Monday, January 2, 2012

Invasion of the culture snatchers

"You never know what could happen," my mother intones. My father goes off on some diatribe on using guns as a means to protect one's family.

My family has embraced the 'culture of fear', a term I use because today's level of parental fear seems to be a cultural thing and not based on any actual, tangible trends or occurrences. According to the news, horrific crimes occur to children every once in a while. National news reports children missing several times a year, in various states, occasionally up to three simultaneously. Admittedly it's pretty scary to be sitting in front of the TV and hear someone say, "A 9-year-old girl from Indiana was reported missing today; 5-year-olf Thomas B. the boy missing in Texas last week still has not been found, and the 11-year-old we reported on last month is presumed dead."

However, I don't watch TV. If a child goes missing in my town, I may join the search party. So far, that has not happened yet. Statistically, it's highly unlikely to. Pick any random town, and odds are good that some crime worthy of appearing in the national news will occur there within a block of 30 to 50 years. In my town, we've had a spate of young gang members shooting each other through their bedroom windows. National news? Nope. Still waiting.

Pick any random child in that town, and the odds that a crime will occur to that child is... well, 99% of kidnappings, murder, and abuse are perpetrated by someone close to the child, often a parent or someone the parent is intimately involved with. Barring that, there are not so many incidents.

What I really need to protect my child from is not the murderers and pedophiles lurking behind every tree, or the gang members poking guns through our windows, but all the many, many people who try to restrict him for his own hypothetical safety. People who tell ME that I'm the one doing it wrong, and I should restrict and shelter him more. Those people are everywhere. They're in his school. They teach his kung fu class. They're in our family.

No, I will not carry a gun in my purse to shoot dead the evil person who will surely accost us while we're taking a walk. (Really?! How, tell me, is THAT such a brilliant idea?) I will not prohibit him from riding the school bus, nor ride the city bus alone when he's developmentally ready for that. I will encourage him to learn to be independent. Most kids in his generation are being boxed in and held close by their parents and school systems, and if I can avoid making that mistake with him, he'll have a huge advantage over his peers.

You can see the phenomenon in my own generation, how broken and scared some of us were, how we stepped out into the world with hardly any self-sufficiency skills and then turned around and moved back into the safety of our parents' homes. I know at least five adults in their 30's and 40's who still rely on their parents. I know a few in their 20's, but it's a tough economy and they may still take flight. We didn't grow up with the level of paranoia that's pervasive today, but our generation still has some examples of the effects. What is my son's generation going to be like? It will depend on the successes of ambitious kids who break out of their chains and take crash courses on how to be responsibly independent, some who will fail that course and a few that will succeed, and on parents who buck the trend and work hard to teach their kids to believe in and rely on themselves.

Real-life risk assessment is famously hard, and it's a well-known fact that almost everyone in the world is bad at it. But that doesn't mean that I should just resign myself to being bad at it and reassure myself that, hey, at least my kid won't be the one American that gets brutally victimized by a murderous pedophile once every 5-20 years. No, what I need to do is accept that my son is probably also going to be bad at risk assessment, and I should teach myself how to be good at it so I can teach him to be good at it.

Good risk assessment doesn't teach that if a little caution is a good thing, then a ton of caution is excellent. It doesn't teach you to prepare for worst-case freak occurrences first. Yes, it would be nice if awful freak occurrences didn't happen. But you shouldn't prepare for them FIRST, because you can't anticipate them! That's why they're FREAK! And if you tell me you're successfully avoiding them by preparing for them first... I won't believe you.

And I'll think of the much more tangible sacrifices you're making in your kid's life.

But it irks me that I'm essentially fighting everyone, that the culture of fear is so pervasive in our culture that it has essentially become our culture, and that I don't really have any philosophical allies. Except my husband, because he doesn't wonder what other people think he should be afraid of. He's evidence that risk assessment is easier if you do it yourself. And thank goodness.

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