Risk, Probability, and Parenting

by Melissa Braaten

(opinions in this blog are those of the author and not of the SABES Mathematics and Adult Numeracy Curriculum and Instruction PD Center)


PinkStock Photos, D. Sharon Pruitt [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D

Parenting is hard. I just became a new parent a few months ago. I knew it was going to be hard before the baby even came the first time I picked up an instruction manual and learned how to strap a baby in a car seat. It seemed like every page had bold warnings in all caps about various ways you could do it wrong, each of which could result in “SERIOUS BODILY INJURY OR DEATH.” My husband had a similar experience assembling the crib.

“That was stressful,” he sighed when it was finally together.  “Did you know there are about a hundred ways a baby can die in a crib?”

Just today, I had a conversation with my mom that has become sort of common. We were talking about the baby and his impending teething.

“Do you have any of those teething rings that you freeze?” my mom asked.

“No, you’re not supposed to use those any more. They’re too hard for the baby’s gums.  The FDA is also trying to prevent people from using medication for teething, because it can be dangerous and cause a blood disease.”

“Oh. Well, you survived.” How many times have I heard this phrase in the last couple of months? It seems to sum up the feeling of bewilderment whenever I talk to someone from a previous generation about all of the things I have been advised to avoid (blankets, stuffed animals, baby powder, belly sleeping…) which might result in SERIOUS BODILY INJURY OR DEATH to baby. Well, you survived. And they are right. We did.

Keeping this baby alive and maintaining my sanity has had me thinking a lot about risk and the ways that we make decisions in the face of it. We all know that some risk is unavoidable, but we don’t always like to admit it. Risk enters the realm of randomness and uncertainty. Not all people — even mathematicians — are comfortable here. 

Generally, our evaluation of risk is based on two factors: the likelihood of an outcome, and how serious that outcome would be.

Something that has a relatively high likelihood of occurring and has potentially serious consequences are considered high risk. These are things that tend to be a little easier for people to agree on, and a little easier to legislate: for example, most states have laws about wearing seat belts, helmets, not driving while drunk, etc. There is plenty of evidence of serious consequences, and they occur often enough that we are willing to take measures to avoid them.

Outcomes with mild consequences are generally trivial, and we don’t spend a lot of mental energy worrying about them. It is in the other domain that things get interesting. Risks that involve unlikely, but serious outcomes seem to be far more subjective and controversial. Emotions play a big role. For example, the average American is far more likely to die choking on food than in a terrorist attack, and yet only one of these things has a huge place in our national consciousness (and budget).[1]

Hence the difficulty with parenting: even if it has a very low probability of occurring, SERIOUS BODILY INJURY OR DEATH to a new baby is terrifying, and means that many things probably take up more room in our consciousness than they really should. Does that mean I think hospitals and pediatricians should stop trying to prevent SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome)? Of course not. From 1990-2016, the rate of SIDS dropped from .13% to .04%;[2] something rare became rarer. Since there were about 4 million live births in 2016,[3] that decrease in SIDS means that potentially around 3,700 babies were saved in that year alone.

Nevertheless, the chance that my baby will die from SIDS is, thankfully, very low. After a while, I did stop staring at the monitor to see if he was still breathing. You have to sleep, and eat, and live your life, and drive to work, and somehow tolerate the fact that bad things could happen today—but they probably won’t. I won’t give my baby teething gel, but I don’t want to be too hard on those who do, either. After all, we did survive.


[1] https://www.businessinsider.com/death-risk-statistics-terrorism-disease-accidents-2017-1  The exact statistics on odds of dying from terrorism vary widely in different sources, mostly because it is hard to agree on exactly what qualifies as a death from terrorism.  But all the numbers I saw were still far, far less likely than choking.

[2] https://www.cdc.gov/sids/data.htm

[3] https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/births.htm


Melissa Braaten is an adult education instructor at Catholic Charities Haitian Multi-Services Center in Dorchester, MA. Melissa has taught ASE and pre-ASE math and reading, as well as ABE writing, computer skills, and health classes. Melissa also is a training and curriculum development specialist for the SABES Mathematics and Adult Numeracy Curriculum & Instruction PD Center at TERC. She has written several articles for Math Musings, the Adult Numeracy blog.

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