Stranger Danger

strangerI have been avoiding the newspapers for the last couple of days, because I don’t want to get caught up in the frenzy of stories about the Sandy Hook shootings.

You may say that this kind of avoidance is exactly what I have written in opposition to in other posts.  However, I have a special reason.

I have two young children, and have spent a lot of time thinking about America’s obsession with preventing children from being exposed to the risks of violent crime.

Let me say, right at the beginning, that I am not in any way a supporter of the notion that Americans have a right to purchase semi-automatic weapons and an arsenal of ammunition.

The reason that I became concerned was because of my experience when my son went to elementary school.  The school he went to was filled with very concerned and loving parents.  One of these parents was in charge of the Friday morning school convocations: Outside speakers were brought in to address the whole school (kindergarten through fifth grade).

I was stunned to learn that a quarter of all of the speakers came to talk to the children about how they might avoid being victimized by strangers trying to kidnap or harm them.

When I was a child, I witnessed the beginning of this obsession. One year during my childhood milk cartons across America began displaying pictures of children who had been abducted.  Somehow, every morning, seeing a picture of a child victim created a vivid impression for me and my parents that we lived in a very dangerous world.

So, when I learned about the speaker program for my son, I went out to investigate how much of a risk there was in America from stranger abductions of children. I discovered that a presidential commission had looked into this question.  When children are abducted, figuring out whether the abduction was done by a stranger or by a relative is tricky. Often these events take place in the context of a rancorous divorce, and parents are trying to avoid being discovered “abducting” their children from their former spouse.

The commission spent a good deal of time trying to figure out how many of these abductions were by strangers and how many were by friends and relatives.

It turned out there were very, very few stranger abductions in any given year in the United States.  Fewer than 50 in the entire country.

This started me thinking about how we, as a country, have developed the notion that our children have to be driven everywhere (by the way, the risk of automobile accidents is obviously much higher than 50 in a year), all because of our fear of extremely rare acts of violence against children by strangers.

In many neighborhoods in the United States, children hardly ever leave the house, childhood obesity is burgeoning, and our children are missing out on a sense of comfort navigating through their world.

Recently, I went to Paris, where I spent some of my childhood. I was thrilled to see that in Paris, thousands of children still go to school on their own on the Paris metro.

This seems to be a much healthier model for raising children than the fear-based model in America.

I’m reminded of the wonderful movie by Roberto Benignini, “Life is Beautiful.”  That movie is all about what I think of as one of the primary responsibilities of a parent: Giving one’s children a sense of security in the world.

I hope that we finally adopt more sensible gun control laws and do whatever else we can to prevent these tragedies.  But I also think that we have to not be swept up in fear or anxiety. We must be mindful of the fact that as parents and as adults, we have to do what we can to create a psychological sense of safety for our children in the world around them.

Our fear for them cannot be allowed to deprive them of a fundamental sense that, with rare exceptions, the world is a safe place.

Particularly since, objectively, our children are safer than at almost any time in the history of mankind.