And this is not just a woman's issue. As more couples share parenting, I see a tremendous number of fathers with the same anxiety as mothers. The age-old pattern of mothers protecting and fathers encouraging their kids to take risks is changing.
Q: But given recent world events, don't parents today have good reason to be more worried?
A: Worrying about global events is totally justified, but parents don't have to worry about every aspect of their children's lives. By most measures, kids are healthier and safer than they have ever been. Statistics show that, for instance, child abductions by strangers and school violence are down. Recent policies requiring childproof medicine caps, car seats, and bicycle helmets have reduced accident-related fatalities. Yet parents worry more and feel less capable of making everyday decisions when it comes to their kids, and that is unnecessary.
In fact, I know some parents felt almost a sense of relief shortly after the 9/11 attacks because they suddenly felt freed from worrying about the small daily issues. Instead of fretting over whether they should let their daughter wear a navel ring, they focused on the real external dangers. But as soon as the immediate threat passed, they started worrying about navel rings again. The point is, parents feel overwhelmed by even routine childrearing decisions, and they shouldn't.
Q: Why does everyday life feel so much more dangerous than when we were growing up?
A: We're watching the news, which has become increasingly tabloidlike, on a 24-hour basis. Suddenly everything that happens with children is termed a crisis. Whether it's an incident like Columbine or last summer's child abductions, there is nonstop coverage. Watching graphic images round the clock, you can easily move from "What if that happened here?" to "It's going to happen here!" Sound social-science research demonstrates over and over that the more TV news people watch, the more they tend to overestimate the chance of bad things happening to them.
Q: You've also attributed this surge in worrying to family size. Can you explain?
A: The number of people who have one child, or are parenting their first, is the highest it's ever been. There were 16.2 million families with one child in 2000, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.
By definition, parents of first children are novices. They're more likely to take notes, ask questions, and worry about their kids. Since most parents have small families today, most of the population stays in that first-child-anxiety state. In past generations, people were in that condition only temporarily because they tended to have more kids. If you have just one or two, you'll be much more anxious and preoccupied.