Julia Steiny: The Myth of “Stranger Danger”
Thursday, July 19, 2012
It’s time for kids to roam the ‘hood and reclaim it as their own. Time to build forts, dam streams, invent games, and figure out fun excuses for getting wet and cooling off. At a minimum, it’s totally time to ditch Mom and Dad, or at least get the adults off to a comfortable distance, around, of course, but out of kids’ business.
In short, it’s a time to develop some resilience, gain grit, and suffer creativity-inducing boredom.
Where are the kids? Neighborhood streets that once teemed with young life are now ghostly. Only car movements indicate the presence of human life.
Instead, kids are being super-supervised by a sports, art or educational programs. They might be sequestered in a backyard. Or hanging indoors in front of LCD screens.
But they are not out marauding in packs, because their parents are paralyzed with fears of “stranger danger.”
Actually the hoards of predators lying in wait to abduct children don’t exist. Stranger danger is a myth, a belief that has taken root in the collective parental consciousness, against all reason. Since the 1990s crime in general has consistently dropped, along with the tiny risk of abduction.
Car Accidents More Likely Cause of Injury
Kids are about 1,600 times more likely to be injured by a car than abducted. Yes, abductions do happen, but mostly by divorced or divorcing parents, or other family members engaged in some intrafamily dispute.
Kids are 40 times more likely to be killed in a car accident than killed by a “stranger,” who, when you look carefully, is often a relation, neighbor or other person known to the child. In the case of teenagers, “stranger” abductor/murderers include criminals and gang members whose victims have gotten themselves involved a deal gone bad.
Annually, only about 100 kids and youth fall into this last category.
The media never mentions how unusual such cases are when they milk every detail of a spectacular abduction case for weeks, if not months. It can feel like the Visigoths are blood-lusting for your child. They’re not. Yet believing the myth is a mark of a good parent.
So parents opt for the hugely-higher risk associated with cars, driving kids to school or to visit a friend. Driving deprives kids of exercise that could stave off obesity, and stupidly puts yet more potentially-lethal cars on the road.
In 2009, the number of young kids, 5-14, who committed suicide was 265. That’s well over double the risk for even the most generous definition of stranger danger. But you don’t see a national movement among parents to promote kids’ mental health. Sadly. We focus myopically on their safety instead.
Kids are more likely to die of a dozen other things, including playground accidents – which is ironic because our risk-aversion insanity has also been responsible for stripping most playgrounds of fun. Stranger danger is only one aspect of the epidemic of fear driving the need to scrub risk from children’s lives, here in the land of the free and the brave.
How does a kid learn to be brave in a risk-free environment?
Google “stranger danger” and you'll find endless sites brimming with tips and tools to help parents scare the bejeezus out of their kids.
Interestingly, the dire warnings not to talk to strangers don’t often make exceptions for the police. Nor do they consider exceptions like the kindly retired couple puttering in their garden who might be of real help in the case of a scare or emergency.
The message to our kids is: Be afraid. Other people are potentially dangerous; avoid them. People want to hurt you. As the adults, we’re certain that you, the child, can’t learn to assess risk, cope with challenges, reach out for help, and generally learn to protect yourself. We don’t believe in you. This is one way we love you.
In fact, interacting with other people, especially immediate neighbors, gives kids a sense for the sorts of people who are out there, so they can keep themselves safe.
And kids playing in the 'hood puts eyes on the streets, keeping the place safer for everyone, including themselves.
The problem is that as parents – including me – we are not satisfied with a statistically tiny risk. We want zero.
But at what cost?
The main job of a “good-enough” parent is not to keep a child safe, though that’s important. Because merely preserving life is a pathetically low bar compared with the challenge of nourishing a thoughtful, careful, confident, competent adult-in-the-making. Emerging adults need their care-takers to let out the protective leash a bit more all the time, even though it makes us nervous. Good-enough parents cope with the risks by assigning new responsibilities as conditions of new freedom. Kids love freedom. But when she screws up, doesn’t call home on time, blows curfew, the leash snaps back while the parent holds the kid accountable.
The message that will grow resilient kids needs to be something like this: Take precautions and be smart. But in general, the world is a safe and loving place, and it’s your job as a kid to help us keep it that way, and even improve it.
There is no significant stranger danger. Get over it.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at EducationNews.org. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.
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