Thursday 27 January 2011

Unreasoning Fear

"Things happen all the time."

This is the common sentiment used to justify a constant line-of-sight supervision of our children. Don't glance away, don't leave them alone, not even for a minute, because things happen all the time.

This is a challenging discussion to have because first, it is difficult to disagree with the overarching mentality in light of horrifying personal stories, and second, any attempts to do so leave you looking both thoughtless and careless.

Stranger abduction. None of us want our children to be that "one child" it happens to. The thought is beyond horrifying. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that:

  • 797,500 children (younger than 18) were reported missing in a one-year period of time studied (1999) resulting in an average of 2,185 children being reported missing each day.
  • 203,900 children were the victims of family abductions.
  • 58,200 children were the victims of non-family abductions.
  • 115 children were the victims of “stereotypical” kidnapping. (These crimes involve someone the child does not know or someone of slight acquaintance, who holds the child overnight, transports the child 50 miles or more, kills the child, demands ransom, or intends to keep the child permanently.)
  • (source)

But when we step back and look at the risk of stranger abduction (less than one child per day in the entire United States), and then look at the very real risks to a child's development that come along with direct, constant, line-of-sight supervision at all times and in all places, the latter, I believe, has very far-reaching implications both to the individual and to society as a whole.

I am fully supportive of proactive parenting that teaches and empowers children to recognize and respond to danger. I am not comfortable with parenting that sees danger around every corner and insists on constant supervision at all times and in all places. Our fear of "stranger danger" has kept too many children indoors, in front of the television, playing video games, and surfing the web, rather than outdoors exploring, discovering, running, climbing, and building.

I also see a dangerous dichotomy in telling our children that all strangers are to be feared and yet that all adults should be automatically respected and obeyed - particularly because, statistically speaking, a child is at far greater risk from those placed in charge of them (teachers, leaders, caregivers, etc) than they are from strangers.

The very concept of "stranger danger" actually creates a more dangerous community for our children, because a) children become fearful of all strangers, including the vast majority who would help rather than harm them, and b) adults become fearful of all interactions with children, including any attempts to help them, for fear of being accused of nefarious motives (thinking, for example, of the tragic pond drowning of a two-year-old girl, because the man who saw her wandering down the street was too afraid to help her for fear of being accused of kidnapping). When all adults (particularly men) are automatically suspect, everyone loses. Community cannot bloom and thrive under these conditions.

I am in no way suggesting that we throw our children to the wolves, but I don't believe we can teach them to think for themselves, trust their own judgement, or make good decisions if they are under our constant supervision. How can they properly handle responsibility and freedom if we never give it to them nor expect it from them?

None of this is helped by media hype (sensational news sells), nor by the many organizations and individuals who stand to profit by elevating public anxiety (buy our gadget, it will help keep your child safe!). It is in many ways like our fear of germs, egged on in order to sell to the public that which was originally intended for medical professionals. Take, for example, Purrell's "imagine a touchable world" slogan, with its implication that the world is untouchable without their products, or Lysol's "Mission for Health" and "Healthy Babies" programs. But how do you make a case against these profit-driven tactics when the certain response is, "are you really willing to risk your child's life? Isn't it worth it if it might protect them?"

And yet...don't nearly all of us frequently take our children in the car? The rates of child death due to vehicular accidents is approximately twenty times greater than the rates of stranger abduction (2,863 child passengers died in 1999, to contrast the stats above, and 2,270 in 2007, to give a more recent figure (source)). But we accept that everyday risk because we believe the benefit of driving in the car is greater than the risk of our children dying in a car crash (while, of course, doing what we can to make that car trip as safe as possible, including seatbelts and extended rear-facing carseats and so on - all of which still don't bring down the death rates to anywhere near the rates of stranger abduction). Likewise, I believe the benefit of a child-appropriate "free-range childhood" is greater than the risk of stranger abduction - and I, too, will do what I can do make that free-range childhood as safe as possible by arming my children with knowledge and confidence.

Even so, nothing I could possibly do will make this life entirely safe for my children. I will pray (and pray and pray and pray) for their safety - mind, body, and soul - but I cannot eliminate all risks. To believe I can is to place undue guilt on myself while creating a false sense of security for my family.

Being aware of the real dangers is more productive than adopting a worst-case scenario mentality. Family abductions, for example, are several hundred times more common than stranger abductions. If I had an unstable ex, I would absolutely take greater precautions with my child. Likewise with child molestation - frighteningly common, especially by family members and friends.

This failure to differentiate between "things that happen all the time" and "worst-case scenarios" is highlighted, I think, in the argument that "you wouldn't leave your purse unattended, would you?" No, typically I wouldn't - because it is (relatively speaking) no big deal to snatch a purse. Snatching a child, on the other hand, takes a very rare type of person. I am reminded of the story of a man who stole a car, not realizing there was a child strapped in the back - and upon discovering the child, immediately turned the car around and returned the child to his mother. That is the very real difference I am speaking of - people will steal things, but very very few will steal a child.

At some point, my children are likely to encounter someone unsafe. I cannot remove that possibility from their lives. I can, however, give them the tools they need to avoid dangerous situations when possible, live through it if they have to, and process it in a healthy manner when it is over. As such, these are my primary goals:

  • provide skills and knowledge
  • encourage them to trust their intuition and avoid general fear
  • respect their body and teach them to do the same
  • emphasize the importance of honesty
  • remove any aura of shame from the topic
  • build a strong community in our neighbourhood

I am still working on how best to accomplish these goals, but they give me something to work towards and, ideally, prevent me from falling into a fear-based approach to parenting. I'd love to hear how you balance avoiding the irrational "stranger danger" fear/mentality while also providing your children with the tools they need to keep themselves safe.

Recommended Reading:
Free-Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy
The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker
Protecting the Gift by Gavin de Becker
Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv


  1. This is a very good entry. I think you are hitting some good points. There needs to be a balance.

    I know my husband told me when he was a kid his Mom wanted him to check in every 15 minutes (he just riding his bike in their neighborhood). It drove him nuts because he could hardly start playing before his mother was calling him.

    I hate that our society demonizes men (particularly)even being nice to children. Franklin loves kids, and would come home and tell me about cute moments from work, but he was often to afraid of being 'too nice' to the kids and being seen as a 'weirdo'.

  2. Korey, it makes me so sad, too, the way men are particularly demonized in our society. It angers me to think that people will look at my own grown sons with that sort of suspicion in their minds. It angers me even more that I will at some point most likely have to caution my boys, for their own protection, to be aware of their interactions with children. What a sick way to view things, that a man who enjoys interacting with kids must have other motives.