We see these warnings in any online parenting group: a child died from eating cinnamon. Lock your spice cabinets! A little girl suffered a horrific accident on an escalator. Never leave kids unattended! And here’s what every parent needs to know about “dry drowning”!
(I dare you not to click on even one of those links.)
At least statistics can comfort us. We know that the Internet amplifies risk. Heck, I had free access to bulk supplies of cinnamon when I was a child, not to mention dubious seatbelt habits, lax supervision (I went up my share of “down” escalators), and afternoons wading in creeks where yellow bubbles gathered by rocks.
But wait, answers the Internet, you’re only here because you survived these things. You don’t even know what that yellow scum did to you. Google that pain in your ankle–you probably have cancer RIGHT NOW. And did you know that children have been killed by amoebas from murky water eating their brains?
I want to protect my children from amoebas and escalators and dry drowning. I might have survived my childhood, but a real number of children don’t. And that is a thought so terrifying it flattens my chest.
Then there are the dangers whispered by statistics themselves. Children with delayed cord clamping are doing better years later! (My son’s cord was cut a little early when I started hemorrhaging. What did they do to him?!) One dose of formula messes up babies’ gut bacteria! Breastfeeding is linked to higher salaries! Stomach sleeping leads to SIDS! You’ve probably already given your baby ADHD!
Statistical significance reveals real effects, but that doesn’t mean that these effects are as big as the word “significant” makes us think. Yes, if you compare all the breastfed babies to all the formula-fed babies, you see statistically significant differences between the intelligence of the two groups, but those differences are of a few points. I’m grateful that my mother breastfed me until age 3, but I could live a happy life a few IQ points lower. In the La Leche League guide to breastfeeding, I read an anecdote about a senator who told a nursing activist that he was formula-fed and turned out fine. “If you were breastfed,” she quipped, “you would be President.” Actually, no—he probably would be a marginally healthier version of exactly who he became anyway. (I’m paraphrasing the anecdote; my memory isn’t as good as that of my formula-fed-by-a-smoker husband.)
Underneath the pull of these stories and scientific studies lies fear of what we don’t control. We desperately want to believe that the children who struggle in school or develop Celiacs or, God forbid, die of cinnamon inhalation had parents who made mistakes, because that means we can protect our own children. We don’t trust that God will keep our children safe, so we make Google our Bible, encyclopedic knowledge of Dangers and Best Practices our amulets.
I am going to try, instead, to accept imperfection and risk.
No matter what we do, our kids will most likely grow up to inhabit the vast gray area between serial killers and Nobel Prize winners. Something devastatingly horrible could happen to them. It probably won’t, and my worry is no shield. Most kids, even the TV-watching, processed-food eaters who play with too many non-BPA-free plastic toys, grow up to be pretty decent adults. When we believe so fervently in our ability to protect and perfect our children, on the other hand, we project that fear and pressure onto them, which will make them into stunted weaklings unable to cope with reality—just ask the Internet.
Actually, your sheltered kids will probably turn out basically OK, and so will my tree-climbing, free-range daughter.
And I’m going to stop letting the Internet tell me otherwise.