Sometimes, stuff happens and nobody is to blame

I have two sons. Over the last five years, it has been very clear to me how quickly children can dart away – but I was already familiar with that concept because I have been an uncle since 1977. Kids scamper off, kids lag behind, kids get distracted, and kids are not aware of their surroundings. Occasionally, that can have tragic or near-tragic outcomes. Many times, nobody is negligent, nobody is reckless, and nobody is malicious. Stuff happens and no one is to blame.

This beings me to another excellent editorial by Lenore Skenazy of Free Range Kids at Reason, and it is a reminder to all of us that sometimes, stuff happens. You cannot watch a child’s every movement at all times. After the outrage over the killing of a gorilla, Hamilton County prosecutor Joseph Deters determined that there was no negligence by the mother. “She was being attentive to her children by all witness accounts,” he told the New York Times, “and the 3-year-old just scampered off.”

Skenazy is right that we used to see many things as “acts of God,” and without looking to Him we often assume someone is to blame. But it is also a side effect of living in a very good time: Children are safer today than they have ever been. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, death by unintentional injury or accident “dropped from 44 per 100,000 children in 1960 to 18.6 per 100,000 in 1990.” Traffic deaths are down, violent crime is down, playground equipment is safer, automobiles are safer, and people are more vigilant about safety. But that has created an unreasonable expectation that if something tragic does go wrong, someone must be to blame. The safer we become, the more paranoid we become about safety.

That was not the only factor in the Harambe outrage. Some of it was racism, and racist stereotypes about black mothers. Would the outrage have been the same had an upper middle class white man taken his children to the zoo, and one of them managed to slip into the gorilla enclosure? Or would the focus have been on the security of the barriers separating the gorilla from the park visitors? Do I really need to ask that question?

Look, nobody wants to see anyone get hurt. But nothing will ever be 100% perfectly safe, nor should it be. Children need to learn to take risks, as part of being increasingly independent. That is called “becoming an adult.” We have to be realistic, and we should withhold our judgment, replacing it with sympathy.