Truth in numbers, as parents rank risks

. July 9, 2013.

Do parents know best when it comes to their child’s health? That may be the case, more often than not. But a report released in August by the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health shows some interesting patterns in the way parents view childhood health risks.

The survey asked 2,064 adults to rate the seriousness of various childhood health concerns, and the results, even though sometimes at odds with statistical evidence, are very revealing of the anxieties that permeate the contemporary landscape. For instance, though national statistics show rates of childhood obesity leveling off, the surveyed parents rate obesity as the most serious problem for children today. Similarly, drug abuse and smoking were ranked highly on parents’ lists of concerns, although again, evidence suggests that use of drugs and tobacco is declining among adolescents. Does this indicate that parents are simply wrong, that they are inaccurately assessing real world risks? Or, as the people closest to their children, do they have a better sense of the real situation than the scientific data can show? For example, the data on obesity is from several years ago—is it possible that the U of M survey is reflecting the changing facts on the ground? Is this an example of the “wisdom of crowds?” Certainly, conditions in the real world can change faster than may be officially recognized.

Tellingly, concern over childhood stress spiked, moving up to the fifth most serious problem on the survey, from only eighth in the 2009 version. “Levels of stress among children may relate to
economic challenges faced by their families in the national recession and slow recovery,” states Matthew M. Davis, M.D., who directed the poll.

What lessons should parents draw from this? Listen to the experts—there is no substitute for real, concrete, verifiable data. But listen to your instincts as well. Every child and every family
 is different, and in the end, no one knows your child better than you.