One of my favorite bloggers just fell into the blind loyalty trap. I’m sympathetic, but this is something that those who accept the responsibility of teaching us important lessons and clarifying difficult issues must avoid at all costs. Bias makes us stupid, and blind loyalty breeds bias like carrion breeds maggots. It pains me to see Lenore Skenazy, author of the Free Range Kids blog, undermine her credibility like this.
She titled her post Horrible Editorial Chides Mom for Not Predicting Unpredictable Crime. In it, she takes the side of a mother who left her four-year-old son in an unlocked, running van while she picked up her daughter at a northeast school. Someone was drove her van off with her son in it, and subsequently crashed. The boy was unhurt. Under the circumstances, there is nothing horrible about the editorial, which uses the incident—even Skenazy agrees that the mother’s conduct was “dumb”—to caution parents about leaving children in cars. This is the editorial that aroused Skenazy to defend the indefensible:
“A Calgary mom has no doubt learned her lesson. The woman recently left her four-year-old son in her unlocked, running van while she picked up her daughter at a northeast school. The mother said she was gone about six minutes, and when she came out, someone was stealing her van with her son in it.
Fortunately, the incident ended well, with the child unhurt after the thief crashed the van, and the suspect was taken into custody.…charges of child endangerment need to be pressed to set an example, because no matter how often these types of things occur, other parents continue to leave their kids in similar situations. It takes just a few minutes to get your child out of a vehicle and bring him or her along with you on whatever errand needs running. Sure, it’s more convenient just to leave a child in the car and do the errand, unencumbered. However, child safety should trump inconvenience every time. Better a few extra minutes lost bundling a little one in and out of a vehicle than a lifetime of regret and what-ifs.”
The rationalizations in Skenazy’s defense begin with the title of her post, which is dishonest and in her own words, “dumb.” She is using moral luck as a defense, arguing that the sequence of events as they unfolded were merely unfortunate, and the mother just as easily could have returned to her van and car with nothing amiss. The odds favor nothing bad happening in six minutes; on the other hand, the odds of nothing bad happening are much better if a child isn’t in an unlocked vehicle with the engine running at all.
The editorial never suggests that the harried mother had to be Carnac, and predict the future. It’s message is that parents have an obligation not to place their children at unnecessary risk. Imagine a mother who places her infant down in the middle of an empty parking lot while she takes 20 seconds to chase her hat after it’s blown off her head. In that 20 seconds, an escaped security dog runs over, grabs the child and runs away with it, inflicting serious injury. Is Skenazy seriously suggesting that a response from the mother of “Well, how could anyone have predicted that?” would be anything but absurd? She carelessly placed her child at unnecessary risk, and harm occurred as a direct result. There were dozens of plausible ways this situation could have resulted in harm to the child, and that was all a responsible mother needed to foresee, not which of the terrible potential scenarios might come to pass.
Skenazy then takes issue with the editorial’s call to press child endangerment charges against the mother, since the editorial suggests that she has “learned her lesson.” Skenazy doesn’t understand, apparently, that there are more objectives to charging citizens for misconduct than simply punishing them, and teaching them a lesson as a result. The state discourages conduct society properly deems harmful by making it clear to all that such conduct has dire consequences—that it will be prosecuted and punished. Skenazy, as she has in cases where children left in sweltering cars have died, is embracing the “they have suffered enough” approach. Suffering is not the objective. Sending a clear message to those who might be tempted to act in a similarly irresponsible manner is.
Skenazy hits the bottom of the rationalization barrel and breaks through to the ground with this:
If child safety trumps everything, how does the editorial writer square with the fact that more children die being hit by cars in parking lots and driveways than while waiting IN the car? This insistence that convenience is always wrong seems much more concerned with making parents “prove” they are bending over backwards for their kids, than with actually keeping kids safe.
This is so desperate and illogical that it is hard to respond to seriously. To begin with, a lot more children are exposed in driveways and parking lots than are left in cars alone with the doors unlocked and the engine on, so this statistic means nothing in the context of the incident at issue, unless the blogger is really suggesting that rather than taking her child by the hand, looking around for cars, and walking into a building with him, a mother should just leave him in a running car and hope for the best. Skanazy’s not suggesting this, though. She’s just flailing and rationalizing, because she identifies with the mother, and is thinking, “There but for the grace of God go I!” That’s bias and partisanship, not rational thinking. The mother endangered her child to avoid a relatively small inconvenience, and the way to look at it is not that she was justified but unlucky. She was irresponsible and lucky something worse didn’t happen.
Finally, Skenazy jumps the tracks of rationality entirely by taking umbrage at this innocuous and absolutely accurate statement: “Better a few extra minutes lost bundling a little one in and out of a vehicle than a lifetime of regret and what-ifs.” She writes..
THIS! This sentiment that is the poison we are fed every day disguised as a “helpful tip.” START IMAGINING A LIFETIME OF REGRET. Every parent is exhorted to hallucinate the most horrific, tragic, unlikely outcome of the most average, everyday, safe activity before deciding how to act. Of course, once you have imagined the “lifetime of regret,” NOTHING seems safe enough other than grafting your child to your side. That is why parents today feel so drained and worried. Either they are doing it “right” — hyperventilating about almost infinitesimal dangers. Or they are doing it “wrong,” by gauging the actual odds and even factoring in their own convenience. Tsk tsk.
Uh, Lenore? Are you really arguing that leaving a helpless child unattended in an unlocked, running car is an “average, everyday, safe activity“? You know it isn’t; you said it wasn’t a few sentences earlier, unless by “dumb” you meant “not a bad thing to try as long as you don’t make a habit of it.” You are attacking a pointed editorial based on a specific, indefensible incident by implying that it was meant to apply to safe activity. That’s intellectually dishonest. The message of the “horrible” editorial is straightforward and irrefutable: a poor decision that involves gambling with the safety of your child just to spare a little time and trouble can result in tragedy and a lifetime of regret—don’t do it: It isn’t worth the risk. It is irresponsible on your part to try to undermine that message. What’s your message—“Go ahead, leave your kid in a running car with the doors unlocked—its a good bet!”?
I understand Skenazy’s perspective. She’s an advocate for parents, and her specific focus is to discourage fearful parenting and overly-restrictive child-rearing. In this situation, however, she needs to be able to be objective. The mother, a member of her usual constituency, is wrong. The mother’s critic is right. One an advocate makes it clear to all that loyalty and partisanship is more important to her than honesty, objectivity and competent analysis, her usefulness as an advocate is seriously diminished. Skenazy can’t be an effective voice for rational parents if she feels she has to defend irrational parents too—and that is what she is doing here. This is where loyalty destroys integrity. When that happens, an advocate loses all credibility.
Why this is so frequently misunderstood by advocates in all sectors, I don’t know. Today I watched the ridiculous chair of the Democratic National Committee, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, insist on a Sunday morning talk show that President Obama had done just a wonderful job with the economy, and that the Democrats, all polls and common sense to the contrary, would not lose control of the Senate. It is true that she’s got a job to do, and she can’t exactly say, “Yup. no doubt about it, our party has fallen flat on its face and our President is hopeless, so we’re going to get shellacked, and we asked for it.” However, it is possible to be a loyal advocate without permanently making yourself useless by spouting nonsense and showing yourself to be untrustworthy. She could have said, for example, that as things look now, Democrats aregoing to suffer significant defeats, but that she was confident that the Party would rally, learn from its mistakes, and under President Obama’s leadership prove in the next two years that it, and not Republicans, were best suited to guide the nation’s domestic and foreign policy. We could still trust a spokesperson who said that….at least we could if it wasn’t Rep. Schultz.
Don’t be like Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Lenore. Please. You’re too smart for that, and your message is too important. If you are so loyal that you can’t recognize when your allies are in the wrong, you can’t do them any good when they are right.
Graphic: The Football Educator
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