Tuesday, January 11, 2011

We Have Nothing To Fear, But We Do It Anyway

I noticed today on the blog "Road Gap" that friend to the blog Mikael Colville-Andersen's speech at TED was up and ready for sharing! It is always fun to hear his thoughts on all things bicycle. This speech is about one of my favorite topics to ponder- the Culture of Fear. In this case he relates it to bicycle helmets, but it could really be about any number of things. When we do things for our "safety" without really finding out if it is indeed "safe" we become less.

The post below is one I wrote in 2009 and is from my more personal blog. More fear, less thinking as something we can teach our children seems to have become the norm. Even when the intentions are good the damage is the same.


Today was 'Bike Rodeo' day at my daughter's elementary school. The YMCA brought out a ton of bikes and helmets for the kids to ride, and spent a couple of hours teaching the kids riding skills they can use on the streets- looking over your shoulder without swerving, sudden stops, right of way... Overall, perhaps one of the more potentially useful lessons these kids will learn this week. I was so happy to see them learning something practical and basic, something kids learned just by being on the block when I was a kid.

Traffic Can Be Fun

Despite my joy at seeing the kids riding around, there were more than a few moments in the morning where the kids were being fed fear rather than knowledge. Right at the beginning, the helmets went on. While I do not wear a helmet (please don't write me to tell me I am crazy- I have my reasons and they are fine for me), I have no problem with others wearing them and insist that my children do, if for nothing else than to keep them from scraping up their faces when they stack- I do not think they will provide any protection in the case of major collisions (again, I have my opinion on this, you have yours- leave it at that). As the instructors fitted the kids with various helmets, I heard one of them telling the kids "this helmet will save your life". Not 'could save your life' or 'will keep you from scraping your face if you fall'- the kids were told, with absolute conviction, that their lives would absolutely be saved. By implication, the instructors sounded as though they knew that today would be the day that death came to visit my daughter's class and that these plastic buckets would fend off the scythe of the Grim Reaper.


So right off the bat, the kids are being conditioned to accept other people limiting their choices and ability to reason through situations by instilling fear as the basis for decision making. As my presence in this class was to take pictures of the kids learning how to ride, I was not in a position to say anything about it, nor was it an appropriate forum for that discussion. But it got me to thinking about how often our kids are controlled by fear, mostly because the adults are all living in fear. Fear of pedophiles and trans fats and lead paint and underachievement and delayed speech and public schools... have turned parents and teachers into peddlers of fear and anxiety. Children who are never allowed out of eyeshot of an adult grow up to be teenagers who can not be off the electronic leash of phones and computers with everyone they know for fear of not being connected to everything at all times.

The worst part is we have marketed this as cool. Fear of the world has become fashionable! Instead of facing our demons we have made them the fodder for talk shows, the basis of indoor play spaces with monitors at the ready with antibacterial wipes, the warning label on matchboxes telling us the contents are flammable. We have made being weak and frightened the epitome of 'fitting in'. We have allowed something as simple and basic as riding a childhood bike to become an activity that calls into question our parenting if we do something as radical as let kids just get on with it and have fun.

Singing Makes The Ride Even More Fun!

How do we turn back the clock on this? Is there a way to teach others the joy of simply allowing the moment to be what it is without catastrophizing it? To 'go with the flow', so to speak. Can we stop this before we paralyze our children's future, a future where they will need to be creative and fearless and brazen on a level most of us have never known? My goodness, I hope so, because we have fallen off and we need to get back on the bike of life without fear for the sake of our kids and ourselves.


I leave you with this terribly funny video introduced to me by Todd of Clever Cycles.


  1. I agree. rather than teaching children (and adults) to be afraid of everything unquestioningly, we should equip them with the skills needed to think and learn about risks for themselves.

    Rather than insisting on helmets (of dubious benefit) for everyone, maybe people would start to think about the underlying problems which make people want helmets. This kind of more complex thinking is a useful skill which we should teach more of.

  2. Both of these videos you have shared are incredibly powerful. I hope that others will take the time to view them and truly take in the information. These should both be mandatory viewing for the masses. Thank you so much for sharing them.

  3. When I took up flying, my first instructor told me that if I stayed long enough, I'd have a pilot friend die of it. Eventually, one did, after crashing off the coast of Malibu. Flying magazines are full of example cases of flights gone wrong. It takes a strong stomach to read some of them.

    When I took up horseback riding, the instructors refused to allow me on a horse without a helmet, and friends kept telling me about Christopher Reeves. After awhile, I gave it up in favor of cycling.

    I went parachuting once. They required that I wear a helmet too, but mostly to keep the wind out of my hair.

    I used to have a work colleague who refused to do any activity that required a helmet. That meant no skating, skateboarding, cycling, horseback riding, motorcycling, climbing, football, baseball, skiing, etc. She played golf.

    I'm not sure what's "safe" anymore.

  4. I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

    " . . .a future where they will need to be creative and fearless and brazen on a level most of us have never known? My goodness, I hope so, because we have fallen off and we need to get back on the bike of life without fear for the sake of our kids and ourselves."


    P.S. I've never know a road helmet to do much for preventing facial injuries, that's why they make helmets specifically to address that issue.

  5. When I was very young I learned an old Irish toast. "Born in pain, live in fear and die alone." Sometime ago I decided that since I can't do anything about the "born" part I would try to improve the "live" part. What I used to think was keeping private I realized was just fear of being found out. So I'm not so private but I still have fear and am constantly bombarded by those who would have me fear. Fear seems to be how control is exercised these days just as it has in the past. The more fear the more control.

  6. I am sooo not afraid of coming back to San Francisco and drinking with you all at mariachi bars in the mission...

    Word verification: dulkshri. The loud-pitched sound I make when drunk.

  7. Mr C- I always wonder about what we teach our kids. They come into the world knowing instinctively how to question things. Then we spend a decade and a half teaching them not to.

    GE- glad you liked them!

    examinedspoke- She obviously never got hit by a stray ball. They can kill, you know : ) Everything in life worth doing comes with risk and every moment we are alive could be our last, with or without helmets. I say fly and ride horses and scuba dive and parachute and ride bicycles and have families and read banned books until the moment you drop dead.

    KFG- my old helmet kept me from some face scrapes when I was younger. I found it to be a good thing when riding in areas with low hanging trees, too. As I no longer jump off dirt piles or under trees, I think I will be OK : )

    OF- You said it ,brother! Fear=control=power and I have no time for it.

    Mikael- Good talk! We just need to get TED better tech support : ) Should you return to my neck of the woods, advance notice would be very much appreciated so that we can all take our vitamins and get enough sleep ahead of time.

  8. I have a simple way of doing business regarding helmets: I don't tell anyone they're dumb not to wear one if they don't tell me I'm dumb for wearing one.

    For me a helmet wasn't an option as a child, but the fear was there almost immediately upon learning how to ride when my mother sternly insisted: "No riding in the street!" So many people have grown up with that edict ingrained it can't help but have influenced so many motorists who think bikes have no place on the street.

  9. One of the things I have learned in 16 years of parenting is that kids have a pretty good sense of what they should not be doing. If given a long leash and allowed to fail from time to time, they get very good at identifying what they should and should not be doing. Society seems to be pretty clear about wanting kids to never learn these lessons nowadays. I find it very sad and children find it stifling.