Accidental Horror Story

 Parents deal with so much real-world scary that we forget to enjoy pretend scary.  PC:  SHTTEFAN  on  Unsplash

Parents deal with so much real-world scary that we forget to enjoy pretend scary.

PC: SHTTEFAN on Unsplash

The best substitute teacher at Karigon Elementary was Mrs. Wilt, who knew the surest way to control a group of third graders was to terrify us. Her preferred method: reading Alvin Schwarz's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.

It was a brilliant trick. A scary story wasn't school-sanctioned reading, but in just five minutes we stopped trying to sink the sub and became her co-conspirators. 

So imagine my delight when I stumbled upon Schwarz's In a Dark, Dark, Room at the library, which I presented to my husband and son after dark. My husband started to read: 

Once there was a girl named Jenny.
She was like all the other girls,
except for one thing.
She always wore a green ribbon
around her neck. 

It's the classic boy meets girl story. Boy asks girl why she wears the ribbon. Girl deflects. Boy and girl get married. He asks. She deflects. She gets gravely ill, removes the ribbon and...

My husband, who did not have the benefit of Ms. Wilt's tutelage, did not know the end of the story, but he knew it wasn't likely to end well. He deflected our then three-year old and snuck the book into our return sack.

My son didn't ask about the ribbon again. But I couldn't stop thinking about it. How did this totally inappropriate story get into this book that my three year old can read from cover to cover? 

So I borrowed it again, only this time, and snuck it spine-in to the stack of books on my desk, where I forgot about it until this dark and rainy morning. 

Schwarz's foreword confirms what substitute teachers know and clearly, parents like me need reminding of: 

Most of us like scary stories
because we like feeling scared.
When there is no real danger,
feeling scared is fun.

My son and I have dabbled in scary. We read a lot of Lemony Snicket. We've repurposed his ludicrously expensive swaddling blankets as spectral accessories. But I've never really entertained the thought of encouraging him to be intentionally scared. Or intentionally scaring him. 

Meanwhile, I'm reminiscing over the secret thrill of being read a scary story three decades ago and hiding horror books in my office. 

A box set of the original three-volume Scary Stories was released in 2014 to nearly unanimously furious reviews from readers who were expecting Stephen Gammell's terrifying artwork but found much more "age-appropriate" sketches instead.

Apparently, I'm not the only child who enjoyed being scared. The publisher brought back the scary stuff in the 2017 edition, so you can refresh your memory before the film adaptation hits theaters. I'm guessing Guillermo del Toro's version won't be appropriate for kids, but I do plan to "accidentally" leave the I Can Read version in an accessible spot before then. 

Scared by a parenting story? Turn it into a word problem.

 Parenting news turns fun into fear with a little simple math.  PC:  Hybrid  on  Unsplash

Parenting news turns fun into fear with a little simple math.

PC: Hybrid on Unsplash

The only thing my son loves more than a room full of balloons is a pin with which he can pop balloons. 

But according to a Consumer Product Safety Commission Safety Alert, those balloons are serious hazards. Balloons are the "leading cause of suffocation death" among children. That sounds big, perhaps big enough to make me stop buying confetti balloons.

Here's three ways scary news stories inflate the case against balloons. 

"Leading" is misleading

According to the CPSC's 2016 Toy-Related Deaths and Injuries Report, one child died from a balloon-related injury in 2016. Six children died from other toy-related causes, none of them suffocation. A balloon wasn't just the leading cause of toy suffocation. It was the only cause of toy suffocation. 

Grouping makes dangers larger than they appear

Including data from multiple years makes the danger loom larger. Imagine a news story that began with five balloon-related deaths. Balloons would look pretty scary. But to get to five, you'd need to have counted deaths from a three-year period. To get to 110, you'd need to go back 45 years, which is exactly what St. Louis Children's Hospital did for its warning to parents, using the death count since 1975.

Unfinished word problems are scarier than finished ones

A Q&A from Fisher Price advising against birthday party balloons makes them sound downright terrifying: "...each year over 100,000 children under age 4 are treated in hospital emergency rooms for toy-related injuries, and 17 children die. Approximately one-third of the deaths result from choking; and one-third of the choking deaths result from latex balloons."

Although that sentence starts with a huge number, 100,000 is irrelevant here: that number refers to the total number of emergency room visits related to toys, but does not tell us a single thing about balloons. But that 100,000 provides a context that makes us scared of the fractions that follow.

Simply finishing the math problem from the Q&A can make us a lot less nervous. 17 children die from toy-related injuries. One third of those children die from choking on toys. One third of the children who die from choking on toys choked on a latex balloon. That's 17 * 1/3 * 1/3, or 1.89 children per year. 

Two children dying from balloon deaths is of course two too many, but it's also a considerably smaller number than you would expect from a toy made to sound so dangerous in the news. 

Bottom line: when we use terms like "leading cause of suffocation death," or group deaths from many years together, or accept scary-sounding fractions without finishing the math problem, we get a skewed sense of danger. I'm off to buy those confetti balloons. 

Have you found an unfinished math problem in a scary parenting story? I want to hear about it!