What parenting taught me about risk

(Content note: talk about danger to children)

I remember wondering how parenthood would change me. One change I notice is that I pay more attention to how wonderful and fragile the world’s systems are.

One of the first things most people notice about a baby is how easy it would be to damage them. Their skulls don’t even cover their brains all the way. When we first lived with new parents, on day seven the mother announced with awe, “We kept him alive for a whole week!” I know that child mortality is only .7% in the US, but if I didn’t know that I’d assume I had something like a 60% chance of keeping each child alive. The more you think about their tiny organs, all the moving parts, the more miraculous it seems that it all more or less works.

Then as they get older you have to decide how much to communicate with them about risk. Mostly we don’t tell them about dangers, except those that are so accessible to children  streets, stairs, poking their eyes — that we need the child’s help to avoid them. Lily gets very concerned about some of these, so I try to only tell her what she needs to know.

And yet she picks up on it. Recently I asked Lily to keep an eye on her younger sister while I got something from the basement. When I got back after a two-minute absence, Lily updated me: “I kept an eye on Anna, and she did not die.” Which is exactly what I wonder about every time I come up the stairs in this situation: is silence good or bad? How long would it take for a child to asphyxiate if she swallowed something?

When we told her about how sticking metal into outlets can burn you, Lily taped hers shut.

But I notice the flip side too. Part of educating children about the world is teaching them about how things work and how complex and wonderful the world is.

All these things that just felt like background suddenly stand out to me now that I’m explaining them to the kids. We loves books that describe systems, like how the postal system works.

(This is just page one of something like three about all the steps a letter goes through.) The postal system is amazingly cheap and reliable! We put a letter in a box on the corner and trust that it will reach its destination unread and untampered with. You can go a long time taking this for granted, unless you’ve spent time in a place where the mail system doesn’t work like this.

Stores are amazing! These vast supply chains bring us stuff we want to buy! Roads! We go places in really fast vehicles propelled by explosions and don’t crash that often! Clothes! Making clothes by hand used to take a really large portion of women’s time, and now we can just buy them for a few dollars! Heating! Basically everyone has been cold all winter forever, but now we can just tell our thermostat how warm we want our house to be!

As a parent, you’re both presenting the functionality of the world to your child (“There goes the firetruck to help someone! Woo, wooo, hear the siren!”) while scanning the world for danger and disfunction (Holy shit, it wouldn’t take much for our house to burn down). And I still think about the brokenness of the systems — what kind of life did the garment workers have? What invisible things happened to bring us these things from these stores?

Steven Pinker’s essay on the Second Law of Thermodynamics summed this up for me. Brokenness and chaos is the natural state of the world. It’s only by the collective effort of billions of people over many thousands of years that things are this good. Civilization is imperfect and fragile. Growing up in nice neighborhoods in a nice country, you can miss this. But even here, anywhere we are, one of our chief tasks is to protect against chaos and destruction. To make the world as safe as we want our children to believe it is. Another task is to enjoy the beauty of the world while we have it, but that kind of rests on doing a reasonable job at the first task.

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