Most loving, responsible parents worry about our children. We want them to be happy and we want them to stay safe. In our fast-paced, unpredictable world, it sometimes feels like danger lurks around every corner waiting to destroy our children’s lives.
But our perception does not always jive with reality. By practically every measure one can think of, American children are safer than we were growing up — and our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents for that matter. Objectively speaking, our fears and worries are drastically out of proportion with the actual risk.
In the past 80 years, there’s been a more than tenfold decrease in child mortality in the U.S. Some of that decrease is due to vaccines, of course. I understand people’s fear and frustration with parents who choose not to vaccinate, but the fact remains that your child’s chances of getting an infectious disease in the U.S. are far, far less than they’ve ever been in recorded history.
Violent crime is a concern for many too, and there are some specific places in America where that threat is genuine. But overall, violent crime rates are about half what they were in 1991. Seriously, half.
And homicide rates are even more comforting. The murder rate in the U.S. in recent years has been as low as it was in 1960 — the heart of the Leave It to Beaver era many (white) Americans point to as the pinnacle of American greatness and safety.
But terrorism, though. Surely terrorism has made our kids less safe? Well, no, not really. There has been a rise in terrorism in the West in the past few years, but the risk of being attacked by a terrorist in the U.S. is still very, very small. The worst time for terrorism in the U.S. was actually in the 1970s. There were literally hundreds of terrorist attacks in the U.S. during the ’70s.
While every attack is a tragedy, there have only been a couple dozen terrorist attacks in the U.S. since 9/11, perpetrated by a mix of anti-government militants, violent white supremacists, and Islamist jihadists. It’s statistically more likely your child will be struck by lightning than be killed by a terrorist.
What about something less fatal, like kidnapping? According to the FBI, missing person reports have been near record lows in recent years too. In fact, they’ve fallen 40% in the past 20 years. And only 1/10 of 1% of those missing persons were kidnappings by strangers. There’s a chance, but it’s teeny-tiny.
Our kids are safer than ever before. So why does it feel like they’re not?
One big reason is the proliferation of media in the past couple of decades. When I was a kid, we had daily newspapers and the nightly news on three channels, and that was pretty much all we’d see of what was going on in the world. We weren’t bombarded with by-the-minute news stories 24/7, talking heads constantly discussing those stories; multiple think pieces being published about those stories and discussions; and our friends, family, and acquaintances sharing their own thoughts and feelings on those stories, discussions, and think pieces all over social media.
The other big culprit is fear-mongering by politicians, marketers, and others who stand to profit or gain power by playing on our fears. Convincing people they are in danger and making them feel afraid is a lucrative business. Fear is one of the most primal instincts we have. Like sex, fear sells — big time.
So it’s good to remind ourselves from time to time that what we perceive to be true isn’t necessarily true. This is why we have people who study trends and analyze statistics and share their findings with us. We would do ourselves a big favor if we pay less attention to individual gripping stories and more attention to the big picture. Not that those individual stories shouldn’t be told, but we can easily become overwhelmed and start believing that things are far worse than they actually are if we start internalizing every tragic event that crosses our newsfeed.
Our society has not gotten more violent. Our kids are not in greater danger than past generations. Kids are safer now than they’ve ever been. So let’s all relax, loosen the reins a bit, and be grateful that we live in a great time and place for raising children.