We must take two seemingly contradictory facts seriously at the same time. The first is that many parents are way too risk averse, overwhelmed by anxieties and worries about incredibly rare or unlikely dangers. The second is that, to paraphrase the writer Morgan Housel, things that never happen, happen all the time.
It’s extremely uncommon for young children to get Shingles (a variation of chickenpox) but it’s not impossible. Children’s toys have never been safer, nor subject to more restrictions, oversight, or materials standards…and yet there were still nine toy-related deaths in the U.S. in 2020. Child abduction rates are down 40% in America over the last 25 years, and abduction by strangers accounts for only .3% of all missing children cases nationwide. But that’s hardly much comfort to the parents of the roughly 100 children who are kidnapped randomly each year. The overwhelming statistical improbability of breakthrough COVID cases in young children can be true and still not mean anything to the parents who ended up in the emergency room with their sweet babies connected to a breathing machine. And worse still must be the pain of these parents who told themselves, as the Stoics warn us against ever doing, it won’t happen to me.
The point of wrestling with this second fact (things that never happen, do in fact happen) isn’t to contradict the first fact (many parents are too anxious and risk averse). The point is to keep our eyes open, to not fool ourselves. When statistics say something happens rarely, that should reassure you, but also chasten you: there is always a person, or rather an innocent kid, on the other end of that math. When someone tries to allay your fears about something related to your kids by telling you not to worry because it’s a “one in a million” shot, that means 325 people in America better watch their step, and so must 7,000 others around the world.
Which is why as parents we have to take the basic precautions available to us and not just shrug them off as inconvenient or “extra.” Make your kids wear their bike helmets. Get them vaccinated. Don’t let them stand up in the bath (or ever leave them unattended by the pool). Review plans. Have your emergency contact information updated. Teach them what to do in all types of situations. Don’t ignore your own instincts, don’t tell yourself you’re crazy for thinking it’s worth a trip to the doctor or a phone call with a teacher.
The things that aren’t supposed to happen, that rarely happen, they happen to people like you all the time. Averages mean nothing to the individual, to the victim, to the family whose number comes up. You can’t let the fear of this paralyze you, in either sense. You still have to live your life and let your kids live theirs, you just can’t let it leave you defenseless and surprised at the same time.