Things That Never Happen

Monday, August 9, 2010
By dreeves

The Counterfactual News Network?

I love this quote from security expert Bruce Schneier:

Remember, if it’s in the news don’t worry about it. The very definition of news is “something that almost never happens.” When something is so common that it’s no longer news — car crashes, domestic violence — that’s when you should worry about it.

The truth of that[1] hit home recently when I saw a news feature on the abduction of a four-year-old girl from her front yard in Missouri. Candlelight vigils, nation-wide amber alert, police blockades where every single car was stopped and questioned, FBI agents swarming the house. I think the expected reaction from parents is “oh my god, I need to be so vigilant, even in my own front yard!” My reaction was the opposite: Wow, this sort of thing really does essentially never happen. Let the kids run free!

I’m saying this without a drop of irony. Stranger abductions just don’t happen. You should worry more about your baby boy dying from complications of circumcision (true). What you should actually worry about are the real killers of kids, like driving and drowning. Speaking of which, here’s a valuable public service announcement about what drowning looks like. (It doesn’t look like drowning.)

By the way, if you didn’t hear the news story about the four-year-old girl, it had a happy ending. She turned up unharmed.

The Opposite Story: Things That Do Happen

But speaking of child abductions and drowning, I have to bring up a brutally ironic news story from several years ago.

In summary, a toddler got separated from her caregivers and wandered off, where a passerby saw her. Seeing no one else around, his first instinct was to scoop her up and take her with him. But he decided that that was a big risk to himself — what would people think? — and continued on, reporting it later.

The girl then fell in a pond and drowned.

Just to spell out the heart-wrenching irony: Even though the man made the wrong decision (and should’ve known it at the time) he was correct that helping that girl was dangerous to him. He could’ve been accused of abducting the girl and the accusation, sadly, and insanely, would have been taken very seriously. That needs to change. Remember, child abductions by strangers don’t happen! Picking up a lost child should not be regarded with any suspicion! Arrgh!

This is also why I think these common guidelines parents give their young kids about which kinds of adults to seek help from if they’re lost (store employees, other moms) are misguided and dangerous. The best person to get assistance from is the first adult they find. That adult simply is not going to happen to be a child predator! Put that absurd thought out of your mind.

By the way, the above story happened in the UK which, strangely, seems to be the only place worse than the US with this out-of-control paranoia.

This image defies comment.

But Think of the Children!

Q: Isn’t some amount of paranoia justified when it comes to children? Shouldn’t they at least be taught the difference between good strangers and bad strangers? Shouldn’t we be vigilant about any possible danger?

A: I disagree that children need to learn about “bad strangers”. I teach my kids that strangers are good, period. This is hard to talk about but it’s true: a scary number of kids really do get abused and it’s rarely by strangers. Your kids need to know about inappropriate touching but please don’t muddy that with talk of strangers. (Can you imagine, “it’s ok, I’m not a stranger…” Shudder!)

As for vigilance, it’s a limited resource: focus your energy on the real dangers.

At risk of getting repetitive I’ll re-assert my strong belief: No stranger will ever harm your child. It’s a risk (and, fine, if you want to get technical, it’s a risk, with some positive probability) that you can completely ignore. In fact, I’ll go further and say that maximum vigilance requires that you actively dismiss the idea that stangers can be dangerous. Doing so could prevent, for example, something like the tragically ironic drowning of the girl in that news story.

Q: I heard that there were 5 attempted abductions in Central Park last week. What do you say to that? (This was a real response when this came up on a parent list I’m on, though I doubt the veracity of the claim. The rest of these questions were real too, though most weren’t phrased as questions.)

A: It’s hard to even imagine this number but Central Park gets 25 million visitors every year. With those numbers, impossibly unlikely things will have happened to someone but it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to worry about them happening to you. Like when you hear about a meteor crashing through the roof of someone’s house (that’s for real, by the way).

Sticking with Central Park, here’s another real story from this summer: A woman and her baby were posing for a photo under a tree and a branch somehow fell off and killed the child. So that’s a 1 in 25 million chance of getting killed by a tree if you visit Central Park. (The appliances in your house are more dangerous than that.)

More to the point though, what’s an attempted abduction? Is it like this? A stranger talking to a child and the parents freaking out? Even more to the point, if you hear official numbers on child abductions they sound horrifying, until you learn that they’re mostly divorced parents in custody battles. Which should give you pause if you’re a divorced parent, but again we’re back to: know where to focus your vigilance. Think about who has repeated contact with your child, not the stranger in the park.

Q: What if child abductions are so rare precisely because parents are so vigilant?

A: I’m not advocating any kind of extreme disregard for children’s safety. In fact, I’m basically advocating raising kids more like how kids were raised a couple generations ago.

Q: But that was a different time!

A: Yes, it’s actually safer now. You wouldn’t think so from watching the news but crime has been going down for a couple decades and is currently at 1960s levels in the US.

Q: Fine, but what’s the harm in being cautious?

A: Here’s how Lenore Skenazy of Free-Range Kids (highly recommended) puts it:

Children, like chickens, deserve a life outside the cage. The overprotected life is stunting and stifling, not to mention boring for all concerned.

Straw Exit Poll

Thanks to Sharad Goel, Lenore Skenazy, Andrew Reeves, Laurie Reeves, David Pennock, and many parents at Harlem4Kids for reading drafts of this. If you liked this article you may like my twitter stream for parents:

Image by Kelly Savage


[1] Sharad points out that Schneier’s quote is a little too glib. The more correct way to say it would be something like “prominence in the news does not necessarily correlate with the magnitude of risk to you”. As xkcd points out, frequency of occurrence in the news overall probably does correlate with actual risk. Sharad adds that there are actually prominent news features you should worry (though this is maybe a different sense of “worry”) about, for example, war and political/corporate corruption.

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