You go about your daily life assuming the kids are “alright” until something shatters your perspective – something like the murder of Polly Klaas in 1993. If a 12-year-old Petaluma girl could be ripped from her home at gunpoint during a slumber party, killed and dumped in a shallow grave, no child could be safe.
Nope, not like in the innocent ’50s and ’60s when the biggest thing to fear was the Boogie Man and The Blob. Not even like the ’70s, when middle class parents let their brood stay out on bikes in the ‘burbs until dark.
But was it really safer back then? If you buy into recent statistics, kids are actually as safe or safer now. A recent study by CCRC (Crimes Against Children Research Center) tells us sexual assault, bullying and other violence against children went down substantially between 2003 and 2008. Crime against grown ups is down too, although no one is quite sure why. Though experts are baffled and cannot put a finger on it, they can assert that media coverage is distorting our reality.
News programming must fill time. Thus, the media has a feeding frenzy with random acts of horror – Columbine bully revenge, abuse cases, molestation, neglect and the recent Tuscon, Arizona shooting spree that killed six people, including 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green. As someone who has worked for a 24-hour news network, I can tell you the goal is brainstorming as many angles as possible.
The images we are bombarded with create a chilling effect, aptly addressed in the book Free- Range Kids by syndicated columnist, Lenore Skenazy. She preaches that walking kids home from bus stops and forcing them indoors out of fear of imminent stranger danger is not only harmful to their psyches but does nothing to protect them from the most common offenders – people the kids know and trust. Instead of draconian sex offender registries, she says we are ahead of the game when we train children to protect themselves.
“David Finkelhor, the head of CCRC, reminds us that by constantly focusing on strangers, we are looking in the wrong direction,” Skenazy tells me. “If you want to keep kids safe, teach them starting at age three to discern good and bad touches, that they don’t have to do something an adult says if it feels weird or creepy, and that you won’t be mad if they tell you that something happened.”
Skenazy shared in her book about letting her own 10-year-old ride the Long Island Rail by himself, and took flack from observers like Dr. Laura – the same kind of bad mommy flack Ayelet Waldman took for confessing she loved her husband more than her kids, or Amy Chua for her recent Tiger Mom tales of raising highly restricted yet successful Chinese kids. But Skenazy sticks to her guns, insisting the crime rate today is equal to what it was back in 1970 and it is a bigger danger to strip children of freedom to roam the range.
“If you were a child in the ’70s or the ’80s and were allowed to go visit your friend down the block, or ride your bike to the library, or play in the park without your parents accompanying you, your children are no less safe than you were,” she says. “But it feels so completely different, and we’re told that it’s completely different, and frankly, when I tell people that it’s the same, nobody believes me. We’re living in really safe times, and it’s hard to believe.”
So hard to believe, the author and blogger says her book isn’t selling as well as one that might hype stranger danger and the abductions and killings that might result. In terms of hyping, she points to the recent boom in baby snatching hysteria over the hospital crime involving a North Carolina woman who turned herself in after taking a baby from a New York hospital more than two decades ago.
“Now there are specials on television telling us how to protect ourselves from this terrible fate and what galls me is the fact some four million babies are born in hospitals and one is taken, so the tips they are giving us are erroneous,” complains Skenazy. “CNN keeps harping on the fact babies are usually taken when mothers are in the bathroom, but there is no usually. As a result, new mothers – no matter how tired or weak they are – must grab the baby into the bathroom, otherwise they are not being a good mom and protecting their child.”
The safeguarding now extends to the internet which is considered by many to be the most threatening modern day crime spot for minors, one that literally brings pornographers and predators into our homes. Schools too, try to take a bite out of slime by offering internet safety as part of parent education, reacting to programs like the Today Show which told us danger lurks just click away.
Does it mean the filters we install just aren’t working, or is it that, just as in the mall or at the bus stop, kids must be taught how to ignore the weirdos who cross their path?
“With increased access to and depth of the virtual world, the potential dangers change rather than getting simply safer or not,” points out David Abusch-Magder, head of Middle School at Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Francisco. “No one is going to get run over by a computer or shot by a stray bullet coming from the computer, so it’s really about educating and working with students to build a common vocabulary to understand the dangers and to monitor their use.”
Skenazy insists the web is just another avenue used by society to make children deathly afraid of all strangers, while the reality is the web is no different from other public places where informed kids should know how to avoid being taken in by someone they don’t know.
“Studies show the places kids are in danger on the web are the equivalent of the red light districts in real life, sexually oriented chat rooms and you are putting yourself in a comprising place by going there,” says Skenazy. “Just X out or ignore the freaks. I tell my kids the same things as in real life -you can talk to people but you can’t go with anyone you meet; you can give someone directions but you never go with them in their car.”
Our kids are also in danger when they ride with us in our cars – in fact, car crashes are the number one way kids are killed in the United States. But as Skenazy points out, we don’t go through paroxysms of self doubt when we drive them to the dentist.
“The fear becomes a template of all of our parenting,” she says. “The danger may be remote but we are bad parents, incredibly negligent if now protecting them every second of the day. That is what makes us crazy about letting our kids do anything.”
In fact, the Blessing of the Skinned Knee theory argues not coddling kids and giving them more freedom early on allows them to function once they flee the nest, something past generations enjoyed much more than our own children. There will always be crime but we can believe the statistics on random incidents of violence and overcome our template of fear. By doing so, our kids might be able to tell their own children stories about hanging out at the neighborhood park and riding bikes until dark.