most hazardous piece of equipment. Great, well, now that they are out, the equipment that was the 2nd most hazardous is now hazard #1. How long before that is taken out because it is the most hazardous? Then, how long before the equipment that was down at #3 most hazardous is taken out because #1 and #2 have been done away with? It won’t end until all the playground equipment is gone.

  15. BL November 25, 2014 at 12:27 pm #

    “I think this nonchalant attitude of preemptively dismissing any concern because “in the past it was done and most people survived””

    But when our own childhoods involved playgrounds that would be considered death traps by 21st century standards, and we can’t remember anything worse than a boo-boo, we start to doubt those 21st century standards. At least, we know there’s something else going on – if kids are really getting hurt on these things, maybe the widespread prescribing of psychiatric drugs is destroying their co-ordination or judgement?

  16. Shana November 25, 2014 at 12:30 pm #

    What I resent most about the hyperbole is that I’m sure there are SOME reasonable advances in safety, each generation. My mother grew up without car seat belts; I survived lawn darts and raw brownie batter with tons of eggs…all of this insanity makes it horrifically hard to sort through and find reasonable ways to make your kids a little safer than your own childhood was.

    I’m proud to have switched my 3 year old into a daycare that has swings (and some big old climbers and mud puddles) – and equally proud that I took a deep breath and smiled and told him to go try them out. They’re scary! He totally fell. And then he learned to hold on. And then he fell again, headfirst when he was learning to swing “like superman” on his stomach. And he learned not to walk in front of them. And he learned not to swing sideways when someone else was next to him. And he LOVES swinging. I’m still choking back my fear of seeing him on them, and it’s worth every lesson I’m learning.

  17. Elizabeth November 25, 2014 at 1:08 pm #

    So true, Lenore!

    If you were to tell these “concerned” people that “such-and-such a tribal culture never lets their children outdoors for fear of evil spirits stealing them,” they would howl in outrage.

    Yet we don’t let our kids outside for fear of “predators”, or to participate in traditional childhood activities like Trick-or-Treat because “you never know what terrible danger is waiting in the neighbour’s house.”

    Who is really more superstitious and irrational?

  18. Donna November 25, 2014 at 1:18 pm #

    “all of this insanity makes it horrifically hard to sort through and find reasonable ways to make your kids a little safer than your own childhood was.”

    Why would making my kid a little safer than my own childhood even be a goal of mine? I’m interested in things that make a child A LOT safer, like seatbelts and carseats. But a little safer? Nah.

    And eating copious amounts of cookie, brownie and cake batter is the ONLY reason to bake in my opinion. In fact, there is store bought cookie dough in the refrigerator that we MIGHT actually make a couple cookies from, but maybe not.

  19. Emily November 25, 2014 at 1:57 pm #

    @Jill–What you described is precisely why I refused to play on the teeter-totter for several years of my childhood. Swings, slides, monkey bars, merry-go-rounds, and even the Twirlybird (Maypole-like apparatus with a chain and handle that hung down from a wheel on the top of the pole, and you’d grab the handle, run, lift your feet, and “fly” for a few seconds) were fine, but I hated the teeter-totter, because it required me to trust another kid to not keep me suspended in the air, and/or slam me back down to the ground. Of course, I never thought they should be eliminated altogether. One work-around I’ve seen is burying tires halfway into the ground, right under the seats, so being cherry-bombed doesn’t hurt.

  20. Brenna November 25, 2014 at 2:08 pm #

    What gets me so much is the fact that none of these safety experts talks about the REAL damage we are doing to children by removing play. Children need to play. They need to take risks. Their brains do not properly develop if they are not exposed to risk as they get older. They need to play freely, without adult interference. They need to roughhouse. We are depriving them of valuable skills and emotional intelligence, but somehow it’s all okay, because we kept them “safe”. NO, no it’s not okay! If my daughter doesn’t have any scars on her knees or never had a broken bone, but doesn’t know how to assess risk, get along with her peers, or manage her own emotions, I was NOT successful as her mother.

    And the idea that we can prevent every freak accident is ludicrous. The worse injury my son ever had happened when he was SITTING IN MY LAP. And my daughter’s happened when I was holding her hand. Sh*t happens. Always has, always will. I’d rather my kids learn this, and how to cope, than wrap them in an imaginary bubble that will, someday, burst.

  21. Papilio November 25, 2014 at 2:26 pm #

    @Andre: “I think this nonchalant attitude of preemptively dismissing any concern because “in the past it was done and most people survived” is overbearing and incompatible with honest scientific risk-assessment.”
    Sure, but the thing is that the risk-assessing folks in general tend to focus on the dangers, no matter how tiny, and don’t consider the positive effects on children – which are often (much) bigger.

    @Jill: “The idea was to lure your victim onto the seesaw, and once they’re up in the air, keep them there, laughing cruelly while they beg to be let down.”
    I seem to remember Lenore telling the same thing about her own childhood – from the victim’s POV…

  22. Papilio November 25, 2014 at 2:39 pm #

    @Emily: “One work-around I’ve seen is burying tires halfway into the ground, right under the seats, so being cherry-bombed doesn’t hurt.”
    Actually… In my experience, long time ago in primary school, those tires make it easier to launch the other kid into the air, and if you then jump up at the right moment while they fall, their end of the see-saw just comes back up at the moment their bottom lands on it and then it does kinda hurt… (For mysterious reasons Little Brother’s skinny friends never hated me for occasionally doing that to them.)

  23. SanityAnyone? November 25, 2014 at 5:46 pm #

    You really nailed it this time, Lenore. The entire attitude is cultish / religious / superstitious (not to equate those three but at their worst there are similar elements). There has also grown a large taboo around straying from “the faith” of constant peril. I guess the insurance companies and “safe product” manufacturers have an easy job now.

    We need to give our kids the tools for staying safe and as much space as we can commensurate with their maturity. Bad things and good things will happen to our kids and ourselves that are ultimately out of our control.

    I hope the nation will regain its trust in children and our communities. I hope we will rediscover reasonable risk balanced against the need for activity, exploration and socialization. I hope the legal system will stop micro-managing parenting by punishing people for newly imagined offenses and cowing the rest of us.

  24. Papilio November 25, 2014 at 6:47 pm #

    “For the chilllldren”/”Think of the children!” in the USA is always about the quantity of life, never about the quality – am I right?

  25. hineata November 25, 2014 at 6:57 pm #

    @Jill – yes, yes, yes! I hate those new seesaws for that very reason – what’s the fun in never getting stuck in the air? And how can you balance in the middle and smack alternate kids in the head if you have those silly springs stopping you? 🙂

    Nothing quite like the seesaw for good clean sadism :-).

  26. hineata November 25, 2014 at 7:02 pm #

    And could somebody please remind me that the media only reports the bad stuff? Because it seems today anyway that the biggest danger to children and young people in the US….in the playground, in the street, sitting in their parked cars listening to loud music…..is being black, and surrounded by an armed populace, including the police.

    There must be some black kids and young people somewhere in the States going to school and living safely without having to worry about some trigger-happy twit shooting them….Could we hear a bit about those kids, please.

  27. Puzzled November 25, 2014 at 8:09 pm #

    I do not agree with the comments dismissive of playground bullying. While sure, we lived through it, we shouldn’t underestimate the impact of bullying. Just because others overreact and want laws doesn’t mean we should take the attitude of “it makes you stronger.” It doesn’t, every study shows that it makes you less likely to be successful socially in the future, that bullying victims have lower average income, and that there are lifetime consequences for confidence (probably explaining the above.)

  28. bmj2k November 25, 2014 at 8:30 pm #

    Now that the swings are gone, there’s a new number one most unsafe piece of equipment. So if it is the most unsafe they have to get rid of it, leaving something else as the new most unsafe piece, so that has to go, and eventually the playground will be nothing but a big rubber mat, since real grass is far, far too dangerous- there could be a hidden rock!

  29. SOA November 25, 2014 at 9:58 pm #

    I agree Puzzled. Being bullied did not help me. It made me bitter, angry, paranoid, distrustful.

  30. Peter November 26, 2014 at 9:22 am #

    We have now disabled all children BEFORE becoming injured rather then some few becoming disabled after a playground injury. We can ask what is the difference between an abled child who may not use his/her actual abilities and an actual disabled who can not? Evey child is treated as a potential disabled child waiting to happen and is to be crippled by bureaucracy for his/her own good.

  31. Sarah Williams November 26, 2014 at 10:30 am #

    My girls and I recently read “The City of Ember” and the following three books in the series. They are a great illustration of free-range, normal kids getting by in a tough world. The third book, “The Prophet of Yonwood” really speaks to the disastrous effects of the kind of fear-based policy-making you often refer to, Lenore. I recommend the series as a starting point for discussing this issue with kids. They’re about a 4th-grade reading level for most kids. http://www.jeanneduprau.com/books.shtml (I am not related to or employed by the author in any way. I simply really like the books!)

  32. Jill November 26, 2014 at 12:33 pm #

    @Emily The Twirlybird! How could I forget that one! It was like a torture device left over from the Inquisition.
    As for bullying, I don’t condone it. However, I think our definition of bullying has become too broad. Physical attacks, ostracizing, threatening to do someone harm are all bad and should be dealt with. Being indefinably “not nice” isn’t bullying, in my book.

  33. Warren November 26, 2014 at 1:18 pm #

    I would like to see the numbers on those that confronted, and overcame their bullies. I would hazard that they are very successful, confident and enjoying life.

    I know it is not the popular stance, but you have to get them to stand up for themselves. Otherwise you are telling them it is okay to be a victim, and that is the lesson that is hurting them in adulthood.

  34. lollipoplover November 26, 2014 at 4:29 pm #

    “I think our definition of bullying has become too broad.”

    @Jill-I got a call from the school guidance counselor last month about my youngest daughter (the good one!) and the new bullying polices at the school that my daughter was apparently in violation of. Seems another parent called and complained about her behavior and 2 episodes she claimed were bullying. She said it started with my daughter saying that she didn’t like this student’s earrings. It “escalated” when my daughter said she didn’t like her outfit and thus the phone call home. Admittedly, my daughter has NO filter (she likes to remind me when my hair does that *skunk thing* which means I need to touch up my highlights) and yes, she should not say unkind things to other students…but what if the earrings really were ugly?? Is she not entitled to have an opinion, even if it’s negative?
    First world problems.
    I can’t imagine ever calling a school about my daughter getting told her earrings were ugly and claiming it was bullying.

  35. Puzzled November 26, 2014 at 10:51 pm #

    I agree that the definition is broadened to absurd lengths. I was just reacting to the general feel of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” It’s false, and it’s based on a false premise.

    Try this one. Imagine I had a bunch of mice with their ruggedness, however defined, varying in a way that’s representative of the population – maybe 40% more rugged than average. Then I expose them to something harsh and aversive. I kill off 50% – leaving the 40% who are stronger than most and another 10%. Now 80% are stronger than most – and this is the kind of thing that makes people think that hard things toughen people up. But none of the mice got stronger.

    You see someone live through a harsh circumstance, and you note how tough that person is. Then you see someone who hasn’t been exposed to tough circumstances, and see that they aren’t as tough. But the reason the first one survived is precisely because they were tough to start with, not because having bad things happen to you makes you tough.

    It’s like the broken window fallacy – the unseen is the people exposed to the same things as the tough person who, instead of getting tougher, got deader.