Up in Alberta, a tragedy occurred a little while back that you probably haven’t heard of. Seems that a third-grader there went to the bathroom at school with a lanyard around his neck — you know, a ribbonlike cord that has a card key on it or a hall pass or whatever — and somehow it got caught in the stall door and nearly strangled him. He’s in intensive care. As local police spokesman Darrin Turnbull told the Calgary Herald, this appears “to be a tragic, tragic accident.” He added, “It’s one of those things you can’t foresee.”
Yet now every school in the province has been ordered to stop using “single-strand cords.”
As if it is one of those things you can foresee.
If the child had been wearing a necklace that got caught, would the province have outlawed those? If he’d tripped on a shoelace and fallen down the stairs — no more shoelaces? Or stairs? What if he’d slipped on a crayon in the classroom and banged his head on the floor? No more art supplies?
Looking backward from a tragic accident feels like a wise and caring way to create safety or even to honor a victim of happenstance. In reality, it is magical thinking. As Turnbull said, “if they had any information ahead of time, this obviously would have been prevented.”
But that’s a tautology. Obviously, if I knew that I was going to be run down by a drunken driver today, I would stay inside and not get hit by a drunken driver. But how could I possibly know that “ahead of time” in order to prevent it? Should I always stay inside just in case the day is today? Should everyone?
Up until the accident, all of Alberta’s 2,000-plus schools used lanyards — with, presumably, no problems. I suppose these chains can now be replaced by safety pin badges (until a child infected with HIV accidentally pricks himself and the next kid does, too) or magnetic badges (until a child swallows one) or tape (until a child goes into tape-induced allergic shock). My point is not to minimize the tragedy or even fault the school for considering lanyard alternatives. It’s to point out that when we look backward from a single, exceedingly rare incident and use it to justify a sweeping new policy, we think we’re doing something smart and sane. But in fact, we are doing something ancient and superstitious: We are trying to appease the fates. We are begging for their mercy by promising never to do x again.
If you need any further evidence of the irrationality of this kind of reaction, look at all the schools trying to safeguard their students after the Sandy Hook shooting. One had all the parents who came to the first-grade Christmas concert hand in their car keys at the office. Because guns don’t kill people — people with car keys do? Or consider the day care center that insisted that from now on, all parents slam the door in the face of any parent behind them — because only by having each person key in the passcode can they keep the children safe. Really, how many day care centers have been attacked by parents dropping off their babies? Other schools suddenly made all the kids wear name tags. (I hope not on lanyards!)
Overreacting this way obscures the fact that we cannot foresee or forestall every unexpected incident. Ridiculous rules and frantic fussing may make us feel better. But they don’t make us any safer.
Lenore Skenazy is the author of “Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry)” and “Who’s the Blonde That Married What’s-His-Name? The Ultimate Tip-of-the-Tongue Test of Everything You Know You Know — But Can’t Remember Right Now.”