Are we way too worried about "stranger danger"?
It can be terrifying to be a mother in a world that feels this dangerous for kids. Last week I saw the old, familiar face of Etan Patz all over the TV. He was the first kid ever featured on a milk carton and he disappeared on his way to school when he was just 7 years old. I was a little kid then, around his age, and I remember the horror of the adults around me when they realized that a stranger can grab your kid right off the street.
I was reminded again when I saw the picture of little Isabel Mercedes Celis, presumably snatched from her own bed overnight just last week.
In the intervening years since Patz's disappearance, so much has changed with the freedom we give kids. While most adults were shocked at the thought of a stranger abducting little Etan, today it just feels like a chilling reminder in the long procession of missing kids--Adam Walsh, Samantha Runnion, Polly Klaas...the list seems endless.
The way we parent today is substantially different than the way we did in 1979, when Etan first went missing. Gone are the days of "Come in when the street lights come on." They've been replaced by supervised play dates, parental taxi services and constant fear that the world is full of insane, child-snatching strangers. But, in reality, Department of Justice statistics show that child abduction by strangers remain rare. Of the murders of children under 5 years old only 3% occur at the hands of strangers, while Mom and Dad combined account for 60%. Still, we have radically remade our society into a place where kids are rarely on their own.
Mothers who question the norm of rigorously supervising our kids every minute of every day get disapproving looks from friends and family. "The world is not the way it used to be," we hear over and over again. "Those were more innocent times." For those of us that are Latina, it's often: "Things are different in the United States than they were in our home countries." That the facts don't bear out those fears is ignored by just about everyone, including the media, who seem to prefer sensationalism to sensibility.
My own daughter--responsible, aware and armed with a cell phone--has only started walking home from school this year, and she is almost 13 years old. At her age, I had been staying out until the street lights came on for about 7 years, and had been getting myself to and from school, about 3 miles away, on a bus, for 3 years. But my friends still look at me like I've handed my kid a hand grenade and a gram of cocaine.
The jury is still out on what effect this constant supervision will have on the younger generations. Will it make them dependent and fearful?
Don't get me wrong: one child taken by a stranger is one child too many. Nothing can compare to the horror of an innocent life snuffed out by some sick murderer. But I'm not sure keeping tens of millions of kids from enjoying age-appropriate independence is the proper response to the 100 or so stranger abductions that happen each year.
And it doesn't make me a bad mom to say so.
Image via Tuscon Police Department