Tag Archives: overprotective parents

Speculations on the Culture of Fear


I wondered aloud, in my last post, how we could have gotten to the point where, in direct contradiction of some very clear, very scary, not-at-all-obscure-or-complex evidence of the consequences of our actions, we have become so terrified of risk that we are actually killing our kids, after making them miserable. All in the name of love.

This is not an easy question to answer. Certainly, it won’t help to oversimplify, as Tim Gill points out in this little diagram, from his website ‘Rethinking Childhood’:




This is a tempting shorthand for what’s been going on in kids’ lives and in the minds of parents, culminating in what I believe is a real crisis in kids’ physical and mental health. But a more thoughtful approach looks for the roots of problems, and is not distracted or satisfied by proximal causes. Here’s Gill’s proposed ‘rethinking’ of the problem:

Of course, as he admits, there’s more to it even than that. Where do all these gadgets come from? Whence all the traffic? Why are parents working such long hours? And are these fears, in fact, well grounded? These questions need answers, and I’ll try to provide a few, in a minute.

But in the meantime, parental anxiety has been identified over and over again as the most proximal cause of the inactivity of our kids. Why has parental worry seemingly exploded since the days of our pragmatic, capable, depression-era parents or grandparents? A lot of the answers to this question actually intersect significantly with the answers to Tim Gill’s questions, above.

Margaret K. Nelson, author of ‘Parenting Out Of Control’, looks at the phenomenon of parental anxiety and its consequences, both to anxious parents themselves, and of course to their offspring. In an impressive two paragraphs near the beginning of the book, she summarises some if the prevailing theories for its genesis, and then provides additional research of her own, which expands on those theories. Briefly (with shorthand names I’ve given them), some of them are:

The “Culture of Fear” argument: Due to media exaggerations and obsessions with violence, terrorism, and sexual predation, parents are hyper-aware of potential dangers that lurk in what they perceive as an increasingly violent, risky world.

The “Only Child” argument: Because (partly due to increasing urbanisation), parents are frequently having only one child, they will never have the perspective that comes with experience, and remain anxious “new parents” the whole time they raise their first – and only- child. This is so common that in families with multiple children, the eldest child often ends up bearing some resentment to his younger siblings, who because their parents were more relaxed and experienced by the time they had them, grow up with fewer anxiety-induced restrictions on their activities, and often receive privileges at earlier ages than the first-born.

The “Little Emperor” argument: Related to the Only Child, this argument suggests that parents’ adulation of, and anxiety for, their offspring is exaggerated to unhealthy levels because of the uniqueness of a child without siblings. My name for the argument is taken from the “one child” policy of China, which has been popularly blamed for creating a generation of ‘little emperors’ – spoiled children who are treasured by their parents because the state forbids their having siblings.

The “Erosion of Adult Solidarity” argument:  Suggests that, as our society becomes more and more individualistic, we have transferred the burden of rearing a child to the sphere of the family, or in many cases, single individuals, whereas in more cohesive cultures around the world, this job is seen as the collective responsibility of the whole community.
The “Risk Society” arguments: (Broken down into sub-categories):

The “Amnesiac argument”: Anthony Giddens and others suggest that the erosion of any strong cultural or historical link to the past creates an overemphasis on, and anxiety for, the future, including notions of safety.

The “Master of My Fate” argument: As danger is redefined, from “fate”, or “chance”, to “manageable risk”, the emphasis is placed squarely on personal responsibility. The idea that the natural world is complex and fundamentally unmanageable is replaced with legal notions of ‘due diligence’ that retroactively assign blame whenever an event takes place that is deemed, in retrospect, to have been avoidable.

The “No Social Net” argument: As governments increasingly retreat from what many see as their fundamental duty to provide for their citizens, more and more responsibility for the health and safety of their kids are placed on individual parents.

To these, Nelson, based on her research, adds some nuance in the form of:

The “Social Class” argument:   Having noticed significant differences in the ways intensive parenting manifests itself between the lower- and “professional-middle” classes, Nelson suggests that ideas about the future financial security of their offspring motivates parents of different classes to ‘helicopter’ in different ways. What is constant, though, is the basic assumption of an uncertain economic future, which the Boomer generation did not share, and the desire of parents to see their kids replicate or exceed their own social class, which is no longer seen as being guaranteed.

But there’s more! Lenore Skenazy, in her book ‘Free Range Kids’, suggests a number of other reasons, namely:

The “Opportunistic Vendor” argument: Recognising the immense opportunity for lucrative businesses that pander to the health- and security-obsessed, whole markets spring up that attempt to sell ‘solutions’ to so-called problems that would have been laughable even a generation ago (baby knee-pads, anyone? How about tracking devices for your teenagers? You get the idea.)

The “Know-it-all Expert” argument: Related to the one above, this argument questions the rise of the “one size fits all” brand of so-called “Parenting Experts”, whose primary function seems to be to sell books and magazines telling parents what they are doing wrong and how it will permanently damage their children. They make their money by claiming that there is a ‘right’ way to raise a child, and that only they have the secret – which they will impart to you for a price!

The “Social Pressure” argument: Caught in a media firestorm when she allowed her son to take the NYC subway on his own, and dubbed “America’s Worst Mom”, Skenazy certainly felt the pressure to conform to the new social norms. Luckily, she educated herself about the origins and viability of those norms, and stood her ground. Many parents succumb. My own sister was upbraided by a stranger in a car-park outside a bank, where she had briefly left her 10-year-old daughter in charge of her toddler-aged brother in order to run in to make a deposit. She wasn’t gone more than a few minutes, and though the day was warm, my niece was perfectly capable of opening a window at age ten! The stranger actually called the police, apparently having read in the media one of the many stories of tragedy involving infants or dogs left in hot cars, and being unable to make the distinction in context. Though my sister is still adamant that she did nothing wrong, the experience was unpleasant enough that she has never repeated it. The intense pressure that mothers face from Nosey Parkers and busybodies is real – nobody wants to be called a Bad Parent. Especially when – as is increasingly the case – being branded such is likely to bring you under the cruel scrutiny of the law – which brings me to the next point, viz:

The “Legal Pressure” argument: Laws are often reflexions of social norms, and when those social norms become bugshit crazy, so often do the laws. The ‘Free Range Kids’ blog is full of anecdotes about draconian, blinkered applications of stupid laws that have profound negative effects on the lives of parents who are trying to buck the trends and raise their kids as sanely as they know how. One Florida lawyer actually presents convincing arguments that many parents unjustly accused of negligence in the U.S. actually cannot even get fair trials anymore, because the public dialogue has been so severely compromised on the subject of child safety that jury members and even judges cannot make rational decisions on the subject in this culture of fear.

The “Lousy Judge” argument: Our brains, as Skenazy and others like Dan Gardner, point out, are just phenomenally, evolutionarily predisposed to stupidity when it comes to risk assessment. Without education, our brains get the numbers wrong every time. Of course, not having sensibly-presented data from the media doesn’t help. See my previous post for a deeper look at this one.

The “Cultural Shut-Ins” argument: When our lack of interest in the past, combined with a cultural insularity, give us little knowledge of how other cultures (including our own, in the past) have treated issues of child-rearing, the echo-chamber of our own modern-western-culture-specific worries grows louder and louder, with no parallel experiences to contrast or challenge them. North Americans’ fabled lack of worldliness and knowledge of history combine to make a massive handicap here, aside from just making us insufferable to people of other nations.

To these, I myself might also add two psychological arguments that, while they might not directly cause anxiety, certainly help to explain why it might be augmented under certain circumstances:

The “Self-Efficacy” argument: Related to, but distinct from, self-esteem, self-efficacy is the increased sense of personal confidence and ability to deal with difficult things that comes with…well, doing difficult things. It’s a sense of competence that comes with skill, which in turn comes with experience. The safer we become, the fewer difficulties we encounter, which means that the self-efficacy ‘muscle’ becomes atrophied, and we lose perspective about what constitutes real danger, as well as our ability to cope with simple inconveniences.

• Related to the self-efficacy argument, the “Crooked Barometer” argument is a psychological argument that suggests that when a high level of risk is either eliminated or otherwise subverted, as in our modern ultra-safe society, the brain has a way of “advancing the queue” of smaller anxieties to fill the space left by the genuine threat, making small worries seem comparatively larger. It promotes, in other words, molehills to the rank of mountains, but only in the absence of real mountains, which would provide perspective.

Have I missed anything? 🙂

Of course, most of these factors are linked to each other, and reinforce each other, making it more and more difficult to have a coherent, calm conversation on the subject at all. But I’d like to try to construct a narrative out of these seemingly disparate proximal causes, in the hopes of stumbling onto something closer to the root of all of them. Here’s the (probably too graphically challenging) flowchart I came up with based on the factors listed above:

I’m kind of impressed with how central the rise of corporate capitalism is in all this, as well as the brand of urbanisation that it encourages. The media, while extremely influential, is mostly just reacting to market forces when it fearmongers to the extent that it does, as well as reflecting and augmenting the elevated levels of societal fear. Dan Gardner refers to this as an “echo chamber” effect.  I don’t want either to “let the graphic speak for itself” when it’s so obviously complex; nor do I want to belabour a point here.  So perhaps I’ll try to articulate the narrative that this graphic suggests to me in a future post.


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Are Lockdowns Really Necessary? And Why Can’t We Discuss This?

A little while ago, I posted on the subject of risk assessment in education, and how educators, like politicians, reporters, and all other humans, are just terrible at it.  Among the issues I mentioned in the post was the subject of school shootings.  Here is the relevant paragraph:

To my knowledge, there have only ever been ten acts of gun violence in Canadian schools since 1902.  The total death toll was 26, more than half of which came from a single incident at the École Polytechnique in Montréal.  One came from a school in Alberta where a friend of mine was teaching, eight days after the Columbine case in the U.S.  If you estimate the total number of students in Canadian schools since 1902 (hard to tell:  there are 5.2 million kids in school today, NOT counting universities and colleges; multiply that by 110 years and skim a bunch off for the smaller population in previous generations….you still get several hundreds of millions), and figure those 26 unfortunate people into that number, the chances of dying in a school shooting in Canada are too small for my calculator to measure without an error message.  But every year, we now have to suffer through “Lockdown Drills”, officiated by the police, where we all have to pretend there’s a maniac in the halls.  Time is wasted, kids are frightened, and money is spent for no good cause.  Remember, all violent crime is on the DEcrease, very dramatically.  Polls show that children’s safety at school is the single most common crime-related concern, and yet the school environment is statistically, indisputably, the safest place for kids – much safer than the home or the street.

I argued this at the school I work at, with the result that I got a lot of flak from colleagues who either a) took issue with me questioning lockdown drills, which they regarded uncritically as a clear benefit to our society, or b) took issue with me “wasting time” by thinking critically about policies that affect us all.  Out of this somewhat one-sided discussion came a number of interesting points that I thought warranted a separate post.  I also emailed  Lenore Skenazy, the author of Free Range Kids, and she put the question to the readers of her blog, who repeated a number of questions and assumptions made by my colleagues,  that to my mind are missing the point, since they are framed by the assumption that lockdown drills are the only real response to the threat of gun violence at schools.  I take issue with those assumptions, and I’ll try to explain why here.

1.  Likelihood of Danger

 First of all, I’m not convinced that the threat of a school shooting is severe enough to warrant this kind of attention. I totally understand the perceived reason for lockdowns.  I do.  I really get the fear that comes with kids, and guns, and the potential for disaster and loss.  God forbid that anything should happen, as we all say.

 That said, here are some numbers that as far as I can tell are correct:

 1.      There have been ten incidents of gun violence in Canadian schools over the last 100 years.

2.      The total casualty number is 26.  More than half of those were at Polytechnique, in 1989.  This is a date that comes before the dramatic statistical drop in incidents of violence after the 1990s.

3.      The stranger-as-gunman situation is not the norm.

4.      There are about 5.6 Million Canadian students below the postsecondary level right now.

5.      That gives us a pool of tens (hundreds?)  of millions of students, a century of recorded time, and 26 casualties, which statistically gives us such a tiny risk that it is treated as zero.  “De minimis” is the term.

6.      Compare this (for example) to the possibility of dying in a car crash:  1 in 6000, approximately.  Driving to school is thousands or even millions of times more dangerous – and a real risk – than the vanishingly small chance of a shooting in school.

 I can say with confidence – way more confidence than I could discuss even safety from shark attack – that a school shooting will not happen here.  In fact, there is nothing in my life that I can say for certain will never happen, but this is about as close as it comes.  I cannot have that same confidence that students will survive their car ride home.  We say that we are preparing for something that might happen:  but the list of things that might happen is long, and we can’t work that way.  We have to work with what realistically has a probability of happening.  We are actually preparing for something that statistically will not happen.  So, the reality is that we are doing this.  Things we do have real impacts —  more so than things that will not happen.

 Even if we do accept that school shootings are rare, people sometimes argue that lockdowns are useful in response to incidents of violence in schools other than school shootings, such as knives being brandished, etc.   One of my colleages mentioned his experience of such incidents in support of this theory.  But again, these incidents are extremely rare and getting more rare.  ALL violent incidents are dramatically down, inside schools and outside.  I think the availability heuristic might be at work here.  Just because we can recall an incident to mind does not mean that it is actually more likely to happen.

 People also mention the potential usefulness of a lockdown in the case of a bomb threat.   Has there ever been an incident involving an actual bomb at a school?  I can’t remember hearing of one.  There are plenty of threats; in fact, the school I teach at suffered a rash of them recently once some students found out that our reaction to such a threat (school-wide lockdown or evacuation) was so extreme and disruptive.  If you want to disturb shit, get attention and disrupt classes, what could be better?  It’s the go-to strategy of the sociopaths among our student population.  We’ve had way more fake bomb threats based on the understanding that we will react dramatically than we have had real threats.

 Strangers in the building?   Recently a stranger came into our school .  He entered, went to the bathroom, and left.  We went into lockdown, and though our principal calmly soothed fears by telling students over the P.A. when it was over that he had done no harm, I asked myself why on earth that it would be assumed that a member of the society we all live in would automatically have dastardly intentions.  He probably had to pee.  Why would we assume the worst, all the time?  This says way more about us, in my opinion, than about “strangers”.

 As Mark Twain said, “The trouble with the world is not that people know too little, but that they know so many things that ain’t so.”

 2.  Cost / Benefit Analyses

 People have said that the costs of NOT having drills might be very high, whereas the costs of doing them is nil, aside from some time lost.  The problem with the typical cost-benefit analysis of a lockdown drill (aside from not factoring in the real monetary costs of having the police at the school for several hours while more than a hundred staff members are sitting in the dark, not teaching) is again that we don’t know if it’s true.  Do these drills in fact help to reduce cost in terms of human life?  What is their cost in terms of quality of life?  Where are the studies on this?  I understand that we’re mandated to do these, but I would really like to wonder about the resources allocated to such things.

 In addition, could we think about the perceived potential benefits of performing lockdowns, compared to the real effects of actually doing them?  We might think about possible social repercussions of  normalising paranoia (that’s what it is; it’s not a realistic risk), and the anxiety that we produce.  I also wonder how many other, more pertinent risks we are ignoring.  Why is First Aid not a priority, for example?  In explanations I’ve read for the mandated 2-a-year lockdowns, fear of litigation is the most prominent reason given.  What if something happened, and we hadn’t been seen to “do something”?  My fear is that our response is like the one from “Yes Minister”:   in syllogistic format:

 a)  Something must be done.

b)  This is something.

c)  Therefore, this must be done.

 Could time and money be spent on stopping the bullying that some people claim produces school shootings?  Or on building community? Are we reacting emotionally (or politically) to irrational fears —  in other words to symptoms?  How can we stop doing this and get to the root of the issues which (rarely) produce problems?  I don’t have the answers, but it seems to me like we might not be asking very good questions.

 The social costs, on the other hand,  seem to be real.  “Lockdown” is a term that had its origins in jails.  Now it’s common parlance in schools, where we are MORE safe than ever.  Just look at these figures:

                a)  In the U.S., which has ten times the number of students we do (and better statistics; hence my use of data from south of the border), the rate of “serious violent crime” in 2004 was 4 per 1000 students.  That’s down to less than 1/3 of what it was in 1994.

b)  In the U.S., in 1997-1998, at the height of the statistically anomalous spike in violence during the 1990s, the average student had a 0.00006 % chance of being murdered at school.  That’s 1 in 1, 529, 412.    And the risk has shrunk a lot since then.

c)  Studies that I have read indicate that the kind of lockdown drills that we do, where kids are sitting or lying on the floor, are the least effective and most anxiety-raising.  Aside from the godawful lockdowns that happen in the States where people actually roleplay shooters and bloodied victims, they are the worst.

d)  Remember that the risk of your child being a victim of a school shooting is effectively zero.  But in 1997, a poll showed that 71% of Americans said it was “likely or very likely” that a school shooting would happen in their community.  One month after Columbine, 52% of parents feared for their kids’ safety at school; 5 months later this was unchanged.  Why are we allowing public policy to be decided when the data and people’s fears are so unbalanced?

e)  Significantly, media “feedback loops” continue.  Here at home, do you remember the “anniversary” episodes of both Polytechnique and (for a whole WEEK!) 9/11 on the local news?  Even the normally moderately sane CBC was guilty of this.

f)  Politicians also ought to make it clear that schools are safe.  Instead, they don’t take the political risk of appearing not to take the “problem” seriously.  Once again, schools are safe.

g)  In the U.S., vast amounts of money are spent on metal detectors, police presence, and other invasive security measures that drain monies away from books and events at school.  It also creates an oppressive atmosphere, which is unnecessary since less than 6% of students are reported to carry weapons of any kind (even pen knives) to school.  Fewer still would use them in a violent manner.

h)  The adoption of “zero tolerance” policies towards violence actually was found to INCREASE bad behaviour and dropout rates.  The APA called for them to be dropped.

i)  Studies also show that schools operate best when they are connected to the community in strong ways.  Treating all strangers as homicidal maniacs does not seem to strengthen community.

j)   1 in 5 parents report “frequently” worrying that their child will come to harm at school.  Another 1 in 5 worry ‘occasionally’.

k)  In the U.K., parents are so anxious when their kids leave the house that in 2004, a poll found that 2/3 of parents experience anxiety WHENEVER their kids are outside the home.  1/3 of kids NEVER GO OUT ALONE.  The result is that almost half of British kids stare at screens for more than 3 hours a day.  Child welfare likened it to being raised like “battery chickens”.  As far as I can tell, there has been only one school shooting in the U.K., in Scotland in 1996.  It took a total of three minutes from start to finish, and I am unsure of the efficacy of a lockdown situation there.

l)  In 2007, a group of 270 child psychologists from across the Commonwealth and U.S. wrote an open letter in a British newspaper, declaring that parental anxiety over “stranger danger” may be behind “an explosion in children’s diagnosable mental health problems”.  They advocated a return to unstructured unsupervised play as part of a remedy.

m)  The usual “better safe than sorry” also doesn’t take into account the prolonged angst that comes with feelings of living in a dangerous environment.  This we do know causes feelings of helplessness, listlesness, and depression, all of which negatively affect learning.  This should come into the equation somewhere if we’re serious about education.

 3.  Emergency Preparedness

 People say that it’s best to be prepared.  Okay.  That’s a good enough sound byte that the Boy Scouts use it as a motto.  But prepared for what?  How?  Analysis of the few historical incidents relevant to the discussion seem to indicate that lockdown procedures might not have helped during Columbine or other similar situations.  As Dan Gardner points out, we are really, really bad as a species at predicting major events.  The Black Swan theory of historical events holds that nearly every significant historical game-changer was unpredicted, and probably unpredictable.  That’s part of why they’re so potent.  Not knowing where bizarre, unpredictable events will come from is just part of life.  We really ought to prepare for things that are statistically likely to happen.  Jumping to the worst-case scenario is just feeding the beast.  You should see how much money gets allocated to things like “security experts” these days.  Their job is to think of the worst, most horrible things that could possibly happen, given egregious circumstances.  That’s not really being balanced.  And they make money by doing so.  These are the people who helped to kill community by teaching kids to scream “stranger danger!” and run away from people in their neighbourhoods, when all good data tells us that they are much more likely to be abused at home.  Nobody really predicted the various outré events like 9/11 or Columbine; nothing that happened during those bizarre events matched anything that people had imagined.  The amount of money that the TSA makes by groping airline passengers is grotesque, and I’m not convinced it increases security.  Cui bono? as they say.

 We also don’t know if THIS PARTICULAR reaction to a threat (whether that threat plausibly exists or not) is the most appropriate.  This is not the only conceivable reaction to a perceived threat.  We don’t know if a lockdown drill does increase safety or minimise anxiety, as is the claim; in fact, the only studies that I’ve read concerning lockdowns have been on the other side of the question, with psychologists questioning whether they increase anxiety, particularly in students who come from high-risk, high-stress backgrounds like war zones, or so forth.  Of course we’d all rather be safe than sorry.  But does this particular thing make us safe?  And are we unsafe from the get-go?  From what?   Even if we are unsafe, which I don’t yet see evidence for, I want to know as a teacher and a member of society that we’re not just sticking bananas in our ears to keep the tigers away.   Remember the duck-and-cover drills kids had to do during the Cold War?  We laugh at those now, and I am sure that we will laugh at our own foolishness in the future.

 Not only that, but the idea that this kind of lockdown drill is somehow proactive is silly, too, in my opinion.  Our model remains a post-facto reaction to something that is clearly already out of control.  And it involves the violent intervention of paramilitary actors in the role of police SWAT teams.  If there’s one thing we’ve learned about the perception of violence, it’s that it tends to ramp itself up.  If you want to be truly proactive, seek out the root of violence and address those issues before they add to the statistics.  Not that the statistics are really even worth worrying about.  The message ought to be that school is the safest place you can be, where you can send your kids to be statistically multiple times more safe than at home or on the street.  We’re acting like we know this lockdown stuff works, and that it’s the only option.  In fact, there are no good studies yet to tell us if this is true. To affirm that, even if action of some sort does turn out to be required, it is only this action, and no other, is illogical.

 4.  Protection of Children

 Statistically speaking, the most likely way for a kid to die in North America is because of a car accident.  Every single time a kid gets in a car, she has about a 1 in 6000 chance of dying.  That’s real.  In my opinion, if we want to increase safety, we would focus on the daily carnage that are North American roads.  Why are we so blasé about driving?  It is actually quite likely to kill our students.  I have several times had to bear this bad news to classrooms full of students whose friends have just died in car crashes.   This is hypocrisy of the highest order.  Do we care about kids’ safety, or do we just care enough to want to look like we’re doing something without dramatically inconveniencing ourselves in the process?  We can legislate lockdown drills for things that statistically will not happen, and “let the schools deal with the problem” while we go about our business of driving around in our dangerous cars, killing kids.  In fact, our stupendous stupidity at risk assessment has created a situation where more kids are hit by cars driven by parents who are driving their kids to school for fear of safety issues than by anybody else.  The irony drips.

 So let’s just be clear here again:  I’m not anti-safety, and certainly not anti-children (thanks, black-and-white thinkers!).  I would like to increase safety by figuring out what that means and how to do it.  And I would like to do that without contributing to any corrosion of the society I live in.  If we want to really make a huge difference in student safety, we might think about public transportation, for example, which would get them out of cars going to and from school.  That would save lives for sure.  And how about resources to create anti-bullying campaigns that promote acceptance and even affection between all members of the student body?  That would have saved a life in this city recently, where a young man committed suicide after being bullied for being gay.   Sadly, more kids kill themselves than each other.  In fact, it’s the second most likely way a young person will die, after car crashes.  It seems like there’s a danger of complacency when we think of safety in terms of lockdowns, and not focus on deeper matters.

 Now, the good news is that the OLD reason for kids dying, i.e. disease, is mostly way down, including things like cancer.  Cancer rates are down, cancer in kids is down, and mortality for kids with cancer is down.  This should be a good news story.  According to Steven Pinker’s newest book, we are living in the least violent, most peaceful, safest, healthiest, longest-lived, most leisured society on Earth since the beginning of humanity.  There are fewer wars, they last less long, and take fewer lives, than ever.   We should be the least anxiety-ridden people ever to walk the planet.    So check it out:  we ARE safe.  We’re the safest human beings have ever been.  Anybody who tells you different may be selling something.  Despite our relative Über-safety, though, anxiety levels – particularly amongst teens – are WAY up.  We have to try to accept some of the societal blame for this, and for the consequences of teen anxiety and depression, which as I said, is the second most likely cause of death of young people.  We’re safe, but we make up fears for ourselves to fill the gap, and pass those fears along to our kids.  But we don’t even do that well!  Here is a short list of the kinds of things that we could realistically be afraid of, and spend time and resources on, based on statistical danger (again, most of this data is U.S. specific):

 The ‘flu still kills 36 000 people annually (the normal kind, not the swine or bird ‘flus, which frightened far more people than they actually killed).  Globally, the seasonal ‘flu kills about half a million people every year:  the swine ‘flu killed under 20 000, putting its global death toll at less than the normal yearly rate of U.S. seasonal ‘flu death.

68 people are wounded by pens and pencils every year.

According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, there were 37 known vending machine fatalities between 1978 and 1995, for an average of 2.18 deaths per year.

3 000 people are injured by chairs at work or school.

2 944 people are injured by desks.

Photocopy machines injure 497.

1 241 people are injured by computers.

Clocks injured 74 people in 2001.

212 people were sent to hospital after encounters with telephones.

73 people are killed every year by lightning.

120 people are injured by toilets DAILY!!  (Read Dave Barry’s column or blog for statistics on exploding toilets.)

You have a 1 in 150 000 chance of choking to death every time you eat (not insignificant!  But the biological benefits of having your larynx in this awkward position, and therefore giving you the power of speech, outweigh the risk, even at those odds.  Nature, at least, seems to understand risk assessment!)

Even if you just sit quietly and do nothing, your chances of dying randomly at any moment are about 1 in 450 000, given the entire population of the U.S., which of course includes the elderly and ill.

 Those are some things that we might worry about if we were more rational about risk.   Instead, we worry about terrorism, child abduction, and school shootings, which are about as unlikely to kill our kids as sharks.  Okay, I know that when kids come into the picture, realistic assessment of risk goes WAY down.  That’s not anybody’s fault; it seems to be a common cognitive bias.  But come on!  Are we adults?  Can we not get over this?

 5.  Lockdowns and Fire Drills

 People often compare lockdown drills to fire drills, but I’m not 100% sure of how useful it is to make this comparison.  They seem to be many orders of magnitude apart.  But it’s a fair question: have many schools burnt down in the last century?  I’ve heard of it happening with tragic results; I think a lot of the new fire codes, including mandatory drills, came from such incidents.  Fires in general are pretty common, so I don’t know if it’s in the same league.  Let’s check the stats:

Good news – deaths by fire have been on the decline for the past several decades, though they’re still the third most common way people die at home. On average in the United States in 2010, someone died in a fire every 169 minutes, and someone was injured every 30 minutes.  Only 15% of these fires occurred in non-residential buildings.  So no, they’re not on the same scale at all.   And I’m afraid that the lockdown drill, although it is modelled on the fire drill, does not work from the same basic assumptions.  In a fire drill, you know what the situation is, and there are time-tested methods of dealing with it in an efficient manner by using behaviourist training.  Leaving a burning building doesn’t require training, but doing so quickly but in an orderly manner, and overcoming the common instinctive reaction to grab meaningful possessions, means that you have to program anti-intuitive behaviours into people.  That’s what drills are for.  When I was in the Army, we did drills to try to ingrain habits in us that countered powerful intuitions that, unfortunately, were dangerous.  When we smelled gas, we had to be trained to put our own gas masks on before we warned our platoon mates of the danger:  something like putting your own oxygen mask on in a plane emergency before helping a child.  It’s not intuitive, but it saves lives.  In a lockdown, we do not always know what kind of situation this response might address.  In such a situation, where there are no parameters, how are we to know that sitting quietly and waiting for police is actually the best strategy?

 As to the argument that fire drills and lockdowns reduce panic, there’s no evidence that people run scared when faced with unexpected events.  Hollywood has people screaming and running from everything from terrorists to Godzilla, but in real life this does not seem to happen.  People sometimes do kind of stupid things in emergencies, but there is not much evidence for panic like many people describe.  In the one case of a suspected gun at school that I have experienced, there was no panic, and I stupidly entered the building, thinking I could help somehow (it turned out to be a kid with a toy gun).   I was teaching in London during the Underground bombing in 2005, and for nine horrible hours I thought we had lost students.  I was dreading calling parents; it was really awful.  It turned out that things were so outwardly normal in the city that the kids (who had the day off and were shopping) had no idea anything was wrong, and therefore didn’t check in.

 Instead of fire drills, a better comparison might be to the “duck and cover” drills of the Cold War, when the baby boomers who are now forming public policy had to hide under their desks for fear of The Big One, courtesy of the Communists, who may or might not have been a bigger threat than the hypothetical gunmen we’re talking about.  The perceived risk of nuclear attack was always higher than the actual risk, even during the Cold War. Keep in mind that there were only ever two nuclear bomb attacks on anybody anywhere, neither of them by a Communist regime. Even the Cuban Missile Crisis, we are now learning, was a long way from the near-annihilation that was in the papers. When I was in the Army, our field manual showed us the response to a nuclear blast, which was to lie down on the ground and point our helmets at the mushroom cloud. The whole thing is absurd, and is (mostly) remembered by sane people as absurd.  My feeling is that these drills will be too, once we’ve either calmed down or moved on to the next paranoid delusion to grip our fragile minds.  Remember, we’re talking about either things that essentially, statistically, DO NOT HAPPEN, or whose risks are in the millions to one against, which is more or less the same thing.

 6.  A Lack of Emergency Preparedness Sank the Titanic, Didn’t It?

 A criminal type of insouciance led the Titanic’s owners not to anticipate disaster, and not provide enough lifeboats for all the passengers, with tragic consequences.  They claimed that having lifeboats on board and emergency drills would cause undue panic.  Doesn’t that prove the need for such legitimate drills? If not this, what are the legitimate reasons a lockdown might take place?

 Using the term ‘legitimate lockdown’ is unfortunately tautological.  The effectiveness of lockdowns is what is under question here.  Again, what assailants are we talking about here?  Who are they?  We are talking hypotheticals.  “What if” is rarely a useful question to ask when assessing risk.  Seriously, who are we afraid of?  Once we identify them, we can figure out whether they’re worth worrying about.

 I also don’t see that the analogy to the Titanic is warranted.  Arrogance, not adherence to facts, made them under-supply the ship with lifeboats.  I’m not advocating that we do nothing in the interests of security.  I’m just saying we need to look carefully at what is reasonable, and address issues that actually 1.  happen , and 2.  we can do something about.  The Titanic is actually a good example of NOT taking a reasonable precautions to risk.  It was not actually all that unlikely that lifeboats would be needed, and certainly if they were needed at all, everybody would need one. Even in modern times, “Two large ships sink every week on average,” says Wolfgang Rosenthal, of the GKSS Research Centre in Geesthacht, Germany. That’s about 100 every year.  I imagine it was even worse leading up to 1912.  The line about causing undue panic seems like somebody’s excuse for bad planning.

In fact, one might argue that it was complacency that was created by newfangled security measures (the system of bulkheads) that sank the Titanic. They had security measures in place, and due to an extremely unlikely turn of events, those weren’t effective — whereas the backup safety measures that might have saved people’s lives were ignored because of a feeling that safety concerns had already been addressed.  Complex interrelationships of unlikely events,  poor decisions, and human failings sank the ship, and those are things that are extremely difficult to plan for.  That said, again, the reason we all know about the Titanic in the first place is because of the phenomenally unlikely circumstances that led to the incident, as well as the press reaction to the event.  It was in the news because it was rare.

 7.  Don’t Spout Statistics:  These Are People’s Lives!

 Precisely.  So let’s start thinking honestly and rationally about what puts them in danger, and then deal with them effectively.  So, once again, let’s get some perspective.  We are, by all accounts, the safest people ever to walk the planet.  But this seems to make us adjust our criteria for risk downward, filling in the anxiety gap with more and more trivial worries.  We are the most risk-averse society that I have ever heard or read of.  Although the possibility of reaching zero risk is impossible, a study by a professor at Ottawa U. finds that most Canadians think that it is possible.  Not only that, they expect the government and institutions to provide it for them (!)  Considering how important risk is to normal cognitive and social development, I find this very troubling as an educator.

 There are good examples of how realistic awareness of risk might have prevented tragedy.  In addition to the statistic I quoted above, where the majority of traffic injuries involving children are caused by anxious parents driving their precious bundles to school, there are others.  This one is for everyone who thinks that we ought to have a plan to deal with emergencies:  You’re right.  I am all for safety.  The question is a matter of finding out what actually makes us unsafe, and then dealing with those things in a way that actually improves safety, while not compromising quality of life more than is necessary.

 The TSA, for example.  I don’t think anyone has successfully shown that the horrorshow that is U.S. customs and security actually adds much to actual safety.  It detracts way more from quality of life, dignity, privacy, and common decency than it adds to safety.  And the issue that it supposedly addresses, while terrible and frightening, is astronomically remote.  Terrorism is down, too, if anyone’s wondering (with the exception of within the state of Israel).  In order for taking a plane to be even close to as dangerous as driving (which we all do, and NEVER seem to question it, despite the recent seeming glut of people being mowed down by cars in the city in which I live and work), terrorists would have to hijack and crash a plane a week for months, AND you would have to get on a plane daily.

 In fact (getting to the point), after 9/11, many people cancelled flights out of fears of crashing planes, and got into cars to take their trips.  Someone crunched the numbers and found out how many people died unnecessarily in car crashes as a direct result of that decision:   Turns out it was close to 1600, or about half the total life cost of 9/11, including the terrorists.   It’s six times the number of people on the planes that crashed.  That’s 1600 people who tried to make the right decision, but are dead because they didn’t take the actual facts into account.

 It just seems like instead of reacting to risk, we could respond to it and try to make sure that what we do to address it doesn’t either miss the boat or make things worse.  Safe is good, but we have to define our terms.  Driving feels safer than flying, because we think we’re in control, but it is one of the single most dangerous activities we can partake in, unless we’re deepsea divers or active-service paratroopers.  I’m all for CPR and first aid.  The chances of needing those skills are actually quite high:  in the U.S., heart disease killed 700, 142 people in 2001.  If they SEEM rare, that’s part of our perceptual blind spot.  Things that seem rare or safe are often quite dangerous, and things that seem (emotionally?) to be dangerous are often not worth the angst.

 8.  Risk and the media

 Much of our risk aversion comes from the “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality of media coverage of events.  A lot more of it comes from lawyers.  Statistically, I would bet that your chances of being sued for some improbable event would greatly outweigh the chances of the original event happening in the first place.  I have, though, weirdly enough, also read articles that suggest that the number of frivolous lawsuits actually brought to court in North America are much smaller than most people assume – there seems to be some evidence that the insurance companies are actively encouraging a sense of the overwhelming use of frivolous lawsuits in popular culture so that they can justify higher rates. On top of that, a major beneficiary of the Cult of Fear is the horde of manufacturers of Safety Products, who prey on irrational paranoia.  Free Range Kids details some of the more egregious examples of a manufactured crisis with expensive manufactured cures:  baby kneepads, for instance, for crawling tots.  As if thousands of generations of infants had evolved to crawl “unsafely”, just waiting for the right product to correct nature’s deficiencies.  Sigh.  So, in answer to my earlier question of Cui Bono:  “Too many dubious sorts of people”.

 One of the major factors that affect our minds’ perception of risk is what Daniel Gardner, who wrote a book on the subject and spoke eloquently at a lecture I attended a couple of years ago,  calls a “feedback loop” generated by media.  The original noise is picked up and amplified in a kind of echo chamber, and this escalates the brain’s response to threat in ways that we could never have without the media’s involvement.  Reporters are people too, and their risk assessment tools are just as terrible as the rest of ours.  Their choices, though, have social effects that are wide-reaching.

 In Canada, where I live, there was a news story recently that, though local in nature, became a national story:  a doctor at a clinic in Ottawa had improperly sterilised her colonoscopy equipment, and around 5 000 ex-patients were being contacted by letter, informing them of a remote risk of infection by Hepatitis or HIV.  The odds against HIV infection were more than a billion to one against, which so far exceeds the “de minimis” rule that it kind of shocked me that it was even mentioned.  The media went nuts, probably because of the shock value attached to AIDS-related material.  The authorities hesitated to contact the media at all about the matter, perhaps knowing what kind of a zoo it would become.  When the media got hold of that fact, of course, it was played to the hilt.  It was made to look like a conspiracy; at the very least, the mostly-risk-uneducated public felt that they were being patronised.

 The next bit of newsworthy material that came out of this story was that clinics around the country were worried about cancellations of important colonoscopic procedures by people who had heard the news item and lost confidence in the procedure, thereby creating a real risk due to undiagnosed conditions that could easily eventually become fatal.  This was creating a situation somewhat reminiscent of the anti-vaccine movement that puts thousands of people at risk based on ignorance, fear, and bad science.

 I’ll add this:  Information is not automatically a good thing, though I definitely want as much as possible in order to make decisions.  How we use that information to make decisions is just as important.  I partly agree with those who say that the witholding of information can seem patronising, but since the medium is the message, how that information is disseminated and presented is enormously influential.  The Feedback Loop that Gardner describes is an unfortunate, but real, byproduct of the way media produces stories.  And until schools’ curricula start to focus a lot more (as we have hopefully begun to do) on things like cognitive blind spots, logical fallacies, analysis of information, correcting lazy thinking, etc., and until politicians’ use of language is held to a higher standard, we’re going to have to deal with a question mark as to how people are going to react to risk.


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Ten Things Our Grandparents Got Right #3: They allowed us to fail

Final Part

Benefits of failure 

All of the factors mentioned in the first three segments of this posting series have contributed to the notion that risk is unacceptable in any form.  Failure, the constant companion of risk, is just as much of a pariah.  But they are both very necessary for healthy development.  David McClelland, of Harvard University Psychology Department, found that setting goals with a high possibility of failure – somewhere between 30 and 50% chance – actually helped highly motivated people to improve their skills.  His work in achievement and motivation earned him the APA’s Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions.

 Over at Stanford, Dr Carol Dweck suggests that two different attitudes towards the concept of intelligence can have a huge effect on not only learning, but anxiety.  A ‘fixed’ mindset is one that is born of a belief that success and intelligence are innate:  statements like “You’re very bright” accentuate this belief.  Holders of this mindset are upset with the notion of failure, because it so obviously reflects on them as people, on the essential level.  The ‘growth’ mindset is different:  it assumes that success is the result of hard work, and therefore holders of this mentality fear failure much less:  they’ll just keep trying and learning as they go.  Obviously, these are the innovators and high achievers of our times; the ‘fixed’ mindset leads more often to anxiety and paralysis than any kind of growth or success.  You can see the two mindsets laid out in this graphic: 

Michael Jordan once said on the subject:  “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career, I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”  More famous “failures” are highlighted in this short video:

On an even more fundamental level, Gandhi reminds us that “Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.”  Or, more correctly, freedom does not exist under those circumstances.  And when freedom does not exist, there is no control over one’s future, a circumstance that psychologists point out is a big factor in the increasing levels of anxiety and depression in kids today.  In 2007, a group of 270 child psychologists from around the English-speaking Western world wrote an open letter to the Daily Telegraph suggested that the loss of unstructured play time was behind the “explosion in children’s diagnosable mental health problems”.  This seems to be supported by some research:  overprotective and controlling behaviour by parents might be the mechanism by which the transmission of anxiety from parent to child (well documented elsewhere) is effected.

Risk aversion is rampant in the education system today.  There are dozens of anecdotal examples from the Phys. Ed. Department where I work.  Some kid, against instructions, climbs one of those apparatuses in the gym that fold out for climbing, and falls off:  instant ad-hoc regulation from the Board, banning the use of the apparatus.  Apparently the dangers inherent in not listening to safety instructions are overshadowed by those in everyday physical objects.  A celebrity dies on a ski slope after hitting her head – and immediately, all students in the Board are required to wear helmets for all  outdoor winter activities, which means that the annual ESL field trip to go ice skating is cancelled, because the recent immigrants to Canada (many of them refugees) are often too poor to afford sports equipment.  These kids survived war zones, and now aren’t allowed outside without helmets.  What is the actual rate of injury or death on ski hills in Canada?  Who cares?  A celebrity died, so it could happen to anybody, right?  The list of acceptable activities in Gym class is steadily shrinking.  Statistics (otherwise known as facts) play no apparent role in Board decisions of this type; only gut feelings of fear and probable danger hold sway.  Some simple research would tell you how many times an injury has occurred during a particular activity; then, divide that into the number of students who have participated in the activity.  This should give you some idea of the risk.  The number will rarely be zero, but if the activity has benefits (such as generating camaraderie, self-confidence, cooperation, etc.) that are significant, it’s usually worth enduring some slight risk in order to participate.  As Dan Gardner says, saying that something could happen is a meaningless statement.  It’s the probability of that event happening which ought to guide our responses.  Though I must say that the risk of litigation over rare incidents is much higher than the risk of the incidents themselves!  This is really a problem, and ought to be considered more carefully.

 It need not be said that the perceived risk of the effects of failure on students is exaggerated, by parents and administrators, as well as by students themselves.  It is often presented as the End of Dreams:  a shut door to the future, equivalent in many cases to the loss of hope.  The amazing self-absorption of many of us in the field of education astounds me daily.  Every person reading this probably knows at least one high school dropout who went on to live a perfectly happy and productive life.  The entrepreneurial world is full of them:  Angelfire.com lists 755 notable elementary- and high-school-dropouts on what it claims is the most comprehensive list ever compiled on the subject; it includes 25 billionaires, 8 U.S. Presidents (that’s about 18% of the total number of Presidents ever!), 28 knighthoods, 55 bestselling authors, 10 Nobel Prize winners, and an astronaut.  The number is of course tiny compared to all the students who did graduate, but there are plenty of non-graduates who are living good, though non-spectacular lives all over the world.  The increased expectation for children to attend university in Canada has had some serious effects on schools and on society, according to James Côté and Anton Allahar, authors of Ivory Tower Blues

 In universities, as well as in high schools, it has led to remarkable grade inflation.  The Ontario Scholar bursary, awarded to students who graduate with an average of 80% or better, is now awarded to over 40% of all graduates, making it nearly meaningless.  Back in the 1960s, when it was conceived, only about 5% of students managed it.  At the same time, professors’ satisfaction with the knowledge base of undergraduates is steadily decreasing.  A big part of this is due to the sheer numbers of students attending university; attendance at postsecondary institutions has increased over 900% since the 1950s, making undergraduate students comprise about the same percentage of the population in 2004 as high school students did back in 1950.  (Ivory Tower Blues, p.26)  And with grade inflation comes credentialism, where a diploma or degree is seen as either an end in itself (and not the learning that earns the degree), or else a stepping stone to later employment or social success.  Neither of these takes into account that intrinsic motivation for learning, in other words, genuine, applied, and focused attention and interest in a subject, is the only real way that long-term brain mapping is accomplished (what we might call actual learning).  Goal-oriented practices such as focusing on diplomas or even on grades have been clinically shown to actually decrease success in academic pursuits (see Alfie Kohn’s article, “From Degrading to De-Grading” in High School Magazine , March 1999, among others.  Available at Alfiekohn.org).  The problem is that they make you focus beyond what you’re doing to the activity’s results and even beyond, to the consequences of those results.  It’s a distraction.  And our society is good at distraction.  Note that being focused on the present, that zen-like Eastern mindset, is once again absent from the Western picture.

 I have actually had a principal tell me that I was not “getting the big picture”, which to her meant the four-year career of a student through high school to a diploma.  She had no real answer to my suggestion that a “big picture” ought reasonably to include the long-term well-being of students once they leave our halls.  Teachers, whose understanding of the process of learning is generally considerable, are the only ones who seem not to be as affected by this anxiety — that said, there is an enormous amount of pressure on educators not to assign failing grades.

 The practice of “Social Promotion” is badly understood by those within and without the system of education.  It is based on studies which appeared to show a correlation between students who were held back a year and those who eventually drop out of the system.  But a basic understanding of the term ‘correlation’ would help to disentangle some of the angst:  ‘correlation’ does not imply ‘causation’.  That is, one might expect to find that students who are disengaged from the learning process or from the environment of school for reasons of predisposition, stresses at home, a lack of support, etc. are the ones who are most likely to both fail courses and eventually drop out altogether.  The one does not necessarily cause the other to happen.  And yet many students are passed by administrators (often over the objections of subject teachers) despite the fact that they have not mastered the material covered by the course, on the assumption that their self-image will be damaged.  This has snowballing effects up the various grades and into universities, where less and less often professors are reporting satisfaction with the skills and knowledge base of undergraduates.  Despite studies which have shown that the causal link between repeating a grade and dropping out is tenuous at best, it might be true that the social cost of failing a grade and being held back is real, at least to some degree.  There is a maelstrom of debate about this, of course, but even assuming it does exist, it would seem to me to be more of a problem with the whole process of segregating students by age in the first place, rather than with the question of whether or not they are going to be left behind by their peers.  And there are good indications that the practice of passing people who know that they do not deserve to pass creates problems in self-esteem, which good psychologists know has to be genuine and earned in order to be beneficial.   Or, as James   Côté explains, it’s a difference between self-esteem and self-efficacy:

“The problem with the feel-good pedagogy of self-esteem is that it leads to neglect of basic pedagogical principles of learning and progressive skill acquisition.  In contrast to rewarding everyone regardless of how well the job is done, when a student learns the rudiments and masters the elements of a skill or area of knowledge, that person also acquires a sense of self-efficacy [, ] a sense that one can accomplish things and that those things are under one’s control.  [It] is thus a form of personal agency […] fromthis experience follows a realistic sense of self-esteem, and this sense of self-esteem is reinforced with every efficacious experience.  […]  People with high self-esteem, but low self-efficacy, must rely on continual feedback from others.”   (Ivory Tower Blues, p.70) 

 Our grandparents weren’t so risk averse.  “With the proliferation of graded schools in the middle of the 19th century, retention became a common practice. In fact, a century ago, approximately half of all American students were retained at least once before the age of 13”  (Rose, Janet S.; et al. “A Fresh Look at the Retention-Promotion Controversy.” Journal of School Psychology, v21 n3 p201-11 Fall 1983).  But this was in the days before the strange practice of age-apartheid in modern schools.  In the one-room schoolhouse, the older children provided behavioural models for the younger kids, as well as helping to teach them curriculum.  And if there’s one thing I have found out over more than a decade of teaching, it’s that if you want to know a subject well, you should teach it to someone else.

 Remember the numbers a few paragraphs back?  Undergraduate registration has risen 900% in 60 years, largely the result of the intellectual “arms race” of the Cold War.  The idea was that the supply of a large educated class would produce its own demand – but it didn’t.  Students and parents frequently are pushed (not pulled) toward university educations because of the rampant credentialism that tells them that a degree is like a passport to a good, white-collar job.  But though the number of undergraduates increased a hundred and fifty times in the last hundred years, the population of Canada only increased six times during that same period, and the number of white collar jobs (the supposed extrinsic aim of such an education) only increased by about 60%, and sits today at only about 16% of all jobs.  The story is a fib, in other words, and it’s one that causes disengagement and erosion of academic values, as well as a devaluation of the trades.  Students are in university for the wrong reasons, and even if they don’t drop out or fail in their first year (which nearly half do), there’s no guarantee of a job in their field after they graduate.

 So, those fears of a dark future without a high school diploma or a university degree are pretty much just that:  fear.  Whatever basis in reality it has is merely a self-fulfilling prophecy, and has no bearing on the actual state of affairs in Canada.  But when you have a massively risk-averse culture, and public policy that is too often based on emotions or ideology, rather than research, the result is a chaotic mess of anxieties and confusion and artificial pressures on students and teachers alike.  Combine that with the beneficial effects of a growth mindset – one that takes failure for granted, and actually depends on it for improvement and development – and you have a conundrum.

 That P.D. session I mentioned in the first of the blog entries under this title reinforces the point:  That well-meaning ex-clergyman wanted to spare children the pain of failure, and in doing so, took all the responsibility for that student’s success onto himself.  This may have been good for his own sense of martyrdom or of self-esteem based on his own perceived heroism, but it does little for the kids it’s supposed to help.

 Students don’t just survive failure.  They need it to learn.  And our overprotective attitude towards the topic hurts them in the long run.


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