What’s Dangerous? Really?

There’s been a lot of attention paid to fear lately. So, I got wondering just how we determine what is dangerous, what is to be feared. In social psychology the literature focuses on “risk” and how we perceive what is risky. Whatever you call it, when you feel afraid, how have you gotten there? How do you decide what’s dangerous; what’s risky?



Ever even think about it before?

At first glance, what’s dangerous to me is surely dangerous to you, too.

Ah, but let us take a closer look, shall we?

Consider the presents given to an eight year old.  

  • A doll
  • A pocketknife
  • A machete
  • A rifle

Depending on where you live, any one of these can be an acceptable gift; it depends on your interpretation of danger, your perception of the risk involved. And that, as I’m sure you’ve surmised by now, depends on your culture.

For the most part!

Yes, there are individual differences, the James Dean types who have to race every car, no matter the consequences.

And there are universal agreements that certain things are always too dangerous to consider, like jumping off the Golden Gate bridge or playing Russian roulette with a loaded gun.

Where does eating wild mushrooms fall, I wonder? Or not having your child vaccinated? Or having your child vaccinated?  That will wait for a future post, another one on those annoying facts that mess with our otherwise neatly ordered belief system.

I digress.

Mostly, it seems to me, we don’t stop to fully analyze the risks we take; nor the ones from which we shy. That bear can run fast, you know, and we’re programmed to size it up quickly and react. “Fight, flee, or freeze” is in our hardwiring. Pick one!

But bears are not what we deal with generally. (I actually do; but that’s another story).  Instead, we deal with ….  what?  I’ll let you fill it in.

And, more to the point of this post, how do those fears impact what you allow your children to do?

It’s different, isn’t it, when it involves our children.  We as adults do lots of things we’d never dream of letting our children do.

So hang on to your certainty, we’re going for a ride thanks to Gever Tulley, who wrote a fun little book, Fifty Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kid Do.

Yes, I’d not heard of him either, so I Googled him. (Now I’ve got his book for each of my sons this Christmas — i.e., the grandchildren). 

According to Tulley’s Wikipedia page, he’s “an American writer, speaker, educator, entrepreneur, and computer scientist. He is the founder of the Brightworks School, Tinkering School, the non-profit Institute for Applied Tinkering, and educational kit maker Tinkering Labs.” And what he has to say is not only entertaining, it’s provocative. And, given my love of all things culturally determined, he got my attention.

Consider this conversation Tulley had with a Wyoming schoolteacher as she describes a typical weekend for her kids.

“I pack ’em a sack-lunch, check the ammo in the rifle, and kick ’em out the back door after breakfast. They spend the day in the hills and forest behind our ranch and come back in time for dinner,” she replied.


“How old are your kids?” I nodded, trying to acclimate myself to this view of the world.


“The oldest, she’s 11 going on 12, and the youngest, he’s 10.”


Even for me, this was a bit of a surprise, and it showed on my face.


“Well, they’re not alone.” she quickly added, “They always take the dog with them.”


I know. I’m an east coast city girl. That was a shocker for me too.

I read through Tulley’s list of 50 dangerous things (it’s the Table of Contents) when the books arrived and the one that popped out at me: Let him or her walk home from school, which reminded me of the question in last week’s Summer Tag post about a summertime childhood memory.

Here’s how I initially answered that question, before deciding to hold off and make it the topic for today.

I’m the only child of a single mom who left for work each morning before I woke up. So, my job from age seven on, was to get myself up and out. During the school year, that meant up, dressed, and off to the neighbor’s for breakfast, followed by my walking a few blocks to school.

What was different in the summer after age nine was the “out” part (and I could fix my own breakfast by then).

Rather than off to school, in summer I was off to the YMCA where I’d join a busload of campers to Camp Dawson for the day. Nothing unusual about that. It was getting to the Y, at ages nine, ten, eleven, and twelve.

I’d catch the local city bus and then the subway to Newark, NJ.  From there I walked a few blocks to the Y. By myself. I thought nothing of it at the time; it was just what I did.

When I shared that story at my 50th high school reunion a few years ago, we wound up telling competing stories that showed how independent we all were, “free range parenting” we’d call it today. This has quickly become my favorite story to tell younger folks who have a very different reaction than my classmates. Usually they gasp, then express some concern that I was a neglected child.

No, I quickly tell them. That’s what kids did back then. And I feel rather proud.

I’d ridden city busses with my grandmother who hadn’t yet learned to drive (she’d get her driver’s license when I was in 7th grade). I was used to it. I knew which was the right bus or train to take. I just did it.

At what age did you let your child take a city bus by herself?

At what age could she walk to school alone? Is that older than walking home alone?

At what age might she make her own breakfast and get herself off to school if needed?

I would guess you’re saying “Times are different now!”  And, yes they are. They are actually safer. Yup.  The Center for Disease Control collects data on child abductions and deaths; the FBI has been collecting this data for decades now; even the National Highway and Traffic Administration agrees:

There’s never been a safer time to be a kid in America.

Here are the facts, as summarized for us by the Washington Post  in a 2015 article.

Child mortality rates fell by 50% between 1990 and 2015
Reports of missing children are down 40% since 1997
And child pedestrian deaths dropped by more than 66%  between 1993 and 2013.

And this in an era when the population is growing.


The bottom line: If it was safe enough for you to play unsupervised outside when you were a kid, it’s even safer for your own child to do so today.

Never mind your grandchildren.

Yet we hang on to the notion that “it’s dangerous out there” and hold their hands tightly.  Why? What is it about fear that holds such a tenacious grip on our minds?

National Public Radio did a story recently on “free-range kids” and what has become the “Let Grow” movement.  Among the stories of parents being arrested for allowing their children to play unsupervised or walk to school alone, they listed the many advantages for the child in having the chance to figure things out on their own, to fail, to become resilient. Perhaps you heard it, too? Yes, the child is better off when allowed to free range a bit.

You also might enjoy Gever Tulley’s 10-minute TEDx Midwest talk on “Five Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Child Do.”  It’s funny, too.

How about you? What’s a “dangerous” activity you or your kids did once upon a time? 


21 Responses

  1. Clive
    | Reply

    I live in the UK and the picture our media gives us is that thousands of American children are shot at home each year in gun accidents. This may or may not be correct, but at least our strict gun controls prevent that happening here. The stats you quote are interesting, and I imagine they would be similar here, and it is good to know that kids are safer nowadays than when we were younger. It still doesn’t stop oldies like me believing the opposite, though: long-held perceptions are difficult to shift!
    Clive recently posted…My Mind’s Eye – Looking Back and AheadMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      You raise an important topic here, Clive, and I thank you. I pulled these numbers from the (Jim) Brady Campaign (To Prevent Gun Violence) website. (Jim Brady was President Ronald Reagan’s Press Secretary, seriously injured in the assassination attempt in 1981).

      Every day, 47 children and teens are shot in murders, assaults, suicides & suicide attempts, unintentional shootings, and police intervention.

      Every day, 7 (SIC 8) children and teens die from gun violence:
      4 are murdered
      3 die from suicide
      1 killed unintentionally

      Over the course of a year:

      17,207 American children and teens are shot in murders, assaults, suicides & suicide attempts, unintentional shootings, or by police intervention.

      2,737 kids die from gun violence:

      1,606 murdered
      958 die from suicide
      110 killed unintentionally
      26 killed by legal intervention
      36 die but intent was unknown

      Guns are a serious issue in this country and I’ve long envied the UK for its position on gun ownership. Of course, we have a bit more hunting going on (and needed) here in the US than the UK has. But that is actually irrelevant to working toward gun safety (IMO).

      But it’s also a separate issue from child abduction, which has the parents in this country — at least those in urban and suburban areas — hypervigilant (to say the least). And the result is a generation or two of children who don’t get to know what it’s like to explore, figure out, and even fail. I didn’t go here in the post, but research on internal and external locus of control (where we think power lies: internally with us or externally with others) shows a dramatic shift toward external LOC among young people over I forget how many years. So, you’ve got a generation of kids growing up with less of a sense of their own personal efficacy. It does not bode well. AND, I can lay it at the feet of the media who use fear to sell stories.

      Thanks for starting us off today, Clive.
      Janet Givens recently posted…What’s Dangerous? Really?My Profile

  2. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    There’s never been a safer time, your research says, but my children don’t believe that even though they and I were “free-range chickens” before the Adam Walsh murder in 1981.

    I think I’ll listen to the TedX talk and may buy the book. My sister tells the story of a dangerous thing she did at age 7 on my blog today.

    Great research, as always, Janet. I never know what you are going to come up with!
    Marian Beaman recently posted…The Runaway Truck: A Guest PostMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Yup. It’s been said more than once that it was the Adam Walsh abduction and his father’s resultant TV show that really built up the fear around this issue nation wide. Then, we had photos of missing children on milk cartons. Remember that? There was also Eton Patz two years earlier, taken on his way to school. But Adam Walsh’s case really brought out the fear.

      Your sister did indeed have a very frightening experience. Have you listened to Jim Croce’s “31,000 tons of bananas?” Your sister might have saved him had she been in that cab!
      Janet Givens recently posted…What’s Dangerous? Really?My Profile

  3. Merril Smith
    | Reply

    Good morning, Janet! I don’t know if I heard that story on NPR or not, but I did hear one about a woman who received a notice that she was being investigated for child endangerment for leaving her child in the car while she went into a store. I think there was a warrant because it took place in another state.

    I definitely wandered around more than I let my kids wander around on their own.

    I suppose there are a whole new set of fears now with school shootings. . .
    Merril Smith recently posted…That Day, and SinceMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      If it was a hot day, I’d want that mother arrested too for leaving her child in the car. !!!

      Fear can be so insidious, creeping in where and when it’s least expected or even useful. I can see where information, a sense of mastery is vitally important in overcoming or at least addressing fear. I actually taught my older son at three how to cross the street –“Look both ways, this way first, then this way, then this way again, just in case. OK, now run.” We were in a development and his friends were across the street. I loved those years.
      Janet Givens recently posted…What’s Dangerous? Really?My Profile

      • Merril Smith
        | Reply

        I don’t remember the details of the case, but she went over all the things she did before she went into the store, and the child was old enough to have asked to be left in the car while the mother ran into the store for a minute. It wasn’t a neglectful parent leaving a child in a hot car.

  4. Laurie Buchanan
    | Reply

    Janet — Gever Tulley has YOU to thank for the sale of three copies of “Fifty Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kid Do.” I just ordered one for me (I’m about to be a first-time grandma), one for my son and daughter-in-law (they’re about to be first-time parents), and one for my sister (she has four young grandchildren).

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I wish I worked on commission, Laurie. I thought it would make a fun present too. I like how he’s laid out each “dangerous activity.”
      Janet Givens recently posted…What’s Dangerous? Really?My Profile

  5. Kelly Boyer Sagert
    | Reply

    Here’s something else to consider. Overall, it may be safer for children now, but my city is clearly much less safe today than it was when I was growing up. The poverty-crime cycle kicked in when industry left and my children have had to deal with issues I never dreamed of as a kid. Never simple, is it?
    Kelly Boyer Sagert recently posted…Hidden History of Lorain County: August 6, 2018 Release Date!My Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Context, always context is important. I’m glad your point brought that out. Poverty, hopelessness, despair… How about a new needlepoint: the better we know the people in our neighborhoods, the safer our neighborhoods will be. ?? Does it help at all to know that the “Fear of crime” has long been more prevalent in poor neighborhoods than any actual crime. That’s initially from studies among the elderly. Any idea what the actual stats are in that area?
      Janet Givens recently posted…What’s Dangerous? Really?My Profile

      • Kelly Boyer Sagert
        | Reply

        Unfortunately, I do! I was in the beta class of a citizen’s police academy in Lorain and, as part of that, we got to see police data. We were shown a map with dots all over it, which indicated incidents of crime — and a few places were so covered with dots that those were all you could see. I’m thinking . . . hey, that one at the top is my neighborhood!

        And, when we learned about SWAT teams, one of the examples they gave was of a big drug bust — and it was two doors down from me. I remember being woken up by the booms and the smoke.

        I do have faith that there may be a revival in the future, so I haven’t given up. But, it’s all too real and I could share more stories than anyone would really like to hear. The police chief tells me that our neighborhood is the domino that he cannot allow to fall.

  6. Janet Morrison
    | Reply

    Quite an interesting post with some surprising facts. I never would have guessed it’s safer today for children than earlier. I was fortunate to grow up out in the country in North Carolina in the 1950s-1960s. I thought nothing of riding my bicycle in the road or walking to a pond in the woods behind our house to catch tadpoles in the spring. By the age of 10 I was mowing the grass with our old push mower. I also walked barefoot all summer back then. I wasn’t as afraid of snakes then as I am now!

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thank you Janet. I too have fond memories of taking off on my bike as a pre-teen. It’s always interesting I think, to look a bit deeper at what we think we’re afraid of. And when it comes to raising our children, and the truly cultural differences there, it raises the conversation to a whole new level of complexity. Thanks for your provocative posts on similar concepts. Yours also gets thinking.
      Janet Givens recently posted…What’s Dangerous? Really?My Profile

  7. Bette Stevens
    | Reply

    The eldest of five children growing up in the 1950s and 60s, we were definitely ‘free rangers’ and every day was an adventure. We knew our boundaries and stayed within them. It was a lovely era in which to grow up. Although we lived in the country, we walked or took buses on our own and always looked out for one another.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      It’s been good for me to hear from so many who had a similar “free ranging” childhood. I talked recently with a very young woman who grew up under a “helicopter” parent — she feels strongly that the next generation will be free range again, if for no other reason than they want to do it differently than their parents did. Like a pendulum, she says. Time will tell. I’m so curious, I may have to live an extra 25 years. Thanks for joining us Bette.
      Janet Givens recently posted…We the PeopleMy Profile

  8. Ellen Best
    | Reply

    My children born 79/83 were taught to wash iron cook two simple but healthy meals iron and had chores they were proficient by the age of 12.. We walked three miles down hill to grocery shop and you guessed, loaded down and tired we walked back. They did not go to scool alone as we lived rural and no paths (sidewalks) made a walk impossible. They played out earned money gardening washing cars or walking the odd dog. Or doing extra chores. My children had more freedom than most but according to them they ate what they were given or went without, no chosing in our home … but that was lack of choices to offer as money was scarce. I love that children have more fun in after school activities but wonder if the discipline of those days helped them make better choices. Swings and roundabouts I suppose. Though not entirely free range, because of the distance from facilities mine have more life skills but were probably naive about computer gsmes, drugs and crime. Media highlights in seconds so we all know sooner if something bad has happened . Because of that, it probably makes people who may be criminals, abducters, paedophiles etc… think twice … therefore they are safer today.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Ellen. Your kids sound like lucky souls to me. I do believe we all think about crime more these days because we keep hearing about it. Our local evening news shows have been about only Murder, Mischief, and Mayhem for as long as I can remember. And, you are right, as soon as an abduction occurs in Timbucktoo, the whole country hears about it. No wonder “the fear of crime” is rated higher as a problem (this among old folks) than crime itself. Curious times we live in. Thanks for commenting.
      Janet Givens recently posted…From the Middle of Black History MonthMy Profile

  9. Carol Taylor
    | Reply

    Horrific gun stats…I was a free-range child and surprised it is safer today… Is that because we mollycoddle kids? Danger is certainly different here than in the UK…Fireworks, for example, I cringe at the lack of supervision for even young children saying that I have to keep my dog on a leash or he would go and play with them he loves fireworks…
    Carol Taylor recently posted…The Culinary Alphabet: The letter MMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I too wondered if we’re safer (statistically) only because helicopter parents are on hyperalert. Can’t trally set up that experiment, huh? Fireworks! Oh yes; I remember New Year’s Eve when I lived in Kazakhstan. Everyone set them off all around us. No regulation, no rules at all. The locals lived it. I had to go in the house. Thanks for stopping by.
      Janet Givens recently posted…From the Middle of Black History MonthMy Profile

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