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Those are the words we’ve been taught to look at with fear, because “nearly always” is not “always,” period. We feel smart ignoring the overwhelming odds in our favor, because it means we are not sticking our heads in the sand. We are alert!
And if we aren’t alert enough, well, we live in a society ever ready to remind us of all the terrible things that just could happen.
I see this all the time in the parenting world. Thanks to awareness-raising organizations, like the one that put the missing kids’ pictures on the milk cartons (and neglected to mention that most of the kids were runaways or taken by a divorced parent in a custody dispute), we have become very aware of child kidnapping. Too aware.
It’s not just that we can’t understand how rare this crime is, it’s that the very visibility of the issue — the fact that missing children’s faces beam down from video monitors at the grocery check-out line and bulletin boards at Wal-Mart, and I even saw a tape loop of them in a Manhattan diner — that uber-visibility makes it feel like children are being snatched off the street all the time. (It also makes us feel like contributing more money to the missing children organization, but I won’t get into that here.)
No, I will simply state that the odds of any child being kidnapped by a stranger in America are literally 1,500,000 to 1. Odds like that shouldn’t change our behavior. The threat is too rare to worry about and too random to prepare for. And yet, distraught parents now spend a good deal of their time and money trying to keep their kids safe from predators. They are driving their kids to school and refusing to let them play on the front lawn, all because the abduction statistic is 1.5 million to 1, not 1.5 million to zero. Their argument: “What if mine is the one?”
We have been trained to think about the worst-case scenario, and part of the blame lies in organizations that alert us to tragedies but obfuscate their rarity. This constant din of doom is contributing to the real illness of our age, which is the belief that we can, if we’re just prepared enough, avoid all ills.
But hyper-awareness can lead us to excess worry, excess medical intervention, and excess parental intervention, too. The answer is not to ignore danger – we are Jewish moms so we worry, and we are Jewish women, so we have reason to worry about breast cancer. The answer is to keep things in perspective.
In a society that reminds us daily to worry more, that’s not easy.
Lenore Skenazy is a public speaker and the founder of the book “Free-Range Kids” and the blog of the same name. Her show, “World’s Worst Mom,” airs on Discovery/TLC International.