The Safety Dance
As a toddler in the 70’s, one thing that was noticeably absent whenever I was riding around in the car with my parents was a car seat. In fact, I didn’t even wear a seatbelt. Instead, I used to sit on the center armrest in the front seat. Apparently, I liked the view up there and the closer proximity to Mom and Dad made for more robust conversation.
Just imagine the uproar these days of seeing a toddler riding in a car down the street just inches from the windshield without so much as a car seat or even a seatbelt providing protection. The ordeal would be national news and the parents would surely be sent to prison! But back in my formative years, no one seemed to give a damn. And it wasn’t just the seatbelt either. The 70’s and 80’s were like the Wild West for kids growing up in that era. No seatbelts, no scrutiny and no supervision.
Not to throw my parents under the bus, mind you. Loose parenting was without a doubt the norm in my day. Like most kids back then, as a young child I learned to ride a bike without a bike helmet. I learned to ski without a ski helmet. Every kid I knew ate peanuts (and gluten, lactose and everything else we could inhale). Most kids were a bit hyper and yet, as far as I knew, none were regularly medicated.
As grade-schoolers, my friends and I walked to the bus stop unaccompanied by parents. We rode our bikes around the neighborhood, to the mall and all over town. As pre driving teenagers, we regularly took the bus downtown to hangout. All activities were unsupervised and there were no cell phones or other means of direct communication with actual adults. We were simply told to be home by dinner.
Not that there weren’t legitimate dangers to be concerned with. The violent crime rate in the 1980’s was significantly higher than it is now. I vividly recall visiting relatives in New York and how concerned they were about which part of town we planned going to. Though no kids I knew got abducted, allegedly some boys in my little league baseball organization were molested. I knew two kids that died from ski accidents. A family friend lost their son to drunk driving. One kid in my high school was hit by a train and killed. Several kids from a local school were killed in a tragic mountaineering accident.
Indeed there were good reasons to be at least somewhat fearful back then and yet we were seemingly oblivious to danger. It’s a wonder I survived! All joking aside, society back in the day needed to get its act together where it came to safety, supervision and street smarts. Fortunately, we did.
In the past 30 years, seatbelts have saved countless lives. Helmets have prevented many deaths and serious life altering injuries. Prominent media campaigns like MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) helped bring about positive changes in attitudes and legislation to combat impaired driving. Social attitudes have vastly improved as well. For instance, gay kids and other marginalized groups didn’t enjoy the freedom and respect back then that they do now. Thanks to an evolution in thought and action, life has become safer and in many ways, better.
However, while the 70’s and 80’s were a bit too reckless and nonchalant, clearly the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. Fear now permeates almost every facet of our culture. Parents don’t let their kids outside unaccompanied because of fearing kidnappers and rapists. We fear immigrants as dangerous criminals and opportunists looking to steal our jobs. We fear terrorism. We fear people using the wrong bathrooms. We even fear peanuts and gluten. Many, if not most of these fears have almost no reasonable basis or factual substantiation. We’re obsessed with danger and paralyzed by fear, but the reality is we have never been safer. Consider the following statistics:
· According to the FBI, violent crime rate in the US fell 48% between 1993 and 2016.
· In the year October 2010-September 2011, there were only 105 kidnappings (65 abducted by complete strangers) that year out of a population of 73.9 million children.
· There are an average of just two Americans killed by (jihadist) terrorism every year. Consider that 69 people are killed by lawnmowers every year in our country!
· An estimated 1% of Americans (approximately 3 million people) have celiac disease. 3 million people is far from insubstantial, but more than 30 million Americans avoid gluten despite no indication that they are sensitive to gluten or any evidence that it’s healthier for you.
· In the decade from 1996-2006, the CDC documented a total of 13 child deaths from peanut exposure. Certainly, any death of a child is tragic, but because of thirteen deaths in 10 years, we’ve changed our entire nationwide scholastic and cultural approach to nutrition.
We don’t connect the dots of our media-driven, fear-based culture and how it’s making us inept, impotent and frankly, soft. We’re weak where we need to toughen up and we’re distracted or ignorant where it comes to the actual legitimate fears we should be concerned with.
· Despite a tragic and pronounced epidemic of addiction, no one seems to notice the correlation that many kids (and adults) are more heavily medicated than ever. Furthermore, no one seems to mind the constant bombardment of aggressive advertising touting highly addictive substances from processed sugar to alcohol to prescription drugs.
· Despite the alarming trend of growing suicide rates, we pay little attention to the compulsive nature of screen time and social media, which are directly correlated with depression and anxiety.
· Despite guns killing almost 1300 kids each year and the horrific epidemic of mass shootings and school shootings, we’re too self absorbed and politically polarized to actually get anything done about it.
· Despite a massive looming threat from the critical state of the environment, many are unwilling to adjust their lifestyle and consumption habits.
The obvious question we should be asking related to issues of safety is the query “Is It working?” Seatbelts undoubtedly work. Without question, bike and ski helmets work. But ‘Safe’ zones and ‘helicopter' parenting do nothing but perpetuate a culture of fear and ineptitude. Prescription drug ads do nothing but create a frenzy of drug use and abuse.
False ideologies on both sides of the political spectrum are to blame for our coddled and contemptuous society. Many shamefully fear monger by demonizing those that look, pray and love differently. Others left lack courage in standing up to political correctness run amok. We are now a nation of wimps and whiners thanks in large part to the unintended consequences of overparenting and the ridiculous notion of “safetyism.”
The fact is we are much safer than we think from the issues that garner the most attention like crime and terrorism. Yet paradoxically, we’re also in much more danger than we’re aware from the issues that lurk beneath the surface of popular thought. While we’re busy fretting over immigrants, terrorists and peanuts, threats of our own psyche (addiction, mental health and suicide) are literally killing us. Because of these threats, for the second year in a row, as a nation we are facing a declining life expectancy.
If we are to succeed personally, culturally and environmentally, we need a balanced approach to fear and safety. I’m not advocating for a return to the careless attitudes of my free-swinging childhood. But it’s time to bring that pendulum back to the center if just a bit. It’s time for us to face the music and stand up to fear instead of promoting and succumbing to it.