Thursday, January 14, 2016

What We Believe About Child Safety Is Wrong

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.
My kids, pictured here circa 2000 were free-range kids, within reason. They
survived quite nicely.
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.
The Wall Street Journal: Campouts Test Helicopter Parents.
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.

“A broken man, an abandoned house, and a lonely woman—all the makings for a beautiful, haunting tale of loss, forgiveness, and redemption. The Salvage Man is a lovely, bitter sweet story you won’t soon forget. I loved it!”
Sherri Wood Emmons, author of The Seventh Mother

“Meyer turns the pages of history with gentle care and a warm heart, creating a story I’ll remember forever. Thank you Kurt Meyer for opening a door to my beloved town’s past and allowing me to travel the streets and meet the people of Noblesville 1893.”
Susan Crandall, Author of Whistling Past the Graveyard
& The Flying Circus

Thursday, January 7, 2016

My Parents Would Be In Jail

The following story is true. The family asked me not to use their real names.

NOBLESVILLE, INDIANA    A week before this past Christmas, 9-year-old Jacob Smith was excited for Santa’s visit. In his family’s picturesque Victorian-era home with its deep, wrap-around porch, hardwood floors and tall ceilings, he wrote a letter to Santa.

He’d been thinking of Santa’s cottage, set up on the courthouse lawn just down the street from his home. Santa had a mailbox there for just such a letter.

Warning: This story will end with Jacob’s parents being questioned by the police and child protective services. If you’re looking for a light-hearted Christmas story, this isn't it.

Jacob’s father is an award-winning schoolteacher, his mother a free-lance marketing specialist. The next morning before school they agreed to let him walk alone the 4 blocks to the courthouse square to put his letter in Santa’s mailbox.
Santa's cottage on Noblesville's square. Painted by Rodney Reveal

It’s a ridiculously, unbelievably Normal Rockwell-ish journey, down a brick street lined with historic architecture where Jacob often walked the family dog – a loveable, old blind mutt, past the doors of his family’s friends, even other family members, the route for Christmas, 4th of July, and Homecoming parades, and then past the coffee shop, restaurants, and businesses his family visits regularly. He dropped the letter in Santa’s mailbox and turned for home, deciding to take the alley that runs from the square east-west behind his house, knowing that would lead him a few steps closer to the family’s kitchen door.

Halfway home he was stopped by an elderly woman in a car. She asked what he was doing in the alley in the dark. He told her his name, his parent’s names, his address, and that he was just a couple blocks from home. She parked her car and insisted that he stop and walk with her to his home. Once home, Jacob told his mother about the elderly woman he met in the alley.

And then a police officer arrived at their door, asking why Jacob had been allowed to walk to the square before school (the elderly woman had apparently called the police). Jacob’s mother recalls an awkward exchange with the female officer who warned Jacob that there were bad people in the neighborhood. And though no law defines such matters, the officer got into a discussion with Jacob’s mother about the specifics of what was safe and not safe in the neighborhood where Jacob’s family had lived for years, but where the officer didn’t live. Again, no law defines these matters, it was just the officer telling Jacob’s mom what she thought should be allowed.

“You know since a child is involved, I’ll have a file a report with the Department of Child Services,” the officer said before leaving.

Once the officer left, Jacob’s mother explained to him that his neighborhood was safe and that he would be free to explore it, with permission, that he shouldn’t stop for adults no matter who they are, especially when he’s confident in what he is doing, that she and Jacob’s father weren’t going to by hypervigilant helicopter parents who obsessed over his every move, that part of growing up is having freedom, making mistakes, and learning to be independent. She told him not to be afraid, but instead to make smart choices.

Then the Child Services lady showed up saying she was there to talk about the “alleged neglect.” This involved a meeting with the entire family around the dining room table, one that left Jacob, his little brother, and his parents uncomfortable. They were being judged for behavior that is not specifically defined anywhere in law, accusations that were leveled by an anonymous, unnamed elderly stranger whose credentials amounted to, at most, having a differing opinion from Jacob’s parents about what was safe in the neighborhood.

Think a moment about this true story. Today, Jacob’s parents are called “free-range parents.” This kind of parenting was simply called “parenting” a generation ago. But today, a stranger could stop your child, redirect your child’s activities, and escort your child somewhere at their sole direction. And because that stranger simply called the police, you could find yourself questioned and lectured by not only the police, but by Child Services on private parenting decisions that have no specific definition in law. It's just one person in a position of power with a differing opinion about child rearing.

And consider that now there is a document in a file and a pdf. in a database that Jacob’s parents were asked to sign showing Child Services had been called to Jacob’s house. Can you imagine the next time a hypervigilant adult with ideas about parenting that differ from Jacob’s parent's ideas decides to call the police because a 9-year-old boy is walking the family dog on the courthouse square (which Jacob does with his parent’s permission). The newspaper or TV story would likely have a line that reads, “This isn’t the first time Child Services has been called to the Smith home.”

If you’re middle aged or older, you know that the freedom Jacob's parents have given him was no big deal in your childhood, as your parents likely gave you far more freedom. Had these standards been in place during my childhood, my parents would have been in jail.

Is the world really more dangerous today for children? I'll look at that question next week in the Hoosier Contrarian.

“Kurt Meyer’s The Salvage Man is a gentle Midwestern fantasy made up of one treasure after another. Part historical fiction, part love story, and part rumination on modern day life, this novel asks hard questions about the world we live in and the world we leave behind. I couldn’t put it down.”
Larry D. Sweazy, author of A Thousand Falling Crows

“Meyer turns the pages of history with gentle care and a warm heart, creating a story I’ll remember forever. Thank you Kurt Meyer for opening a door to my beloved town’s past and allowing me to travel the streets and meet the people of Noblesville 1893.”

Susan Crandall, Author of Whistling Past the Graveyard