Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post is about safety and perceived risks, especially with regards to parenting. I can definitely relate!
I live in Green Bay, Wisconsin, a city known for its football, Catholicism, and below-average crime rate. So when I say that last night, someone with a gun kicked down my neighbor’s door, understand that it genuinely shakes my concept of how safe my family is in our home.
It’s not that the thought hadn’t come up before. I have a short metal pipe I keep in the closet in case I ever had to face an intruder, but were we really safe? What if I wasn’t home when something happened? We keep our cellphones in the kitchen, and if someone burst in while we slept, we wouldn’t be able to get to them. I own two guns, which are kept unloaded under lock and key. I have family who keep theirs for defense, so should I?
From proper car seat installation to vaccinations, concerns about abduction to the lurking threat of sexual abuse, it’s a judgment we are constantly being called upon to make as parents: “Is this safe?“
Even before the baby is born, advice about the risk factors for SIDS will be one of the first things a new parent hears. Much of it is important advice, and imagining the devastation of losing that new baby puts parents in a place where most will follow it. We certainly did, to the letter. But there were so many times, exhausted, I wished we could put him in bed with us, that I wanted to look at the data behind the rule. It’s plain as day, children who sleep in bed with parents have a higher likelihood of SIDS, even when other factors are ruled out. But that increase is from .08/1000 to .23/1000 when the parent does not use drugs, alcohol, or smoke. A large increase comparatively, but an exceedingly low actual number. (Please don’t take this as an attempt to convince you to co-sleep with an infant. Like I said, we didn’t.)
But, after experiencing how much I wanted to, and seeing how little risk we are actually talking about, is it an area you could cautiously, conscientiously break the rule? Maybe. My point is when the American Academy of Pediatrics looked at the question, there was nothing on the other side of the scale. They could only evaluate what was safer, not if that increase in safety was worth the loss of comfort and bonding time that co-sleeping might provide.
My son is two now. I love to cook, so of course he wants to help cook too. Usually that means just mixing things or helping make dough, but sometimes I’m making something on the stove or in the oven and he wants to be close. This was stressful at first, with the stove and the knives. But he learned “hot” as one of his first words and is great about not touching anything I say is hot. Sometimes I even let him use long grill tools so he can “help” without being close.
Knives are trickier, since it’s hard to tell what is sharp. So, when we are cooking together we now use a chopping tool with a blunt edge that he can push through veggies. He gets to feel like he is helping and he learns a basic appreciation for the culinary arts, and we don’t have to buy any fake plastic kitchens.
We know people are generally poor at assessing risks of low-likelihood and become especially risk-averse when there is a strong negative emotion associated with an outcome. My opinion is these two blind spots in our cognition are leading us to attempt to increase safety beyond a point of diminishing returns. I don’t feel that too much attention is being given to safety—I feel that no attention is being given to what safety requires you to give up.
We’ve seen the same process repeated again and again: we invent a new, safer method of doing things, and then distribute and promote that method as a better alternative. Years later, when we look back at what was once commonplace, it is no longer an “acceptable” risk and, in many cases, we try to ban it. Why would you ever do it the unsafe way?
If we continue to bend only to safety, then the joy, amusement, and occasionally stupidity of life will be lost in red tape and nannying.
So how am I going to respond to the attack on my neighbors? I’m not going to get out my guns—the risk of accidental misuse is too great. I’m not going to let myself stress or worry excessively about it, because it’s too rare to be worth the mental energy. I don’t spend my time thinking about the chances of getting hit by lightning either. I’m going to repair a couple window locks that were overdue and move my cellphone charger to our bedroom.
It’s a measured-appropriate response. It would feel better emotionally to take some action and be able to tell myself and my wife “that could never happen to us” but I would either be inviting some other danger or fooling myself. So I’ll just have to live with the risk of home invasion. And theft. And floods. And asteroids.
Erich Bacher is a father and IT professional. He owns copies of Transformers: The Movie (1986) on DVD and VHS, frequently misspells certain words, and blogs at Utilitarian Aesthetic.