Our deeply held beliefs about child safety on the streets of America are largely false. And, what most parents are doing to keep their children safe is the most dangerous thing they could do.
Last week I wrote about the Smith family of Noblesville, Indiana, parents who went afoul of police and child services after allowing their 9-year-old to walk 4 blocks alone to mail a letter to Santa. Though no immanent threat was apparent, an elderly woman stopped their son along the way and called the police. The police officer that arrived at the Smith home lectured Mrs. Smith and her son, saying there were “dangerous people in the neighborhood.”
Their story is not unusual. Across America parents who give their kids freedom to roam are being treated like negligent fools. Several social media responses to last week’s blog post lamented, “Well, the world just isn’t like it was when we were kids.” That widely held, but mistaken belief is at the core of the problem.
Go looking for proof that kids are in greater danger today than a generation ago and you simply won’t find it. It doesn’t exist.
Here’s the reality: Crime against children today mirrors that of 1970. Almost no one seems to know this except the crime statisticians who gather the data. In the ‘70s and ‘80s such crimes rose, reaching a peak in 1993. Since then, it has declined. So those you hear lamenting, “The world just isn’t like it was when we were kids,” are mistaken. It’s very much the same as it was in 1970, when kids were allowed to roam freely in their neighborhoods.
The Crimes Against Children Research Center reports that crimes against children continue to fall across the board.
What are the odds of your child being abducted and killed by a stranger? 1 in 1.5 million. Still, that’s what most parents worry about. So instead of letting their kids walk to school or move about freely in the neighborhood, they drive their kids everywhere to ensure their safety. But guess what the #1 cause of death among children under 14 is? Riding in a car. In fact, your child is far, far more likely to be hurt in a car accident than by a stranger while walking to school.
And that fear of random strangers? Truth is, the person most likely to abduct a child is a family member. And person most likely to molest a child – someone the child knows well.
Why are our fears so upside down and backwards?
Those 1.5 million kids not killed by a stranger today don’t get their stories told on the news. Their safe day isn’t interesting. But that one kid in 1.5 million; his story is told over and over and over again by news channels with 24 hours to fill. And in our nation's lurid attraction to grief-pornography, we'll watch the parents weep openly on Dr. Phil. Never mind that 3 children die and nearly 500 are injured everyday in car accidents. Not interesting. Not compelling. Not heart-pounding.
So wanna have a screwed-up view of your kid’s safety? Watch television news, the place where, “If it bleeds, it leads.”
In his book, The Science of Fear, Daniel Gardner detailed the many ways American parents fear the wrong things, that death statistics reveal a child is more likely to choke to death on food than to be abducted and killed by a stranger. So we drive our kids to school, but don’t know the Heimlich maneuver?
We fear the wrong things! And in doing so, we’re raising a generation of children who are not learning independence and self-reliance. They’re not exploring and discovering their world, it’s being spoon fed to them by irrationally fearful parents.
A day or two after New Years I pulled up to my local coffee shop, on the very route Jacob Smith took to Santa’s mailbox on the square. Across the street I saw Jacob’s mother amble down the street with the family’s old blind dog on a leash. Jacob and his little brother ran along the sidewalk ahead of their mother. I shouted hello.
Inside with my coffee and Wall Street Journal, the article I found first was about Kindergarten in Germany and the practice of children being sent on weekend camping trips away from their parents to explore in the wilderness. In the startling 3rd paragraph it reads: “While U.S. preschoolers practice their ABCs, their counterparts in German Kindergarten, age 3 to 6, head into the outdoors to learn to get dressed, prepare meals and go to bed–all without their parents.” On these camping trips the children are given knives and taught to whittle sticks for roasting hot dogs over a fire for dinner. One group, all non-swimmers, camped on an island.
Could you imagine this in America, were children are treated like paper-thin, fragile blown glass that might break if jostled, where hypervigilant parents supervise their every move? Our culture is so awash with irrational fear no school would ever be allowed to take 4-year-olds into the forest for a weekend campout.
What German children learn in Kindergarten isn’t in the U.S. curriculum. They’re taught to be independent, self-reliant individuals. And childhood in otherwise rigid Germany is pretty relaxed. The WSJ article pointed out that kids as young as 5 are routinely sent alone by their parents to the bakery or corner store. And the nation doesn’t start teaching them to read and write until age 6. To Germans, teaching kids to be resiliant and independent comes first.
On a trip to Japan last October, I saw children who looked as young as 6, waiting alone on busy train platforms for their commuter ride to school, and I noted with interest a square block-sized park filled with perhaps 50 children, swinging, playing ball, clustered in circles talking, and not one single parent anywhere to be seen. My son, who lives there, told me that is normal.
Think Germany and Japan have got it wrong? Google international test scores and see how American kids stack up against theirs. Then check life-expectancy and child mortality rates in the these 3 nations just to put an exclamation point on how far behind America has fallen.
Other western nations are raising kids the way American parents raised them a generation ago, where kids organized their own pick-up basketball and baseball games and moved about their neighborhoods each day without a helicopter parent hovering overhead, intervening and protecting. They learned to resolve disputes with other kids on the own, be independent, and discover the world on their own individual terms. Those days are gone in America. Now near-all kids activities are adult-directed and supervised.
You can tie a kid’s shoes for him over and over while he watches, but he won’t learn to do it until he does it himself. A lot of child rearing is like that. You simply can’t do the learning for them. They have to do it themselves or they’ll never learn.
Our fears that get in the way of that are emotional, not rational.
Our fears that get in the way of that are emotional, not rational.