Generally Accepted Parenting Practices

Friday, April 24th, 2015

Megan McArdle doesn’t think there’s one easy answer to why we’ve become insane:

Why has America gone lunatic on the subject of unattended children? Parents hover over their kids as if every step might be their last. If they don’t hover, strangers do, calling the police to report any parent who leaves their child to run into the store for a few minutes. What’s truly strange is that the parents who are doing this were themselves left to their own devices in cars, allowed to ride their bikes and walk to the store unsupervised, and otherwise given the (limited) freedom that they are now determined to deny their own kids. The police are making arrests that would have branded their own parents as criminals. To hear people my age talk about the dangers of unsupervised children, you would think that the attrition rate in our generation had been at least 30 percent.

Even people who haven’t gone crazy are afraid of the Pediatric Patrol. A mom of my acquaintance whose house backs up to a school playground, with a gate that lets her children walk straight into the schoolyard, is afraid to let them go through the gate without an adult, for fear that someone would call the same nutty CPS that has taken to impounding the Meitiv children. She compromises by letting them play alone in the playground only when she is in the backyard, so that she can intervene if the police arrive.

Think about that: Kids have the priceless boon of a playground right in their backyard, but they can’t use it unless Mom drops everything to accompany them. I am running out of synonyms for “insane” to describe the state we have worked ourselves into. What on earth has happened to us?

How can we explain it? A few possible causes:

Cable news. When you listen to parents talk about why they hover, you’ll frequently hear that the world is more dangerous than it used to be. This is the exact opposite of the truth. [...] There were always stranger abductions, but they were always extremely rare, perhaps 2 or 3 per 1 million children under 12 in the U.S. each year. However, in the 1970s, you most likely only heard about local cases, and because these were rare, you would hear about one every few years in a moderately large metropolitan area. [...] Then along came cable news, which needed to fill 24 hours a day with content. These sorts of cases started to make national news, and because our brains are terrible at statistics, we did not register this as “Aha, the overall rate is still low, but I am now hearing cases drawn from a much larger population, so I hear about more of them.” Instead, it felt like stranger abductions must have gone up a lot.

Collective-action problems. When it comes to safety, overprotective parents are in effect taking out a sort of regret insurance. Every community has what you might call “generally accepted child-rearing practices,” the parenting equivalent of “generally accepted accounting principles.” These principles define what is good parenting and provide a sort of mental safe harbor in the event of an accident.


  1. Bill says:

    I like both of the items listed, but I’d add one. I can’t remember the book, but Dick Cheney made a big deal about how outcomes that are extremely unlikely (1%… 1/10 of 1%…1/100 of 1%) were still too horrific to even contemplate, and if we had to give up all of our freedom and political liberty, and go deep into debt, we had to do it.

    We’ve really lost our perspective. 9/11 was terrible; 3,000 people died. But yet 3,000 people die EVERY MONTH on American roads, men, women and children, and I never hear about a $1trillion war on traffic fatalities.

  2. Bill says:

    I’d also like to point out what we miss in not giving our children the absolute freedom that I had in childhood. As an 8 year-old, I could go where I wanted and had complete control over my time (as long as I was back by dinner, of course!). I’d meet with my friends at a local park, and we organized all of our own activities. We never participated in stuff that was organized by adults; no coaches yelling at us, no scoutmasters telling us the rules, no parents driving us here and there, organizing all our social interactions (“playdates”).

    I think that too many people are used to the idea that someone else is going to organize all their time, find things for them to do, organize who their friends are, feed and house them, etc. Is that one of the reason so many young people finish college and then promptly return home?

    This level of dependence is extremely attractive to the principal owners of our economy, and the politicians who run things for them.

  3. Alrenous says:

    “I need certainty that this thing won’t happen!”
    “You can’t have certainty.”

    As a leader your options are to assure them, which means you’ll lose most of your authority if the thing does happen, or to not assure them, meaning they go into self-amplifying hysterics. Apparently we’ve gone with option B.

  4. Alrenous says:


    The actual trigger is the belief the event is preventable. Traffic fatalities are ‘accidents.’ They just happen, you accept them if they do. Kidnappings or terrorism are agent-caused. Agents can be influenced, unlike Lady Luck.

    Since hobbits don’t have ‘low probability’ only ‘zero’ and ‘moderate,’ they think there’s a moderate chance of kidnapping, which they can prevent. They go into a death spiral, looking for feedback that the interventions are working. Solution: tell them it’s hopeless and they can’t do anything.

    Ironically traffic accidents are preventable.

  5. Lucklucky says:

    What about societal evolution and its “muscle memory”?

    Protecting children is so good that societal evolution takes it to paroxysm.

  6. Lucklucky says:

    Another co-argument could be societal specialization, specialization breads a narrative of perfection, obsessiveness: indoctrination and consequent evolution up to paranoid levels. Everyone of us can go over the top in every subject because now we can. Being parent is like being a top athlete dedicating inordinate amounts of resources to the project.

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