The American psyche is still reeling 33 years after the disappearance of little Etan Patz on his neighborhood corner. Kids have never been more coddled and cooped up. Activities like biking to school, which were once commonplace, now risk getting parents reported to social services, publicly ostracized, thrown in jail and on occasion nearly punched out by well-meaning grannies.
Is Our Fear Founded?
Every successive generation of technology along with the widespread adoption of social media means we are now, more than ever, aware of potential dangers. Couple this with competing media outlets battling it out for viewers, and we have a very distorted view of the threats facing our children today.
If you look at the actual numbers, it turns out Aunty Jane was the actual threat, not the middle-aged man loitering by the corner shop with that strange twitch. The studies done indicate that the majority of abductions are perpetrated by family members in custodial disputes. Following that are other family members and friends; only a tiny amount are actually your stereotypical kidnapping. The last reported figure was 119 cases in 1999. True, this figure is dated. A decade earlier, the estimate was from 200 to 300.
When it comes to judging dangers, we score low on the rationality charts. The leading cause of death for children between the ages of two and 14 is traffic accidents. In cases where alcohol was involved, half of the drivers with kids were the ones doing the drinking. (And yes, those two glasses of Pinot Grigio count.) Your child is 18 times more likely to die in a traffic accident than to be abducted by a stranger, but how often do you panic when your kid climbs into a car? And this number doesn’t include all the kids who survive with life-altering injuries. The same parents who would love nothing more than to electronically tag their children, think nothing of hopping in a taxi with zero child restraints. And I am sorry folks, Ergo carriers don’t count.
Still, 119 seems like a lot. But then I remember there are over 72 million kids 17 and under. That means there is a 0.00017% chance of my child being abducted by a stranger. I am not saying we shouldn’t raise our children to be aware of their surroundings and potential dangers, but I think we need to put things into perspective.
Better Safe Than Sorry
To err on the side of caution, isn’t it better to be safe than sorry?
Actually no, it isn’t.
In addition to denying them rich, meaningful relationships as well as a sense of independence and self-worth among other things, our hysteria and unfounded fears mean we are actually putting our children in harm’s way. Even though children have never been safer, child abduction and pedophilia fear mongering have reached such a state that we are endangering our children precisely because we are being too careful.
In one instance in the U.K., a builder in his van sees a toddler walking along a major road by herself. His first instinct? To stop and pick her up. This was tragically followed by a fear of being reported as an abductor so he drove on. That night, the lead news story was of a little girl who had wandered out of her nursery and accidentally drowned in a nearby pond. In another, a man videotapes his neighbor’s daughter as she is beaten by a gang of girls. Many believed he was right in order to avoid potential charges from the female thugs.
Everyone is under suspicion, but nobody more so than men. From taking pictures, to comforting a child, it seems that everything is deemed questionable. Carl Honoré, the author of Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting, describes it perfectly in his chapter on “Safety”:
Modern Dads receive a mixed message: be touchy-feely with your own kids but, when it comes to other people’s keep the touching and feeling to yourself. The other day I was in the playground when a toddler fell off the slide and started bawling. My first instinct was to console him, but I checked myself. What if someone thinks I’m a pervert? So I stood there, mouthing platitudes at a safe distance, until his mother came over.
Where Does This Leave Us?
The truth is, most sexual attacks, though by no means all, are perpetuated by men and so it is understandable that in a culture intent on bathing us in fear, they are bearing the bull’s eye of distrust. But given the numbers, are we not taking things a little too far?
I think so, and to our children’s detriment. In Britain, music teachers are advised not to touch their pupils’ fingers—even to reposition them correctly. Male gym teachers don’t want to change in the same locker rooms as the boys they teach for fear of false accusations. In many daycares, men are not only banned from changing diapers, they are asked to leave the room while the changing takes place. And the list goes on. What kind of message are we sending to our children?
What We Can Learn from Asia
I can’t speak for all Asian cultures but in Singapore and Thailand, people love kids. And I am talking everyone. Age and gender simply don’t factor in. At first, I admittedly found it a little disconcerting how so many people would reach out and touch my children—a little pat on the head, squeeze of the cheek, caress of the hand. This is simply unheard of in the States and I imagine many, if not most, Western countries. People would only half-heartedly laugh in New York should you suggest someone might sue a person who touched their child.
The other day I was sitting on the bus taking my little girl Claude for her one-year check up. As the bus sat at a stop, a man in his mid-forties tapped the window with a big grin trying to attract and keep my daughter’s attention. There was nothing odd or threatening about this. She was overjoyed: new face = new fun. Men and women interact with my children regularly. I don’t know them and likely never will. My girls love it and little by little, I do too.
If there is one thing I could take home with me from my experience in Asia, it would be the genuine love and appreciation of children by men and women alike. I’ve come to realize the lost opportunity in the West that these interactions in the East provide. When I think of my own childhood, my world was richer for the men I knew. I am glad my girls are not growing up paralyzed by stranger danger, and in particular, a heightened fear of men. I want my girls—should they find themselves lost, hurt or confused—not to fear adults they don’t know. Because what a terrible way to grow up. No child should ever be left to toddle to her death because people were too frightened to stop and help.
© 2012 – 2013, Cordelia Newlin de Rojas. All rights reserved.