Friday, August 27, 2010

Children at risk?

Here is a nice piece on parental timidity by someone who has borne the full brunt of its pop cultural popularity.

A teaser:
What has changed in the English-speaking world that has made childhood independence taboo? The ground has not gradually gotten harder under the jungle gym. The bus stops have not crept farther from home. Crime is actually lower than it was when most of us were growing up. So there is no reality-based reason that children today should be treated as more helpless and vulnerable than we were when we were young.
The author blames the long-term trend towards parental timidity on popular culture, which I think falls flat as an explanation. While the relative importance of different media has changed, the news has always focused on the far tail of events related to children: bizarre kidnappings, satanic rituals and all the rest. Without a change in the claimed forcing variable, whence comes a change in the outcome.

Let me offer a couple of other possible explanations, neither of which I am particularly happy with but both of which at least do not fail at the level of face validity, as the popular culture explanation does:

1) The quality-quantity trade-off is one possible story. People have fewer children now and so they invest more in the ones they do have. They may also be more risk averse when they lack the diversification of risk that multiple children provide.

2) Risk of legal liability. Governments are much more likely to go after parents now than they used to be, at least that is my impression. No one wants to compound some bad event happening to their child with criminal prosecution and the media circus that goes with it.

But somehow neither of these seem like quite enough to explain the magnitude of the cultural change that has taken place between when I was growing up, and spent most afternoons wandering about the neighborhood relatively unsupervised for hours on end, and now, when the vast majority of parents would shudder in horror at the very thought of such behavior.

And good for "America's worst mom" for not caving.

Via the Agitator


DLM@SMU said...

How about intra-household bargaining? If the behavioral change comes from moms, and moms have more power within the household, they are better able to act on the media coverage of events from the far tail of the distribution.

Jason Kerwin said...

I think that legal liability is definitely the driving force here, but it seems to me you've got it backwards. At least in the case of playgrounds, the major motivation behind changes has been lawsuits *against* local government agencies. As you note a lot of the effect if lawsuits is hidden, as people try to shield themselves from liability.

I am at a loss to actually explain this increase in litigiousness, but I don't buy the cultural change story either. I speculate that the legal system must has shifted in some way, not necessarily as a result of an explicit policy. Americans today are more litigious, and more successfully so, not only than the Americans of the 1950s, but also than citizens if other industrialized nations.

Michael Ward said...

But to what extent is "Risk of legal liability" exogenous and to what extent is it an endogenous reaction to "increased timidity?"