Worrying Smarter About the Dangers to Your Child

BlogFamiliesOct 16 2013

Trend Lines Q&A with Natalia Pane, M.A., M.B.A., Child Trends’ vice president for research operations, about the new book she authored, The Worry Clock: A Parent’s Guide to Worrying Smarter About the Real Dangers to Your Child.

Q. With so many parenting books out there, do we really need one more?

A. Yes! I tried to find this book when I was pregnant and couldn’t, so I wrote it. We’d just moved into a new house, and there I was walking around the house cutting all the blind cords wondering how many kids really died from these things. Were blind cords really dangerous? Or was I spending those precious moments on something that wasn’t really a danger—and missing a larger danger under my nose?  I wanted someone to tell me—not just from their opinion but based on data—where I should focus my energies.  That’s what this book does. I take the data on how kids die and provide a guide for parents on the most likely causes of death at each age, so we can direct our efforts in a smarter, more data-based way.

Q. I imagine you were a pretty well-informed mom already; did you really learn anything you didn’t already know?

A. I’m even surprised by how much I learned. Big things—like that teen years are far more deadly than I would have imagined—to little things like falls don’t matter nearly as much as I thought they would.  Just the other day I looked through pictures of my kids’ infant years and in more than half the pictures I am doing something wrong! I definitely feel more prepared for the years left to go.

Q. I know you break the book up by age group from infants up through teenagers so parents and caregivers can focus on the age they care most about right now. Could you tell us some of the more surprising or interesting facts for, say, infants and toddlers?

A. Sure. And, by the way, I am really glad I did break out by age group because if you lump all the ages together you miss really big changes (duh) that occur over children’s lives.  Here are some examples.

Infant year: It’s all about the sleep.  Really, if you had just one thing to worry about, it would be sleep. I did co-sleeping with my children, but if I were to have another child, I wouldn’t do it now. All parents needs to make their own decision, ideally before they bring the baby home, but the data really swung me on this one. I didn’t know about babies’ rebreathing or wedging and how relatively common and fatal they are. Horrifyingly, homicide is the number two cause of death, and it is linked to inconsolable crying, which is a natural (read: unalterable) part of infant life. Moms are not the major problem here; dads and boyfriends (roughly two-thirds) and babysitters (about 20 percent) are the culprits in shaken baby syndrome.

Toddlers: Drowning is the most important worry during the toddler years. What surprised me is that most of the drowning occurred at the child’s own house or that of a friend, when the child was under parental supervision, and not expected to be out near the pool (or pond or whatever). Toddlers also have a high incidence of dying in fires. They are often farther away from their parents and get really disoriented trying to get out of a very dark and smoky house, which is why some of the fire detectors now have voice recordings to help the kids find their way out. Pedestrian accidents are high, too. Parents are right to hold on tight to their children’s hands; many kids unexpectedly dart out into the street even if they haven’t done it before.

Q. What did you personally find most surprising?

Oh, boy. I guess there were two findings that still take my breath away because of how big they are. One is the cost, in terms of lives, of teens learning to drive. It’s not that teens are doing bad things when driving; they are just so inexperienced that any additional distraction, like having another teen in the car, makes them at times catastrophically worse. About one-third of the worry across children’s lives is for motor vehicle accidents and most of that (about two-thirds) is just in the teen years.

The other big finding is how many of our children die from guns. About one in six deaths (17 percent) of children from birth to nineteen was attributable to a gun. Eight minutes on the Worry Clock reflect gun violence: five minutes in homicide, two in suicide, and one for plain old gun accidents.

Q. Worry Clock? You haven’t explained what a worry clock is.

A. Oh, right. A “worry clock” is a one-hour clock that shows how much time one should spend worrying about specific causes of death—if she based her worry on data. Think of it as a pie graph using minutes. Each chapter begins with a worry clock for that age group. The clock shows each of the major dangers and the minutes allocated to that danger (e.g., motor vehicle accidents, poisoning). The danger’s number of minutes on the clock corresponds directly to its frequency of occurrence. For example, suffocation deaths are 30 minutes, or half the worry, on the infant year worry clock.

Q. What about things that did not make the clock? Were there things parents should not be so afraid of?

A. Absolutely. Keep in mind that I was looking at death, not injury. It is rare for children to die from electrocution (sticking something in an outlet), drowning in a toilet, or a “foreign body entering… through eye or natural orifice” (yes, there is a category for that!). I was really surprised how few animals made the list—and which did. Snakes, spiders, bees, and sharks don’t even register a second on the clock; they are basically nonexistent. Mammals, especially our best friends the dogs, on the other hand, are the worst of the animal kingdom. Dogs weighed in at twelve seconds for toddlers and nine for the five to nine year olds. That is still a very small number, and arguably more a reflection of the human owner than the dog. Nonetheless, it was surprising to me.

Q. Why should a parent or caregiver read this book?

A. Because the book provides a roadmap for protecting children and more than one-third of the deaths to children are from what most would agree are preventable incidents, such as drowning or suffocating. We can do something to change that statistic.

Q. What else can parents do?

A. Get involved in the discussion and push for better answers. Get Congress to incentivize the development of new technologies. When Congress cannot agree on the right path, let’s make sure that we develop a few good—even if very different alternatives—and test them. We need more science; it is the only way we can move forward. And, finally, we need our policymakers to support the federal statistical system. These data empower parents.

Q. A researcher calling for more data and research?

A. Shockingly, yes. I view the whole book as trying to start a conversation. I am hoping people with better data or newer research can teach us more.

The book is available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle editions: http://www.amazon.com/Worry-Clock-Parents-Worrying-Smarter/dp/1492774782/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1381672314&sr=1-1&keywords=natalia+pane