Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Risks of Parenting

I've been mulling over a post that Erin wrote a while ago about cherry picking science. In it, she admitted that though she sometimes can't believe that people don't trust the science behind climate change, she doesn't always trust science herself.

Even among those of us who love science, our relationship with it can be quite fraught.

Consider this article from the LA Times which notes that children using a rear-facing car seat until age 2 are 75% less likely to die or suffer serious injuries in a car crash. In spite of this seemingly overwhelming evidence, the article notes that many parents have chosen to ignore the recommendations and are placing the car seats in a forward facing position.


I can't speak for all those parents, but there are several possible explanations.

One is that they are either scientifically illiterate or don't understand the risk as my friend Abbie suggested when we recently debated this on Facebook.

The other is that they do understand the risk, and have decided that it's minimal enough that they choose ... to risk it.

Now the latter might seem like a pretty absurd position to take given that the research shows that your child is 75% less likely to die in a crash if they are facing forward. 75%! That's huge, right?

Well ... sort of.

The reality is, your child would be 100% less likely to die in a vehicular car crash if you never put them in a car. But most people wouldn't consider that. It's too difficult, too inconvenient, too absurd.

Life involves risk. Everything we do involves risk. Driving to work. Drinking a beer. Eating a hamburger (you could get mad cow, dontcha know?) Having sex. Flying on a plane. No matter how you try, you will never live a life that is 100% risk free. And frankly, sometimes it's better not to try. Because to try to live a life with as little risk as possible ... well you could do it, but would you be really living at all?

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, traffic fatalities in 2010 dropped to their lowest point since 1949, when there were a LOT, LOT fewer cars on the road. Now according to the American Association of Pediatrics, there are roughly 5,000 deaths in the U.S. among children and teenagers due to traffic fatalities each year.

The AAP doesn't break down those deaths, but according to some 2003 data by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, about 1,500 children under fifteen died in 2003 due to traffic accidents. And among one to three year olds, the number of children dying annually from traffic accidents has declined from 1993 when about 600 children 1-3 year olds was killed to roughly 400 in 2003.

Are 400 deaths a year 400 too many? Yes. Are those 400 deaths utterly horrible for the parents involved? Yes.

But considering how much we Americans drive, it seems that dying in a car accident is a relatively uncommon event for 1-3 year olds.

Now, as Abbie argued, keeping a child rear facing an extra year is pretty painless. So, in some senses, why not keep your kid rear facing an extra year? Even if the likelihood that your kid is going to die in an accident is small, why take the risk?

And I'll be honest. Knowing all the numbers, if I were a parent, I think I would probably opt to keep my kid rear facing until they were two.


The problem with parenting is that it seems to be a world filled with little (and gradually diminishing) risks. Yet it always seems like even those little risks are too big to take chances.

Yes, it's true that your child is unlikely to be kidnapped. But why take the risk and let them play outside on their own?

Yes, it's true that you are EXTREMELY unlikely to get listeria. But why take the risk and eat unpasteurized cheese when pregnant?

Yes, it's true that some germs are probably okay for your kid. But why take the risk when you can Purell, Purell, Purell?

Ultimately, life comes with risk. It just does. And the sooner we can accept that, the better. So if some parents think that keeping their kid in a rear facing car seat for another year is too onerous, I understand.


Farmer's Daughter said...

I think you did a pretty good job explaining my position on rear-facing car seats. Like you pointed out, it's pretty easy to just leave the seat facing backwards. I'm pretty happy that the choices I have to make for my 12-month-old are easy right now! :)

PS- My word verification is coffeeiv. Perfect for a Monday!!!

knutty knitter said...

Thats fine unless you have a car sick child. There is nothing more miserable for any car sick person than to travel backwards. So you weigh up the odds. Non car sick = fine, leave them backwards.
Car sick - well it depends how much vomit and screaming and general unhappiness you can put up with or think is fair. It is also a big distraction which is not good when driving. So having a car accident through distraction and misery as opposed to having an accident with the seat faced forwards. Different scenario altogether.

Most of these safety rules tend to be one size fits all. Unfortunately humans tend to vary rather a lot.

For the record I think I was 9 before I made a two hour car ride without having to stop and vomit somewhere and have very vivid memories from around 3 and up.(My poor parents!).

viv in nz

heidi said...

I love the "Purell, Purell, Purell" note - because antibacterial overuse has its own cult following =) My spouse LOVES the antibacterial hand slime, but I prefer water... mostly because the small children I know who live in sterile environments tend to be sickly creatures with no immune systems and the ones who play in dirt or around animals on a regular basis are never sick. Also, bacteria love moisture, how long before we're using bacteria-laden hand slimes that were supposed to be anti-bacterial?

Green Bean said...

So so true! Every day with kids is a risk assessment. Who knew that would be one of the biggest impacts on my life when I had kids. It goes beyond mere safety risks but am I doing too much or too little for this problem or that.

For the car seats, I dunno. I've still got my 6 and 8 years olds in 5 point harness boosters when one could be out of boosters completely and the other could be in one of those dinky little things you toss in and sit on. I do it because it is safer, easier (the seats are already installed) and the kids don't complain. If any one of those things were different, I'd have to do a little risk assessment.

Laura Kaeding said...

It's so hard to find the balance as a parent and it's impossible to please everyone. Just do what you feel is right, and do what you believe your child needs and you should be pretty well covered. At least I hope so, because that's what I'm going with! Experts don't know my child, so why would I listen to them?? :) Risks are what make life worth living sometimes, so avoiding them altogether is definitely not a pleasant thought. Thanks!

EcoCatLady said...

Great post. It seems that we worry the most about things that are least likely to happen. I mean, you're much more likely to die from obesity or not having health insurance, than from terrorist attacks or car seats facing the wrong way.

ruchi said...

Abbie, I'm glad I got your position correct!

Viv, yes this is exactly what I mean and why I think parents have to make these decisions for themselves. If you have a severely car sick child, you might think, well, really, maybe a front facing car seat is okay.

Heidi, I really don't like how now Purell is EVERYWHERE. Also, I really don't remember always being sickly as kids and we didn't have anti-bacterial crap everywhere.

GB, yes, it seems like parenting is continual risk assessment. And not only that, but you have to constantly live with other people judging you!! ;)

Laura, yeah, it's tough finding the balance and I don't think we as a society are doing a super great job of finding that.

Eco Cat, yes, exactly but people are more worried about terrorists than they are about over eating fatty, salty food or not exercising.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

Ignorance of any kind whether it is for climate change or parenting just bothers me. There are so many close-minded individuals, especially within the United States.

Rosa said...

I was a backward-facing seat person, and an extended breastfeeder, and also I let my 5 year old have a lot of freedom with no regard for potential kidnappers.

It's not just weighing the risk, it's weighing the benefit - freedom of movement is a huge benefit, and developing strength, speed, street smarts, and local spatial knowledge have real safety benefits for kids.

That's why we are super duper extra cautious in the car but I'm kind of aggressive and less safety-oriented with the bike or on foot - biking has a ton of benefits and extra "safety" things like never riding after dark makes it hard to rely on my bike for transportation. (Yes, I have had a lot of parents tell me they'd never take their kid out on a bike after dark.)

ruchi said...

Michael, well is it ignorance? I think that's actually debatable.

Rosa, that's an excellent point about weighing the benefits as well. This isn't a great analogy because it's about cats, not children, but I remember a friend of mine worrying about letting her cats go outside because they were more likely to be harmed in various ways. But she realized that her cats would be SO MUCH happier outside that their quality of life would just be much better. So in the end she decided the benefits outweighed the risks. Which is why, yes, you need to do a risk benefit analysis. On the other hand, if your kids, like Viv's, get extremely car sick and pukey if facing backwards, the benefits to sitting backwards facing might not outweigh the risks anymore.

Betsy (Eco-novice) said...

I turned my kids as soon as they were one, because my kids HATE HATE HATE driving in the cars. And, you know what? The emotional trauma to them and me of them wailing every time we get in the car, to me, is more detrimental than the X% chance they'll die in the car. I bought the safest car I could afford and don't drive much anyway. Honestly, I hate car seats AND driving. Wish I could walk anywhere.

And, yes, life does involve Risk. Read a great book in my policy program called Risk & Reason.

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