Scaring kids—about the right things

“Attention, everyone. Code red. Code red. The school is now in lockdown. The school is now in lockdown. Students, follow the directions of your teachers.”

All over the United States, schools, colleges, and universities are instituting and practicing procedures to deal with the threat of an armed marauder. They’ll likely proliferate in Canada soon, too. As school shootings now seem to occur every month or so, the danger seems to be real and imminent.

But it mostly isn’t.

A few months ago The Washington Post reported that fewer than 150 people (children and adults) have been shot to death in America’s elementary and secondary schools since the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado. That’s not 150 people per year, but 150 people over two decades.

Fewer than 8 people, nationwide, per year.

An American is ten times more likely to be struck and killed by lightning than to be killed in a school shooting. One is four thousand times more likely to be killed in a car accident—at a time when traffic fatalities are less frequent than at any time since the late 1950s.

A recent story in The Atlantic points to a previous wave of child-focused hysteria in America, the pointless “duck-and-cover” drills in the 1950s. (There’s nothing like a cheap wood-and-tubular-steel school desk to keep you safe against megatons of thermonuclear blast.)

The 1980s saw the rise of parental fear over strangers snatching kids off the street as they went to and from school, only to see the worry rise to a fever pitch over Satanic ritual abuse—which started in the United States and spread rapidly around the world.

Only much later did we learn that well over 90% of child abductions are perpetrated by one or the other divorced parent. And Satanic ritual abuse entered the history books as the modern equivalent of the Salem witch trials: much ado about very, very little, with tremendous cost to many falsely accused childcare workers, babysitters, and even parents.

Yet here we are again, stressing more and more kids about something that will happen to virtually none of them.

Meanwhile, as Erika Christakis writes in The Atlantic, “half of American children have experienced at least one ‘adverse childhood experience’”—namely, abuse, neglect, losing a parent to divorce or death, living with an alcoholic parent, or having an immediate family member who is mentally ill—or incarcerated.

And about 10% of children have experienced three or more of these situations.

Over and over again this past year, social media has featured people praising the late documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and its subject, Fred Rogers, for the lovely, loving assurances offered by “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Rogers knew that childhood is a scary time. Being small and powerless is the stuff of adult nightmares, but it’s the daily experience of every kid.

So you know what children don’t need? Parents freaking out because they refuse to think statistically about hazards and instead overreact to the latest pumped-up story on the evening news.

You know what else children don’t need? School administrators and politicians instituting fearsome drills whose main practical purpose is to protect those adults against accusations from their constituents, and insurers, that they failed to do “everything possible” to keep kids safe.

You know what children do need instead? Teachers with small enough classes that when a child is experiencing something particularly bad at home, it will be noticed…and cared for.

You know what else children need? Parents and other caregivers who will train them to see the world accurately, to assess risks intelligently, and to conduct themselves with caution, yes, but also with openness to a world that, most of the time, is indeed orderly, safe, and good.

If we have to make hard choices with limited funds? How much sense does it make that millions of students are in schools that have cops but no counselors, nurses, or social workers?

And here’s what we all need: more television and movies that emphasize the truth that most strangers are not dangerous and that the normal adult reaction to a child in trouble is to help.

In short, we need less alarmism and more wisdom. Fearing low-probability events such as school shootings while remaining blasé about the genuine, immediate, and common dangers of marijuana, or alcohol, or cigarettes, or unskilled driving, or social media bullying, or illicit sex is, in a word, crazy.

Or are we too cool to be ruffled about those threats—the perilous contempt that arises from mere familiarity—choosing instead to focus our fear, and our children’s fear, on the statistical equivalent of…lightning strikes?

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).