The dangers of risk-avoidance

Kids sometimes get hurt playing in treehouses. If we create exacting national safety standards for treehouses, fewer kids will get hurt. That can only be a good thing, right?

Medical researchers in Ohio published a paper this month suggesting national safety standards for treehouses after statistics showed that 2,800 children a year are hurt in accidents linked to them. The injuries ranged from bruises to broken bones, but all were serious enough to send the children to the emergency room.

It’s the same instinct that motivated this lady’s neighbor to call the police because her children were climbing a tree.

A woman, upset, saying, “You could fall and get hurt and not be able to walk again!”

So I approached her and said, “It’s okay with me if they climb the tree.”

“It’s not okay with me! They could get hurt!” She repeated some variations on this theme.

I agreed: “You’re right. They could get hurt. It’s still okay with me.”

“It’s not okay with me! I’m calling the police.”

Because if you aren’t in a tree, you’ll never get hurt falling out of a tree. It’s a simple, feel-good solution to an obvious danger. And because it’s so obvious, we never consider the hidden costs. In Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv writes,

One U.S. researcher suggests that a generation of children is not only being raised indoors, but is being confined to even smaller spaces. Jane Clark, a University of Maryland professor of kinesiology (the study of human movement), calls them “containerized kids” – they spend more and more time in car seats, high chairs, and even baby seats for watching TV. When small children do go outside, they’re often placed in containers – strollers – and pushed by walking or jogging parents. Most kid-containerizing is done for safety concerns, but the long-term health of these children is compromised. In the medical journal the Lancet, researchers from the University of Glasgow in Scotland reported a study of toddler activity where the researchers clipped small electronic accelerometers to the waistbands of seventy-eight three-year-olds for a week. They found that the toddlers were physically active for only twenty minutes a day. […]

As the nature deficit grows, another emerging body of scientific evidence indicates that direct exposure to nature is essential for physical and emotional health. For example, new studies suggest that exposure to nature may reduce the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and that it can improve all children’s cognitive abilities and resistance to negative stresses and depression.

Leonard Sax points out another hidden cost of risk-avoidance in Why Gender Matters.

Let’s go back to Lizette Peterson’s study, where she rigged up a stationary bike so kids could “ride” through a hazardous environment. Peterson then asked asked all the parents whether their kids had ever been injured riding a bike, injured badly enough to require medical attention. She found that kids who had been injured were less fearful doing the simulation than kids who had never been injured – even after controlling for the degree of confidence kids felt riding bicycles. She calls this the “invulnerability” effect. When a kid has fallen and (let’s say) scraped a knee or gotten a cut, they recover. One week later that kid is thinking, “Hey, that wasn’t so bad. I got hurt and now I’m fine.”

Child psychologist Wendy Mogel has written a charming book called The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. Without mentioning the theory of learned helplessness, she points out that shielding children from injury makes them more risk-averse. And, letting them explore their world – at the cost of a few scrapes and cuts – builds their character and gives them self-confidence, resilience, and self-reliance.

If children never climb trees and are only exposed to industrial-strength treehouses “lower than 10 feet up, [with] several inches of soft mulch below it and using solid, 38-inch-high barriers instead of guardrails,” they well be very safe. They may be physically and emotionally weaker and less capable of healthy risk-assessment, but they will be very, very safe.

Worth reading: Boys Adrift

My earlier post on my most formative books reminded me of another book I read recently that didn’t affect my foundational worldview enough to warrant inclusion on the list, but which I nonetheless highly recommend. Boys Adrift by Dr. Leonard Sax is the best examination I’ve seen of the various factors contributing to, in the words of the subtitle, “the growing epidemic of unmotivated boys and underachieving young men.”

Anyone who has spent much time around young men knows the problem Sax is describing, but he provides plenty of statistics to back up the anecdoctal evidence (only 42 percent of current college students are male; one in three men ages 22-34 lives at home with his parents). At a prominent seminary where I have taken some classes, faculty recently put out a request for missionaries. I am told they intentionally worded the appeal to emphasize the danger and excitement of the proposed mission, in the hope of attracting male volunteers. Seventeen students signed up. Seventeen of them were women. One professor explained the result by noting that it’s hard to power a Wii on the mission field.

Sax suggests five factors that are creating a generation of young men who don’t care that they don’t care, discussing changes in schooling, video games, medications for ADHD, endocrine disruptors, and a lack of male mentoring. It’s a fascinating and disturbing book, backed by copious references to peer-reviewed research. Well worth the read. (Also worth reading is Sax’ Why Gender Matters.)