Feb 3, 2015


In an early chapter of A Walk in the Woods, as Bill Bryson prepares to walk the Appalachian Trail he reads up on, and obsesses about, bear attacks. After some horrifying stories of people mauled or killed by bears in the American wilderness, he concedes that the likelihood of being attacked by a bear while hiking or camping in the woods is small. But that's not the point:
"Black bears rarely attack. But here's the thing. Sometimes they do."

Bear! Don't run. But don't climb a tree. Play dead.  
Or don't play dead. Most importantly: Don't panic!
Daniele Colombo/Flickr CC

We all know that humans are terrible at calculating risk. We blithely drive in cars which kill us by the thousands, and fear getting in a plane which is statistically the safest mode of transport.

But this point has always bothered me. Sure, traffic accidents happen every day, and so do heart attacks, cancer diagnoses and people dying of old age. But you can't live your life fearing death every time you wake up or walk (or drive) down the street. So our brains quite sensibly put these fears into abeyance day to day, just as they do our general fear of old age, death, and our place in the cosmos.

On the other hand, you don't step onto a plane every day, so it's much more natural to feel nervous when you do. When we all start driving flying cars every day, we will, I am sure, lose our fear of flying.

I also think it's quite logical to fear things that, while unlikely or rare, nevertheless have horrifying consequences if they happen. For instance, car crashes happen every day and plane crashes rarely, but (I know this logic is flawed) you can walk away from a minor car accident. There aren't too many minor plane crashes.

It's fun to scoff at people fearing unlikely things. Like helicopter parents fussing over the safety of their precious children. Parents these days worry too much, and have ludicrously over-inflated ideas of the dangers kids face outside. They stifle their kids' freedom! Kids are missing out on vital outdoor neighborhood roaming! When we were young, we had the run of the neighborhood! Child abduction hasn't increased! Children are missing out on fun, and failing to learn independence and character!


When I was a kid thirty years ago we had 'stranger danger' lessons at school, and our parents were worried enough about child abduction. My sister and I rode bikes around the local streets and walked to and from school, but we weren't allowed free reign over the neighborhood.

But the thing is, back then we knew a lot less. My parents say now that if they had known what we know now about the dangers children face, we wouldn't have been allowed to do even the things we did back then.

We didn't understand the nature of child abuse. For instance, that 'stranger danger' is less of an actual danger to kids than adults they already know. Kids were routinely entrusted to the care of other adults in a way they are not any more.

We didn't understand the nature of sexual assault. I remember in the early eighties, when kids I knew were 'flashed' on their way home from school, the police telling their parents they take it seriously these days, because they now knew that flashing was a precursor crime to sexual assault. I remember we were all surprised, having always been taught to ignore and shrug off these occasional incidents.

We didn't hear as many bad stories. The news cycle was quieter, fewer assaults were reported, perhaps fewer accidents and incidents made the news, back when pictures and video from all around the world were not as easily available. So we weren't all bombarded with horror every day and were a little more naive as well.

Also, just because generations past monitored their children less, doesn't mean danger didn't exist. My grandfather recalled "a Huckleberry Finn childhood" playing in rivers and bushland and coming home at sunset. But my mother's cousin drowned when he was eight playing in a rowboat alone at the beach.

My kids are nine and want to walk home from school. They know the way, we've walked together a few times, and I am happy for them to walk home alone, some days. That doesn't mean I won't be biting my nails waiting for them to knock on the door. And I probably won't let them do it regularly, so as not to set up a routine some waiting evil-doer could notice and take advantage of. (I know: infallible logic).

I don't think you can blame parents for being hyper-vigilant over child safety these days. And I am pretty confident kids are getting enough of what they need.

As Bill Bryson puts it:
"If [bears] want to kill you and eat you, they can.... That doesn't happen often, but - and here is the absolutely salient point - once would be enough."

Bears are super scary:
Valerie/Flickr CC

How do you deal with fear?


  1. 1. Back in the day when as kids we roamed free and played with little or no supervision, sometimes bad stuff did happen...as you point out. We probably benefited from the risk, but there was risk.

    2. Back in the day, neighborhoods were more stable, moms stayed at home, everyone knew everyone, and there were not strange cars going through your block. Hell, most families only had one car, and dad took that to work, so I think it was a safer environment, abduction wise.

    Interesting post, thought provoking.

  2. Very interesting post and Joeh's first comment sums it up quite well. Accidents did happen, children were hurt or killed. When returning home on the tram last week, my niece said it is our stop next. I said, Little Jo, you will be able to go into town and come home again on your own soon. She replied, not until I am a teenager. I was not allowed to cross a road on my own until I was about 12. I see young kids often enough catching a tram and crossing a street and I wonder about their safety as they don't seem to be very careful. I think 12 is a early enough. I started thinking about all this in a focused manner when I read the story and the criticism of a New York woman who gave her seven year old son a subway ticket and sent him out onto the streets.

    Signed, Andrew, who may have a faint scar above his brow from running into a steel trailer, who might have a slight scar on his little finger from a dog bite, who might have had a broken wrist, leg and nose, who has a brother who nearly lost his leg in a motor bike accident when he was 18.

    In days of old, people had multiple children and could afford to lose one, no matter how tragic it might be at the time. But with so many people now only having one child, losing your sole child would be so much worse.

    1. Very true as well. Kids are not generally mindful, and also you have to take into account whether they can cope if things don't go to plan. I'm sure there are plenty of mature, resourceful kids who can take public transport by themselves, but mine are not nearly at that stage yet. I think I must have been around 12 or 13 when I first started taking buses by myself - when I started high school.

    2. @Andrew, "people had multiple children and could afford to lose one"
      Mum! Joey's dead!
      Never mind, we still have Tim, Bob, Harry, Alan, Jenny, Sandra, Wendy, Steve, David, Anne, Carol, Debbie, John...........(*~*)

    3. @River, Yeah, they were all like, "Let's have ten kids because we're going to lose two to disease and one to a an accident for sure." And when it happened they were like "Bummer, but just as well because we'd have had too many otherwise." I'm sure that's how it went, right?...

  3. In the 50's no one thought of child abduction....who the heck needed another mouth to feed? We walked home from school on a well travelled road and no one thought anything of it. We had so much freedom. It's kind of sad that our biggest fear now is each other.

    1. It is. No wonder people get nostalgic for the past.



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