The Dangers of “Safety”

My husband and I recently made a parenting decision that surprised us: we signed the opt-out form to remove Big Girl from a health unit on “personal safety.”  This section “safety” discusses what to do if you encounter a gun (don’t touch), how to deal with knives and fire (don’t touch) and “inappropriate” touching (tell a grown-up).  My husband and I realized that we did not want her to learn about any of this as part of her second grade class at school.

Turns out, that my husband and I are the only ones who felt that way, or at least the only ones who acted on our feeling; Big Girl is the only one in her second grade class not participating.  After the first class (when she had free reading time in the classroom while the rest of the class went to health) her friend asked her, “Why doesn’t your mom want you to be safe?”

To her credit, she knew both how to respond to her friend and the reason for our decision.  It’s not that we don’t want her to be safe.  It’s that we don’t want her to be scared.

By teaching my daughter that there are all these things out there that are a risk to her I think we end up making her worry about encountering them.  I think we end up cultivating a culture of fear.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I know that guns, knives, fire and child abuse are all real things with disastrous effects but I also know that the chances of any kid actually being at risk from one of these threats is small.  I know too that for my daughter, a kid who is cautious by nature, but also has had real life (and safe) experiences with fire (while camping) and knives (while cooking and camping too), learning about how to “stay safe” in the abstract is not necessary.

So, I’m not dismissing the fact that there are risks out there.  Nor am I proposing wrapping my kids in bubble wrap and never letting them out of my sight.

But, I am suggesting that by prioritizing safety has a cost.

Part of my reason for opposing this health unit is my own childhood memories.  I can recall, vividly, in the early 80s sitting through D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Program) program and learning EVERY possible detail about every imaginable street drug.  I can remember being warned to never talk to strangers, to never get in a strangers car, to watch out for crazy people because they might be on drugs and might try to give me drugs, to not cross the street without the help of a grown-up, to never eat anything homemade without my parents’ permission because it might be poisoned (or laced with drugs), to never accept a gift from a stranger, and, of course, to watch out for razor blades in apples at Halloween.

Taken together, the message was clear:  the world is a scary and dangerous place.  You should be afraid, you should not trust neighbors or passers-by, you should not trust people who are a little odd or different, you should not trust homemade food items.  You can only trust your school, the police, and your parents.

It worked.  I was afraid.  And, that is what I don’t want to do to my kids.  I don’t want them to see a threat lurking around each corner.  I don’t want them to distrust well-meaning passers-by.  I don’t want them to fear the world.  I want them to embrace it.   I don’t want them to be “safe” at the expense of being free.

When I mention this to my students or talk about it with fellow parents, one of the common refrains I hear is that, “things are more dangerous today than when we were kids.”  That is just not true. 

There isn’t as much to fear as we might think.  Gun violence is down—49% lower in 2010 than in 1993 (http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2013/05/07/gun-homicide-rate-down-49-since-1993-peak-public-unaware/).

Death or injury by accident has also generally declined over time in the U.S.: 334 kids died from fire in 2013, compared to almost twice as many 703 in 1999.  (https://www.safekids.org/fact-sheet/burns-and-fire-safety-fact-sheet-2015-pdf)  Again, it’s a tragedy when it does happen, but it’s not really something for kids to worry about in advance.  In fact, that’s because most deaths by fire have nothing to do with kids playing with fire.  Deaths from fire happen when kids are inside buildings that catch fire.  So, yeah, they should learn stop, drop and roll and to touch the doorknob to see if it’s hot before they exit a room when there’s a fire.  Even more important, parents should install smoke detectors and change those damn batteries twice a year!

Similarly, all that stranger danger rhetoric is totally overblown.  The number of kids who were abducted by strangers in 2015?  About 100 which is less than 1% of total reports of missing and abducted children.  (https://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/crimestats)

And, this is the cincher.  There is no record of any kid, anywhere getting poisoned Halloween candy.  (http://www.snopes.com/horrors/poison/halloween.asp)

So, these are not things to be worrying about.

Still, I get why the school is doing this unit. Parents and schools want courses on safety because they too are scared.  It’s often hard not to be scared.  Turn on the news or scroll through the headlines on your phone and you are greeted with one horrible atrocity after another…  never mind that millions of not horrible things happened that day too.  Those aren’t newsworthy!

Clearly this culture of fear goes way beyond school curriculums.  Read a parenting website and see ads for baby gates, baby leashes, and finger printing kits.  See promotions for alarm systems, self-defense classes, and countless other products that promise security and safety.   Many argue in fact, that this is intentional marketing—and it obviously is not limited to parents and kids.

My objections to this breeding of fear run deep.  I don’t want my kids to be frightened.  In fact, I think I have a responsibility to keep the culture of fear at bay.  The responsibility of parents is to prepare their children to have the skills they need to make choices, develop connections, solve problems, and live a meaningful life.  I think that when we inculcate children in a culture of fear we teach them to second guess their choices, short-circuit their ability to develop connections and solve problems and make it harder for them to live a meaningful life.

So, despite our love of schooling and commitment to education, we opted out.  I have a feeling it’s only the first time of many.

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