Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Illusion of Control

Last week a 13-year-old girl lost both her feet in a bizarre and tragic theme park accident at Six Flags, Kentucky. The accident was on a drop-ride, called the Superman Tower of Power ride.

In the aftermath, Six Flags and Cedar Faire companies shut down a total of 8 other rides that were similar in style and made by the same company. One was the Drop Zone at Kings Dominion in Dowswell, Va, a ride my kids and I ride often.

Meanwhile, I had recently read a story about kids being punished at a local school for touching. I decided to combine these two thoughts into a column which I called The Illusion Of Control.

Selected Excerpts, with some links added:

My children and I are theme park junkies. Most of our vacations involve visits to one or more theme parks, sometimes more than one in the same day. I don't know exactly why, but certainly one reason is the thrill of a ride that appears to be out of control and dangerous. But no matter how scary the coaster is, or how high you climb or how fast you fall, in your mind you realize there is no actual danger. If you don't, the six-year-old sitting in the seat next to you might give you a clue.

I then mentioned the accident at Six flags, and referenced a web site RideAccidents, which lists lots of accidents at theme parks. For example, two coasters we plan to ride later this summer have had non-serious accidents this year. True story, when I went to the site, I didn't know what I would find, but what I found was that there are a LOT of accidents on inflatable rides, like moon bounces. That played well with my idea of the illusion of control:

Instead, it seems the most dangerous "carnival" equipment today is the Moon Bounce -- but not (as you might think) because children get too boisterous and land on each other. Instead, it seems they have a habit of blowing away. As in, lifting off the ground and soaring through the air, only to land far away often with disastrous consequences.

I listed several examples, most of which you can find at the special "Inflatables" section at RideAccidents. Then I finally get to the point.

My point isn't to scare you away from the Moon Bounce at your local fair (although you should make sure all four corners are securely attached to the ground). What I'm saying is control is often more of an illusion than a reality. Nobody who puts their child in an Air Castle expects them to end up in the ocean. People think the rules will keep their kids safe.

We try too hard to control everything in our lives -- and worse, we give government too much power to control our lives as well. This is all done in the false belief that we can be free from harm if only we pass a law or make a rule.

Next, I reference the story of the no-touching policy at Kilmer Middle School in Vienna, as discussed in the Washington Post last week. I note there could be a sound reason for banning some sorts of contact, and then continue:

But as is often the case, the school has taken a reasonable restriction on inappropriate contact, and turned it into a draconian rule against any physical contact whatsoever. No handshakes, no high-fives, not even a tap on the shoulder.

I note the principal's justification, which I reprint here from the Post article:

Deborah Hernandez, Kilmer's principal, said the rule makes sense in a school that was built for 850 students but houses 1,100. She said that students should have their personal space protected and that many lack the maturity to understand what is acceptable or welcome.

"You get into shades of gray," Hernandez said. "The kids say, 'If he can high-five, then I can do this.' "

She has seen a poke escalate into a fight and a handshake that is a gang sign. Some students -- and these are friends -- play "bloody knuckles," which involves slamming their knuckles together as hard as they can.

I conclude in my column:

She is probably correct. But the policy is still wrong, because it pretends we can actually control gang activity, fighting, and kids testing boundaries, if only we restrict anything that could possibly lead to such activity.

Some parents support these rules, precisely because they provide the perception of "control," a false sense that nothing bad will happen because the rules won't allow it. I doubt the gangs have left the school because they can't perform their handshake -- but a lot of children are learning that touching is bad, rather than a normal act of human civility.

We rarely have the control we think we do over our circumstances, and that isn't really a bad thing. After all, a little loss of control can be thrilling.

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