Friday, May 13, 2011

#15: Risky Business

"... if there were any logic to our
language, trust would be 
a four letter word. "
Another new book came out recently about how a lawsuit-happy generation of Americans is breeding a culture of fear and distrust. Needless to say, I won't be running out to a Borders or Barnes & Noble any time soon to pick it up so I'll have to come to my own conclusions as to what this might entail. But I have some ideas. And living in Denmark for these last six months has definitely given me new insight into assessing and taking risks and the cultural impact of our perceptions of risk.

To the average American (okay, me), Danes seem to engage in an awful lot of risky behavior. I'm not sure if I notice this more because I am the mother of a toddler or because things are so shockingly different from the U.S. but I will point out that more than a few non-parental, non-Americans have at times echoed my sentiments.

True exchange between me and my single, childless, Spanish classmate.
So deceptively steep I almost
broke my coccyx

Me: I have to keep my son home today because he fell on the playground today at daycare and has a huge bump on his head and scratched his face up.
Classmate: Danish playgrounds, made of concrete... crazy people.

And that's also true. Many of the playgrounds in Copenhagen, even the newer ones, are built over concrete. A few are built over sand and today I found the first playground with rubbery cushioning underfoot hidden away in a small neighborhood of summer houses.

Which is good, because it also had the world's steepest slide. This "kiddie slide" had the kind of pitch you'd associate with water park rides named "Kamikaze Flume" or "Max Velocity". When not flinging themselves down killer slides, Danish children can also be seen around the city's plentiful playgrounds climbing cargo nets, riding zip lines, getting loads of splinters from all the untreated, natural wood play features, and lots of other things that, in the U.S., we'd categorize as "a lawsuit waiting to happen".

But it's not just the playground antics that have set my mothering "danger radar" abuzz. I come across something nearly every day that would make the average American's heart skip a beat. I'll begin with some hypotheses and try to illustrate with some of these examples.

To start off, here are some of my theories as to why Danes take different risks than Americans:
  1. The activity they are engaging in is actually safer in Denmark, either by its method of execution or by a matter of being.
  2. They perceive less risk (or correctly assess the level of risk) in engaging in an activity.
  3. They have a much higher level of cultural trust in one another to do the "right" thing and therefore have a much different expectation of negative consequences.
There are some examples where the activity itself is actually safer and so Danes behave accordingly due to an understandable lack of fear. For example, it is much more difficult to kill yourself while casually riding a 25-pound bicycle than while driving a 2-ton car. It's even more difficult when, as in Copenhagen, you are given your own lane that's on a separate level in between the sidewalk and the street, your own set of traffic lights and drivers who are always on alert for you.

That said, Danes do some amazingly dangerous (to me) things while cycling. I haven't yet seen a Dane cycling while applying makeup, as I once saw in another car while on my regular American morning commute, but I think I've seen just about everything else. Bikes are also used to transport pretty much everything. Literally. Like a three children, or a houseplant, or a mattress. I also understand that this feeling of perceived (and actual) safety is a contributing factor to the Danish drinking age being set at a shockingly low 16 years old. Interestingly enough, the rates of drunk driving in the U.S. and drunk cycling in Denmark are somewhat similar so take note, all you policy makers. You can't change the drinkers, only their method of transportation.

In addition to the oddly un-American sight of intoxicated cycling, another shockingly fascinating thing to see in Denmark is unaccompanied children. They walk alone down city streets, ride the Metro without a parent in sight, and play in courtyards or on street corners. I was watching an old episode of Sesame Street from 1989 on YouTube the other day and there was a scene with a bunch of grade schoolers playing jacks on the street outside an urban apartment building while a young teen babysitter watched from an upstairs window. I think these days in most American cities that would get you arrested for child neglect.

Actually, that did happen not too long ago to a Danish mother visiting New York City. In Copenhagen, it is nearly ubiquitous to leave your sleeping infant or toddler outside a store or restaurant while you are inside. NYC authorities were upset because the child was left unattended for over an hour. Here in Copenhagen I think most Danes would be upset that a perfectly good nap was ruined. Many Danish parents put a small baby monitor inside their strollers, in case the child starts to cry or wake up, but most of my Copenhagen mom friends would be more worried about their iPhones getting stolen from their diaper bag than their children from their strollers.

Two factors contribute to this behavior - first, it is statistically safer in Denmark and second, you can generally rely on your fellow Danes to do the right thing (i.e. not take your child). Denmark does have a relatively low rate of kidnapping and abduction. The U.S. has a much higher rate of missing children but then it depends on how you interpret "missing" and in turn read the statistics, which tend to skew our view towards a more hostile, dangerous world than it may actually be. Though most Americans have been conditioned and admonished by shows like America's Most Wanted and Inside Edition to guard their children vigilantly, the majority of "kidnappings" are actually family abductions. So you'd be safer trusting Junior to the folks on the street than your mother-in-law... at least statistically.

Still, there are some situations and behaviors that defy all three of my theories and so must be categorized as:

     4. They are f-ing crazy!!

Shocking - literally!
My American friend has what I have dubbed an "elevator of death". It's this ancient contraption that has more in common with a dumbwaiter than an elevator. It only holds three people, though really only two can comfortably fit. So what makes it so "deathly"? First, there are the massive doors - a metal exterior one and a double, tightly strung interior door that are like the jaws of a Venus fly trap. Second, you can open the double interior doors at any point during your upward or downward travel and stop the elevator. Theoretically, a good move, except that it can stop mid-floor, leaving a huge gaping hole for a small child or dog to leap from. And I saved the best for last. There's an exposed metal plate that is the "sensor" for when the elevator has reached a floor. If you happen to accidentally touch that plate (or do it on purpose just to see what happens), you'll be shocked with a cattle prod's worth of electricity for your trouble!

 Here are a couple more of Copenhagen's finest risky scenarios.

Front-facing child car seat in front
passenger seat of SUV
Woodworking tools for kids
at the local Nature Center