There are three questions I constantly ask myself as a parent. 1) Why for the love of God is he not asleep? 2) Where is the lid for the stupid water bottle? and 3) What do I risk by not allowing my child to take this particular risk?
Earlier this year, after the terrorist attacks in Brussels, several secondary schools across Canada announced they were cancelling school trips to Europe. The Peel District Board of Education, which encompasses much of the suburban belt around downtown Toronto, announced it would be cancelling all trips to abroad for the year including student tours of France, the Czech Republic and Austria, Italy and the Netherlands.
For Europe in general and France in particular, this is just a fraction of a much larger problem. France is the world's leading tourist destination in the world. Roughly 85-million people visited last year alone and for good reason: From the food, the wine, the art, the landscapes, the beaches, the skiing and the architecture, France has it all. But according to the European tourism consultancy, MKG, visitor numbers to France have been down significantly since the Paris attacks last fall and are expected to decline further – a 30-per-cent reduction in tourism is expected for August.
It's no secret why this is happening. People are scared. Terrorism is doing its job, unravelling its tendrils of anxiety into the minds of otherwise sensible travellers.
But here's the thing: Even after the recent attacks in Europe, the threat of terrorism remains a negligible risk and one that is almost impossible to predict. You've heard the the old consumer-safety truism that the average person is more likely to be crushed by a falling television than killed by a terrorist? Well, it turns out to be true. As Phil Sylvester of the travel insurance website World Nomads told Conde Nast Traveler last week, "Everywhere in Europe is the same risk of terror attack today as it was two weeks ago. We're just more aware of it today, feeling the hurt and the fear."
So what are we risking if we won't risk let our children travel? In my view: Virtually everything. If not life itself, certainly life worth living.
When I was 16, my best friend and I spent the summer bumming around Europe on a train pass. This would probably never happen today, but the idea that supervised school trips are now also being cancelled because of this irrational "better-safe-than-sorry" parental thinking is utter madness. In an effort to keep our kids safe, we risk turning them into unadventurous, unsophisticated Pokemon addicts. What do we really risk when we deny our teens their first taste of unpasteurized cheese, first glimpse of a great painting or first peek at a topless beach on the Riviera? In an effort not to gamble with their future, we are ensuring they will end up bored and restless rather than energized and impassioned by life.
The question of risk is particularly on my mind because I'm pregnant.
Pregnancy is a time when women must constantly weigh the health of an unborn baby against our own selfish desire for coffee, wine, sushi, Tylenol, cycling or skiing (all of which I continue to indulge in, with careful moderation, while many others do not). And these mental gymnastics only get more complex as children grow older. Should you let your toddler eat unsliced grapes? Ride a scooter without a helmet? Hop in the back of a taxi without a car seat? All these things are perfectly legal but do post a certain undeniable risk.
On an instinctive level, I get it, but risk is not something that can be easily measured or contained, especially not by the clumsy machinations of the average parental psyche. Insurance companies do a pretty good job of it (if you want to figure out the odds of your house catching fire or car crashing, just look at the price of your insurance policy), but modern parents are an irrational bunch. We constantly worry that our kids are going to die, which would in turn destroy us, so we do everything in our power to avoid that possibility, no matter how remote. The problem is, we make logical mistakes. In guarding against one highly unlikely risk (the threat of a terrorist attack), we give into another very likely one (the risk that our child will be denied an enriching cultural experience).
When I was three months pregnant, a magazine I work for sent me to Brussels to report on the terrorist attacks. My editor didn't know I was pregnant, nor did I see any reason to tell him. I accepted and completed the assignment without a second thought. Two months later, however, I was invited on a trip to a remote part of Africa that involved visiting patients in clinics treating drug-resistant tuberculosis. In the end, I decided to sit it out. My reasoning was simple: There was a much higher chance of me contracting drug-resistant tuberculosis in Madagascar than there was of me being caught in a second terrorist attack in Brussels, a city on military lockdown during a national state of emergency. In terms of statistical risk, there was simply no comparison. It was the difference between, say, getting struck by lightening or getting hit by a car. Both are conceivably possible every time you leave the house, but which do you actively take precautions against?
Similarly, while there is a remote risk that you or your child might get killed in a terrorist attack while visiting Europe, it is pretty much certain that by not travelling to Europe you or your child will not travel to Europe. Is that a risk you're really prepared to take?