- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 28, 2009

The carefree days of summer fun are finally here.

Wait a minute, though. Better not send 10-year-old Johnny outside without insect repellent, sunscreen and hand sanitizer to ward off West Nile virus, skin cancer and various bacteria. And, of course, send along a parent to guard against drowning in swimming pools, kidnapping in parks, vehicular homicide while crossing the street and shark attacks in the Atlantic.

Still — even under a parent’s watchful eye — Johnny could get E. coli from contaminated pool water or food poisoning from an undercooked burger.

Maybe we should replace “carefree” with the “fearful” days of summer.

“It’s a great paradox. We are the healthiest and wealthiest we’ve ever been and yet we are increasingly afraid,” says Daniel Gardner, author of “The Science of Fear: Why We Fear Things We Shouldn’t — and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger.”

This great paradox, he says, has to do with “gaps between facts and perception.”

Take child kidnappings for example. There are few things more terrifying to a parent than the prospect of some pervert lurking in the bushes, ready to nab their children.

As it turns out, Mr. Gardner says, the risk of kidnapping by a stranger is very small. Every year, about 115 kids younger than 18 are kidnapped by a stranger. Most of those children are returned to their parents; about 50 children each year are never seen again.

So, while it’s terrible for any child to be kidnapped, the risk is pretty minute. To be precise, Mr. Gardner says, the risk for a child 17 or younger to be kidnapped and not returned is 1 in 1.4 million or 0.00007 percent.

“Nowhere are the gaps between facts and perception bigger than on child safety,” Mr. Gardner says. “We’re treating our children like endangered species.”

A combination of factors has led us here, says Peter Stearns, author of “Anxious Parents: A History of Modern Childrearing in America.”

One of the most important reasons, says Mr. Stearns, who also is provost and history professor at George Mason University, is low birth rate. These days, he says, the birth rate per family is 1.7 children. A couple of centuries ago that number was seven or eight children per family.

“It’s not that parents were more careless with their kids then,” Mr. Stearns says. “It’s just that for parents today, it becomes much more acute if something does happen to their one and only child.”

So, today’s parents respond by doing anything and everything to prevent all risk to their children’s well-being. And that’s absurd, Mr. Stearns says, because while kids are safer today than ever before, things can still go wrong.

“And if they do, the guilt is almost overwhelming,” he adds.

In the end, he says, he suspects that today’s “helicopter parenting” leads to children and adolescents who don’t fully take responsibility or learn risk calculations until well into their 20s — as well as unhappy parents.

“I think parents are the ones who suffer the most,” Mr. Stearns says. “It tells you something when the happiest couple in this country is one without children. … I don’t think parenting is as fun as it could be.”

Mr. Gardner, though, says he thinks childhood, too, can seem pretty dismal these days.

“Childhood is beginning to seem like a prison sentence,” Mr. Gardner says. “Kids are constantly monitored and told when to eat, sleep, where to do go and what to do. Sounds like maximum security to me.”

Other factors that have created the current parental fear paradox and constant wish to eradicate risk, both real and perceived, Mr. Stearns says, are parental guilt (moms going back to work and feeling like they never give their kids enough), alarmist child experts (who identify a thousand conditions and problems with children) and the perception of unsafe neighborhoods (the idea that our neighborhoods are unsafe, which has been perpetuated by 24-7 media outlets).

“Fear sells,” Mr. Gardner says. Among its sellers are nonprofits raising money for everything from cancer to environmental cleanups, politicians seeking re-election, and private companies looking for buyers for their home alarm systems and sunscreens.

And the underlying reason we’re so susceptible to their sales pitches is the hard-wiring of our brains, Mr. Gardner says. Humans are hard-wired toward bad-news bias as a means of survival.

“Evolution has tilted our consciousness toward risk,” Mr. Gardner says.

In other words, it is more important for us to be aware of approaching, hungry lions than to enjoy a beautiful sunset.

But this bad-news bias serves us less well these days when our personal risk — at least in the developed world — is low while access to bad-news information is high. We see a television news report about a child being kidnapped by a stranger in Los Angeles and associate it with immediate danger. In truth, the kidnapping is across the country and has nothing to do with us.

So, what are the antidotes to all this fear?

Mr. Stearns and Mr. Gardner agree: reasoning, statistics and critical thinking.

“You can’t turn off the unconscious mind,” Mr. Gardner says. “And there are times when listening to the gut can be helpful. But the second step needs to be the application of rational thought.”

If that doesn’t do the trick, Mr. Gardner has the following recommendation: “Go and read the tombstones in a Victorian cemetery and be grateful.”

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