I'VE BEEN reading "Charlotte's Web" with my daughter — it's the best-ever tribute to the power of the written word — and the other night, I came across a passage that felt especially timeless. It was about a rope swing at Mr. Zuckerman's farm, which launched kids from the hayloft of his barn and propelled them to dizzying heights.
"Mothers for miles around worried about Zuckerman's swing," E.B. White wrote. "They feared some child would fall off. But no child ever did. Children almost always hang onto things tighter than their parents think they will."
Even in 1952, when "Charlotte's Web" was first published, parents were fretting about the safety of their kids, and someone was gently telling them to relax. I find this strangely comforting at a time of paranoia over risks big and small. These days, people actually buy knee pads to protect their crawling babies. News stories about a murderous nanny on Manhattan's Upper West side — or last week's charges of sexual abuse against a day care provider in Wakefield — launch the inevitable sidebars about parents racked with fear, wondering if they should ever let their children from their sight.
After the Wakefield story broke, I checked in with Lenore Skenazy, a patron saint of reason about childhood risk. Four years ago, she wrote a column in the New York Sun about letting her 9-year-old son take the New York subway home alone, which launched such a ferocious reaction that she turned it into a franchise known as Free Range Kids.
Now, her blog and book are foils against worst-case-scenario stories; they're full of reminders that most consumer products are safer than we think, and that crimes against children, and reports of child abuse, have actually dropped nationwide. Skenazy wants us to be smarter about risk, though I suspect our brains aren't wired for that. She also wants us to remember that we're built to be resilient.
"To say that once something bad happens to you, you are damaged goods — it's a second insult to people who have survived something," she told me. "Including a baby."
Of course, Skenazy is the first to agree that we shouldn't be blithe about crime. The drop in sex crimes, experts say, likely stems in part from vigilance, and better awareness of how predators operate. The question is where we draw the line between wise precaution and paralyzing fear.
One modern artifact worth pondering is the "lockdown drill," a newish, fear-inducing ritual in schools across the country, in which classroom doors are locked, and students ordered to stay silent, lest they attract attention from a theoretical gunman.
For fun, I Googled "elementary school lockdown" Monday. I found a clump of news reports of actual lockdowns from the past week alone: in Newark (a search for burglary suspects nearby), Denver (a bank robber on the loose), suburban Pittsburgh (a nearby home invasion, plus a bear sighting), Oregon (a search for a shooting suspect in the neighborhood), Illinois (a disruptive child who locked himself in a bathroom), and Pittsfield (a domestic situation at a nearby home). Most included statements, from local police, that the children were never at risk. So was the mild precaution worth the panic?
That's a difficult question to answer, it sometimes turns out, on matters large and small. The commenters on Skenazy's blog are mixed on the lockdown drill. I'm all for banning tackle football for kids and putting rubberized surfaces on playgrounds. But what about, say, the monkey bars?
These, I know about from experience. On the first day of school, as I was looking in the other direction, my daughter fell off the monkey bars and broke her wrist. Despite E.B. White's reassuring words, it turns out that kids do not always hang on as tightly as they should.
On the other hand, she managed the ordeal with grace, plus a cool red cast that was the envy of her friends. I'd like to think that Charlotte, an good judge of character, would have been proud.
CORRECTION: In Sunday's column, I wrote that a child born to Prince William and Kate Middleton would inevitably bump Prince Harry down the British line of succession. This is true regardless of a probable new British law that would allow a firstborn girl to take the throne, even if she gets a younger brother.