Wednesday, December 10, 2008


How safe should we strive to make our children? To simplify matters, let’s ignore that there may be different kinds of safety and just suppose that degrees of safety lie along a simple continuum. At one end of the continuum is “completely safe,” where risk of injury and death is as close to zero as possible. At the other end of the continuum is “dead.” Clearly we want to avoid the latter. The question is how close to the former we should aim.

Here are some reasons why we ought not aim to make our children “completely safe”:

it would consume time, effort, and resources better put to use pursuing other goods for our children. Sure, I could spend time lining my children’s clothes with bubble-wrap. Or, I could use that time and energy to have fun stomping on said bubble-wrap with my kids.

our children would miss out on a number of other goods were we to try to make them completely safe. Road crashes are the top cause of unintentional injuries in children. Pursuing complete safety would mean never traveling anywhere by car, except to avoid something even more dangerous than car travel. “Sorry, we can’t go to the [school/museum/playground/ice cream shop/pool/grandma’s]. Ever.”

some activities that are risky may be valuable, such as, I don’t know, walking outside. Or learning to swim.

risk-taking can be pleasurable, even thrilling. Isn’t that what makes slides and roller coasters so much fun?

if we deprive our children of exposure to danger, we deprive them of one of the best ways of learning how to exercise judgment in the face of danger. In short, making them less endangered may make them less safe. Of course there are ways to overdo it.

I think we all accept these points when we think about them. We may talk about keeping our kids “completely safe” but we don’t mean that literally (except David Benatar, who would like us to keep kids completely from harm by not bringing them into existence). So what do we mean?

Perhaps we mean that we don’t want to expose our children to danger if it isn’t worth it. So we do some ill-informed cost-benefit analysis on the fly to judge whether the probable benefits of some activity outweigh the probable harms, or rely on rules of thumb that themselves are presumably ultimately justified by appeal to some kind of cost-benefit analysis. Yet these analyses are hard to do, and it is unclear that we are doing them. Would the value that I and my kids get from all the trips in the car this year outweigh the badness of the one in 20,331 chance each of us has of dying because of an accident during one of them?

There is a sense among some that nowadays we are overprotective of our children. We are certainly more protective of them, in some ways, than previous generations were of their children. (And less protective in other ways: for example, many of today’s parents let their children view things on television that would horrify previous generations of parents). I haven’t looked for any research on changes in how safe children are, or how dangerous the world is for children, or how much time and effort parents are putting into keeping their children safe. I suspect these descriptive investigations are difficult enough. Adding normative questions on top of all this makes things very tricky.

Clearly, this is just the tip of the iceberg (the steep, slippery, and hypothermia-inducing iceberg—keep away!). If nothing goes awry, I’ll be revisiting this topic in future posts.

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