Nothing to Fear but Overreactions

Dear Mr. Dad: I’ve read stories about people having ID numbers etched into their children’s teeth, and not letting their kids play outside, and those Amber Alerts make it seem as though hundreds of children are being abducted and murdered every day. Like most parents, I want to protect my kids. I don’t mean to sound heartless, but I think we’ve gone overboard. Am I wrong?

A: Nope, I think you’re absolutely right. The reality is that, factoring out the threat of nuclear war, the world is not any more dangerous for children today than it was a few generations ago. But thanks in large part to the media, which repeats stories over and over and over, too many parents are in a panic. And our children are paying the price.

When I was as young as eight, growing up in Oakland, California, I took city busses all over town to visit friends, grandparents, even go bowling. And all the other kids I knew were doing the same thing. But I’m pretty sure that if I put my 10-year old on a bus by herself today, I’d get arrested.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t take reasonable precautions to keep our kids safe. Of course we should. We should teach them to look both ways before they cross streets, wear helmets when they ride their bikes or skateboards, wear seatbelts in the car, and not take candy from strangers. And before sending our kids off on a playdate, we should try to make sure that the adults in charge are responsible and trustworthy. But we can’t protect them from every possible danger. Not letting our kids explore their neighborhood (or even their own backyards), not allowing them to get a few bumps and bruises once in a while, and filling their heads with stories of dangerous strangers lurking behind every tree, we’re keeping them from developing the independence, self-confidence, and ability to made decisions that they’ll need as they stumble toward adulthood.

Part of the problems is that we’re way too concerned with what other people think. Let me give you a few examples. A recent study of more than 3,000 children and parents found that while half of parents played outside at least once a day when they were young, only 23% would allow their own children to do the same. Why? Well, 53% of those parents said they were worried about traffic. And 40% said they were concerned about “stranger danger.” I get both of those, even though the fears are exaggerated. But the statistic that really got me was that 30% of the parents who keep their kids cooped up indoors feel that they’ll be harshly judged by their neighbors if they let the kids play outside unsupervised.
Another recent study was even more horrifying—and tragic. This one talked about how a growing number of daycares have banned physical contact between caregivers and children out of fear that the adults might be accused of molesting the youngsters. We’re talking about toddlers and younger. In some cases, the daycare staff is being told that cuddling small children is bad because it could make them too dependent. What a crock.
Anyone who’s spent more than five minutes around small children knows how much they’re comforted by physical touch. Many experts say that depriving kids of being cuddled or held or, gasp, kissed, increases their stress levels and can have serious, long-term negative consequences for their development. On a less-scientific level, it seems positively cruel.

An important reality check about kidnapping

Amber alerts pop up on freeway signs and interrupt radio and television programming. We hear about Polly Klaas, Adam Walsh, and other children who were kidnapped and murdered. Now it’s Isabel Celis in Tucson, Arizona. Child advocacy groups start talking about the hundreds of thousands of children (usually they cite “every 40 seconds”) who go missing every year, the media runs with the story–often adding in something about how the number is growing–and parents around the country panic.

There is no question that every single missing child is a horrible tragedy, but the numbers and pseudo statistics that get thrown around do more harm than good.

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