From the perspective of an adult in this society, I’ve taken a lot of stupid risks in my life. Physical risks like outrunning cops and professional risks like knowingly ignoring academic protocol. I have some scars, but I’ve come out pretty OK in the scheme of things. And many of those risks have paid off for me even as similar risks have devastated others.
Throughout the ten years that I was doing research on youth and social media, countless people told me that my perspective on teenagers’ practices would change once I had kids. Wary of this frame, I started studying the culture of fear, watching as parents exhibited fear of their children doing the same things that they once did, convinced that everything today is so much worse than it was when they were young or that the consequences would be so much greater. I followed the research on fear and the statistics on teen risks and knew that it wasn’t about rationality. There was something about how our society socialized parents into parenting that produced the culture of fear.
Now I’m a parent. And I’m in my late 30s. And I get to experience the irrational cloud of fear. The fear of mortality. The fear of my children’s well-being. Those quiet little moments when crossing the street where my brain flips to an image of a car plowing through the stroller. The heart-wrenching panic when my partner is late and I imagine all of the things that might have happened. The reading of stories of others’ pain and shuddering with fear that my turn is next. The moments of loss and misfortune in my own life when I close my eyes and hope my children don’t have to feel that pain. I can feel the haunting desire to avoid risks and to cocoon my children.
I know the stats. I know the ridiculousness of my fears. And all I can think of is the premise of Justine Larbalestier’s Magic or Madness where the protagonist must either use her magic or go crazy if she doesn’t use it. I feel like I am at constant war with my own brain over the dynamics of fear. I refuse to succumb to the fear because I know how irrational it is but in refusing, I send myself down crazy rabbit holes on a regular basis. For my kids’ sake, I want to not let fear shape my decision-making but then I’m fearing fear. And, well, welcome to the rabbit hole.
I miss not being scared. I miss taking absurd risks and not giving them a second thought. I miss doing the things that scare the shit out of most parents. I miss the ridiculousness of not realizing that I should be afraid in the first place.
In our society, we infantalize youth for their willingness to take risks that we deem dangerous and inappropriate. We get obsessed with protecting them and regulating them. We use brain science and biography to justify restrictions because we view their decision making as flawed. We look at new technologies or media and blame them for corrupting the morality of youth, for inviting them to do things they shouldn’t. Then we about face and capitalize on their risk taking when it’s to our advantage, such as when they go off to war on our behalf.
Is our society really worse off because youth take risks and adults don’t? Why are they wrong and us old people are right? Is it simply because we have more power? As more and more adults live long, fearful lives in Western societies, I keep thinking that we should start regulating our decision-making. Our inability to be brash is costing our society in all sorts of ways. And it will only get worse as some societies get younger while others get older. Us old people aren’t imagining new ways of addressing societal ills. Meanwhile, our conservative scaredy cat ways don’t allow youth to explore and challenge the status quo or invent new futures. I keep thinking that we need to protect ourselves and our children from our own irrationality produced from our fears.
I have to say that fear sucks. I respect its power, just like I respect the power of a hurricane, but it doesn’t make me like fear any more. So I keep dreaming of ways to eradicate fear. And what I know for certain is that statistical information won’t cut it. And so I dream of a sci-fi world in which I can manipulate my synapses to prevent those ideas from triggering. In the meanwhile, I clench my jaw and try desperately to not let the crazy visions of terrible things that could happen work their way into my cognitive perspective. And I wonder what it will take for others to recognize the impact that our culture of fear is having on all of us.
This post was originally published to The Message at Medium on May 4, 2015
I was fascinated by one of our university administrators (head of student development) saying that students don’t pull pranks on campus anymore. I think it is fear, lack of creativity, etc. And you’re right – without experimenting in places where they get in trouble, but it’s not high stakes – well, it’s just too bad.
Awesome post Danah. Your experience really resonates with me. How can we make the world feel safer for parents? Do we just stop reading the news? I often feel that the negativity in the press / TV news is what is making me worry…
Interesting read, makes me wonder…. People no matter from what walk of life like to maximize their pleasure and minimize their pain, well unless nature for some strange reason has dealt them a different hand (i.e Sadomasochism). Wanting to do away from fear is, wanting to maximize the pleasure at the absence of fear. Fear in my opinion is a subset of pain. I also believe that one is not complete not having those fears. I guess my Sci-Fi example of life with no fear would be Spock. The relationship is a symbiotic one. A whole person is one that encompasses all, Fear, Happiness, sadness etc,. I don’t think it is question of control, I believe it is question of balance. Balance is not inherited, it is thought. As a parent what really resonates with me is what you pointed to “parents exhibited fear of their children doing the same things that they once did”. I often ask myself the same question. I have come to the conclusion that those experiences, no matter how fearful they were to my parents are part of what has helped shape me to what I am today. So think of fear more as of companion, it is like a natural alarm (defense) system. The fear of a car hitting the stroller is what helping you to look extra hard when crossing. So I guess the older I get to more I realize what I need to teach my child is not, not do what I have done, but encourage him to experience life trusting his intuition and being able to balance his reasoning and fear. And try to stay off his experience as much as I can, and trust me that is not easy.