April 20, 2015
I'm old enough
Megan McArdle wonders why parents have become so paranoid of late, freaking out at the sight "children walking down the street alone." Alarmed enough to trigger the equivalent of SWAT deployments to "rescue" kids from . . . nothing, actually.
"Why," McArdle asks, "has America gone lunatic on the subject of unattended children?"
Because the 24-hour news cycle fools us into treating national totals of rare events as the numerator in calculations of risk. Human beings are really bad at statistics, and when the denominator is a third of a billion, we discard it and substitute in Dunbar's number.
Dunbar's number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person.
In other words, the maximum number of people we're honestly capable of giving a damn about, between 100 and 250. Populations larger than that become abstractions. So a single commercial plane crash is a national tragedy while 32,719 (in 2013) auto fatalities earns a shrug.
Stalin summed up the paradox when he observed that "One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic."
Plus a much greater investment in fewer children that boosts their marginal value to infinity. Hence the impulse to lock them away in padded rooms until age thirty or so.
But not necessarily. Although even fewer kids are being born in Japan, they start walking to school by themselves in elementary school. If the school is too far away to walk, they'll have bus and train passes. This is reflected in popular culture, like Non Non Biyori.
It's true that the crime rate is lower in Japan, but the American parents who worry the most live in middle-class suburban communities that have about the same crime rate as Japan.
Crime isn't the real risk anyway. Japanese kids are more likely to get killed in freak traffic accidents (streets outside city centers in Japan often have no sidewalks or shoulders). But with a denominator of 130 million, they're as rare as school shootings in the U.S.
And they trigger calls for better traffic enforcement. And sidewalks. Maybe Japanese are better at math. They don't panic at the sight of small children walking someplace by themselves.
The best (though hardly "empirical") proof of this comes from an NTV reality show, I'm Old Enough (「はじめてのおつかい！」).
In the show, children aged six (and younger) are given a task to accomplish (usually by their mother) and set out on their own. To be sure, there's a camera crew and a producer no more than a couple of feet away, and we don't see the kids who get lost along the way.
I'm sure there's helpful hinting and herding and location scouting going on too. But it's pretty impressive that they're allowed to tackle these tasks at all.
We're talking about walking to the store, picking the right item off the shelf, standing in line, and paying for it. Or taking a train to another stop and walking several blocks to find daddy's office. And then making it back home. By themselves.
The real payoff is the reaction of some of these kids when they realize what they've done. One little girl, upon finding the right item on a supermarket shelf, jumped up and screamed, "Yatta!" We did it! Like she'd just won the gold medal at the Olympics.
That's the pure delight that comes from accomplishing something concrete on your own.
George W. Bush was onto something with that "the soft bigotry of low expectations" line. I don't mean the "tiger mom" stuff, but getting to try (and fail) at the simple things, the increasingly rare privilege of not being treated like a Fabergé egg in everyday life.
Here's an episode from I'm Old Enough. It's pretty self-explanatory (and usually the camera crew does a better job staying out of sight; in recent episodes the cameras are all but invisible).