Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Cotton Wool or Common Sense

Have you read any "When I was a kid ..." memes lately? I have. And I must admit, I get a little annoyed at them. The ones that basically state, 'When I was X, we did Y and came out OK'.

These memes tap deeply into the idea that people, particularly this generation of children, are a 'cotton wool' generation - too protected for their own good. In many ways, I think it's also a deep reaction against what is seen as too much protection, too much worry, and an overemphasis on safety. 

So I thought I'd have a more detailed look at the whole idea.

The first thing that really strikes me, is the meme's poor logic.

 Lets imagine you are a skittle in a bowling alley. Three bowling balls have whizzed past you and you're still standing. Your natural reaction, with no other information (remember, you're the skittle, not the bowler), might be to conclude that standing in a bowling alley is perfectly safe. And as the ones that have fallen have been cleared away, if you were to talk to your fellow skittles (as you are naturally a self-aware Disney-esque skittle), is that bowling balls aren't really a problem at all.

The ones that have been cleared away aren't able to argue, because they aren't there. 

So instead of dodgy internet meme-logic, let's look at some real mortality and injury statistics instead.

Here is a table of Child Infant mortality rates for 0-4 year olds in Australia from the ABS. The first column is the Year, the second the amount of deaths per 100,000 :

1909 2292.9
1939 1233.3
1959 615.6
1979 297.7
1999 149.4
1909 1913.9
1939 971.2
1959 483.3
1979 239.4
1999 117.1

Let's put that in perspective: if you were a young child in 1979, you were twice as likely to die than if you were a child in 1999; and  if you were a young child in 1959, you were more than 4 times more likely to die. **.

What were the leading cause of deaths for children in the late 20th Century? 

"The leading cause of death among young children was accidents, poisoning and violence (external causes) which accounted for about 46% of all deaths among children"
--ABS Statistics, Causes of Infant and Child Deaths, Australia, 1982 to 1996

Of these deaths, 1/3 were due to motor vehicle accidents (in a car, or hit by a car as a pedestrian or on a bike), 1/3 due to drownings. For young children, 78% of drownings happened when the child fell into the pool.

More recently, the number of injury deaths of children aged 1-14 years declined over the past two decades, from 553 deaths in 1983 to 231 in 2003. 
--ABS Statistics, Australian Social Trends, 2005 

A large part of the decline is due to parents being made aware of these dangers through campaigns, as well as changes in regulation and legislation which have helped prevent:
  • "traffic deaths through legislative change, safer car design, wearing of cycle helmets
  • fire deaths through smoke alarms, flame resistant nightwear, electrical safety standards
  • poisoning and ingestion deaths through use of childproof packaging of pharmaceuticals and safety standards for toys and games
  • falling deaths through safety glass, stair gates, window bars, and playground safety standards
  • drowning deaths through learn to swim campaigns and fencing swimming pools"
--ABS Statistics, Australian Social Trends 2005

This is not limited to Australia, but is common throughout the western world, see for example, the American statistics on child mortality,  and the WHO statistics worldwide.

For instance, there has been a reduction in the amount of children dying by being hit by cars when they are pedestrians or riding bikes. This is largely due to the fact that less children are walking or riding on their own

So is it cotton wool parenting, or common sense?

In many ways, this meme idea taps into a deep human desire to go back to 'simpler' times. And a deep desire to glorify the past as a lost age. It's also part of a (sadly) expected human reaction to the idea that parents in the past were somehow not as 'good' or 'careful' - and a bald look at the statistics seems to bear that out. This is a deeply disturbing idea -  which is why these statistics are easy to dismiss. Because for most people to admit these statistics are accurate, is to admit that -as parents- they did not do everything they could to protect their children. Or that -as children- their parents did not protect them from danger. It's easier to label current parents as somehow 'too protective' and to view the past through a halcyon lens - a lost age of childhood freedom.

But I don't think this is the case. I think that parenting, particularly keeping children from danger, for most parents, is a worrying, fraught activity where parents will do anything to keep their children safe. And they rely on the information from many sources to help them out through the maze of what a 'good' parent could do. I do not doubt for a minute that my mother spent many sleepless nights worrying about me. And I'm sure my grandmother did the same. And with the information they had at the time, they did the best that they possibly could to raise their children. Parents in the past were not 'worse', nor are parents today 'better', they just have greater access to information on dangerous activities, based on sound statistics. Or as this report from the National Bureau of Economic Research puts it

"When publicly-funded epidemiologists and statisticians identify frequent causes of injury and that information becomes widely available, parents rapidly make use of their new knowledge to assure the safety of their children"

To end this little dabble into statistics, I'd like to tell a story. I was chatting with one of my friends a few years ago, who is many generations older than myself. Earlier that day I'd found little J waving around a pair of scissors that she had 'found' and been suitably terrified at what might have happened. . My friend nodded and agreed it was terrifying, and then added,
"My son did that once, he was running and fell on them and it went into his eye. It was horrible"

What followed was a long and detailed talk on the ambulance trip to the hospital, the surgery, angst and trauma. And then she ended with,

"But he's OK now, he has a glass eye."

After that, I became much more careful and mindful about where I stored scissors around the house.

Who wouldn't?


**I'm not going to talk about the much larger mortality rate for 1909, because the lifestyle differences are huge, and are generally related to increasing standards of living, better maternal and child health care and mass vaccinations.


  1. ...a meme without logic? Be still my sarcastic heart ;)

    The other logical fallacy, aside from 'survivor bias' is a lack of quality. When a previous generation went through a world war and depression as children, they turned out fine. But how much finer could they have turned out without a world war and depression?


    1. There's actually a wonderful book on that - on the 'lost' generation of the Great War. I'll see if I can track it down ....

    2. Haven't been able to track down the book. But the term was created my Gertrude Stein and used by Ernest Hemingway in his book 'The Sun Also Rises'. I'm sure it's out there somewhere ...


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