How likely would a child walk away with a stranger?

As a kid did you ever have those dreams when you were being followed or, even worse, dragged into a car?  Those dreams where you’d try and scream but nothing would come out except for a strangled silence? Those dreams where you’d wake up sweaty, fearful and needing your mum? 

I’d often have nightmares after the ‘stranger’ talk which involved being sat down and told about men trying to kidnap kids for some unspeakable, unimaginable act.

Despite those fears, I had a freedom that kids of today do not.  I spent entire days in the park, wandering up to the local oval on bikes, moving from one house to the other.  Pre-mobile phones, there would have been entire 5-hour blocks where my mother had no idea where I was.

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Kids these days don’t have that freedom.  Many are kept inside, ever watched and ever worried about.  We carers know this and we’re concerned about it.  But at the same time as being chided for being paranoid parents, we’re shown stories like this that keep us that way -

 

A British television program persuaded nine parents to take their kids to the local gated playground in a park in London.  All pretended to take an urgent phone call on their mobile and wandered off to then watch what happened when a man approached their child and asked them to help him look for his dog.  To the mothers’ horror, seven of the nine children walked from the playground with him within 90 seconds.  All had been warned about stranger danger.  Watching the video twists the gut; even an eleven year old initially goes with the man (but then changes her mind and runs back to her mother). 

These stories make good TV because they connect us back to both the silent screams of childhood nightmares and to the greatest nightmare we have as parents.  Fears recently flamed by hearing about young girls kidnapped and kept as sex slaves in the United States and Austria. We instantly identify with the mothers in the story who describe their fright as a ‘reality check’ despite the fact that it was a set up.  Yet we need to understand that what’s pitched as a friendly media wake up call for parents could also be seen as an attempt to whip up panic.

 

The entire ‘stranger danger’ push is actually misleading.  In the United States the chance of abduction by a stranger is about 1 in 1.5 million.  There are no Australian figures but we do know children are nearly eight times more likely to be sexually assaulted by a family member or an adult known to them than by a stranger. British writer Warwick Cairns, author of ‘How to Live Dangerously’ (a statistically based plea to stop living scared), tried to put the statistics a different way.  He calculated that if you wanted to guarantee that your child would be snatched off the street, he or she would have to stand outside, alone, for 750,000 years.

It’s an insanely low risk. Yet, if you’re like me, you dismiss this reality check.  Because when we hear about abductions logic leaves us.  The ‘stranger’ has become the modern day ‘wicked witch’ of ‘bogeyman’.   When we were babies they hid under our beds, when we are parents they live in cupboards in our brain that have no lock.

What to do? Perhaps we need to ask what is the cost of these fears. What are they doing to us? What are they doing to our children? And what are they doing to our community?

First to the kids.  I don’t know of many who live a life in lockdown but many are living a life too regulated and too safe. After reading about how this reduces resilience I recently allowed my daughter to picnic in the local bushland with a friend.  I set a time limit of an hour.  After an hour and a half I had sweaty palms and a rising panic.  I was about to set out to find them when they returned flushed with adventure, thrilled by their freedom and seeming smarter and savvier.  I swear they grew up a year in ninety minutes.

And there lies the developmental risk of life in a cage.  It infantises our babies. We need to educate them about their safety in a smart way.  We need them to have the freedom to build confidence and competence; to gain skills, handle risk and to develop strength to stand up to an adult.  And surely we need them to have openness and trust in people rather than viewing all as possible paedophiles.  I talk to my kids about enlisting the help of strangers if they are lost - in the United States an eleven year-old lost Boy Scout actually avoided rescue searchers because he feared they wanted to steal him!

And what of community?  I don’t want to live in a land divided by fear and paranoia.  A local primary school in Bendigo recently protested about a supermarket next door because of stranger danger.  This shows the dissolving of trust and solidarity between citizens and it makes society fractured and fearful.

And what of ourselves?  As a parent I have to have faith in people and my children. Because if I’m crippled with fear I know I’ll pass it onto them – a contagion that could make them insecure, frightened and distrustful of others.  In some ways, having a child is in itself an ultimate act of hope and trust. I have to keep faith in my society and my community or it leaves me lost.

Yet that’s more in my head than in my heart.  I admit I still don’t let my children walk to primary school alone. I’m more worried about the main roads full of big black four-wheel drives than scary men.  But after talking to them about the UK playground experiment I decided to do an experiment on myself.

Yesterday, after walking my kids across the main road I let them walk to school. I only followed for a while.  I promise. Just to see them across the next big road.  Then I turned back.  I have to confess I could see the school.

We all have to find the balance between ensuring our child’s safety and smothering them with our fears.  We have a duty to give them information, skills and age-related freedoms while keeping a lid on our own nightmares.  I’m interested to hear how you do it.

 

28 comments

  • Horrible the way so many modern parents smother their children, and the way they cast judgment on others who allow their children to live.

    One mother i know won't even let her 11 year old child go on school camp! The poor kid is devastated but mum says she has "safety concerns" about him "sleeping in the bush at such a young age".

    Another mother of an 11 year old girl told me that her girl "isn't yet ready for sleepovers, she's never slept outside of home".

    It's so sad watching these parents smother the life out of their children.

    Commenter
    John
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    September 11, 2013, 9:10AM
    • I understand both sides here. I hated school camp and wished that my mother had not allowed me to go. Their were a couple of bullies in our year and they took great delight in having a "free reign" day and night making the experience miserable for quite a few. But back then bullying was hardly even on the radar.

      Re the sleepovers, there seems to be a trend for having regular sleepovers at a young age that did not exist when I was a child. My mum said they really didn't even exist when she was growing up. My first sleepover outside of close relatives wasn't until around 11-12 years of age. None of our friends were having sleepovers much before this age. Even then, they were an occasional thing, not a regular thing. I think early adolescence is a better age to start, as they are more aware of what is right and wrong. The lack of sleepovers did not affect my ability to be independent, happily leaving home at 19 and standing on my own two feet.

      It can be hard not to wrap our kids in cotton wool. Our school sends out several notes a year about children that have been approached while walking to/from school by strangers asking them to get in their car, offering to buy them something from the corner store, help them find their lost dog, etc. None have been abducted, so kids do get the stranger danger message, but maybe it is more effective when mum or dad are not close by.

      Commenter
      justme
      Location
      Newcastle
      Date and time
      September 11, 2013, 11:03AM
    • Hmm, I think i stared having sleepovers when I was about 4 or 5 as have my children.
      I know my Mum had sleep-overs at friends homes from a young age too. They are nothing new.

      Commenter
      FiSyd
      Date and time
      September 11, 2013, 4:03PM
  • Sure but in the olden days we had more children.

    Now that we have only one or two the fear of losing one or two of them is greater. Many years ago we had many more children and generally lost a few along the way to illness or accident and although sad it was normalish.

    The fewer children you have and the more resources you pour into the little darlings not to mention the greater emotional investment, the greater the sense of loss and the greater the fear of their loss.

    I think the most important thing to protect children is your connectedness to them. When children are being abused they don't just deal with it rationally and come and report it to mummy and daddy, they act out, they do badly at school, they become hypersexual and inappropriate. What is our response to such behaviour well sometimes we get it and sometimes we punish them for bad behaviour because it so inconvenient.

    But it seems pretty flippant and daft to disregard the issue of strangers, is this the same argument feminists go on about with regard to women being told to be careful. If you want to tell your kids to embrace any guy that asks them to help look for their puppy by all means be my guest. No one should rape but they do, no one should harm children but they do. Sometimes it is someone they know, sometimes it's a stranger. Do we protect children from this reality?

    Commenter
    Madonna
    Date and time
    September 11, 2013, 9:11AM
    • @Madonna: Nowhere does this article suggest to disregard the danger posed by strangers - it simply points out that the things that we worry about are frequently not the things that are the real risks. Security researcher Bruce Schneier calls these "movie plot threats" - the big, scary events that happen vanishingly rarely, but consume public discussions of risk prevention. While parents are busy fretting about 'stranger danger' - and instilling a general sense of fear and distrust in their children - they are usually ignoring the reality that their child is (statistically) at FAR greater risk from relatives (including parents) and close family friends. If you're not looking out for warning signs of these much more real risks, then you're focusing your energy where it is least likely to bear fruit.

      Similarly with the (completely unrelated) issue of those pesky 'feminists', who you claim are suggesting that women shouldn't use common sense. That's simply untrue. What feminists have to repeatedly point out is that while, yes, we all need to be aware and alert, the blame for sexual and/or physical assault ALWAYS lies with the attacker, not the victim. As they say, "You know how to stop rape? Teach men NOT to rape!"

      Commenter
      crystalsinger
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      September 11, 2013, 2:20PM
    • No one thinks the issue should be ignored, but the Stranger Danger style of education has been shown to be useless over and over again. There are better alternatives which need to be adopted instead of rolling out the same old rubbish decade after decade!

      Commenter
      FiSyd
      Date and time
      September 11, 2013, 4:05PM
    • It may be a movie plot scenario but the consequences are so catastrophic that it is fair enough that parents are concerned about strangers.Whilst the behaviour of relatives and so on are also catastrophic, the kidnap scenario generally involves a violent and profoundly violating catastrophic event. And feminists are indeed pesky.

      Commenter
      Madonna
      Date and time
      September 11, 2013, 4:19PM
  • Its funny to think that when I was a boy growing up on the North Shore, 45 years ago, we kids went everywhere on our own. I went to school on my own, I came home (eventually) alone after I'd be talking to the pointsman at Crows Nest until I caught the Wynyard tram home with dad.

    I was always a tram gunzel, even at the young age of eight or so. Wandered all over Sydney on the trams. Was never confronted by men in long raincoats, but, and its a BIG BUT, the adults always watched over us. Never did I feel in any danger. They were different times, and the danger no less.

    Allow me to give an example. Dad used to take we kids down to Balmoral Beach. at the time when it right to come back, dad would make we boys change in the back of the tram. He'd never allow us to use the men's changing rooms.

    I asked once why? All he would say was that there were people there whom he wouldn't leave his kids or neighbours kids with. I could never get more out of him..than that. I found later when older, why.

    Commenter
    3217
    Date and time
    September 11, 2013, 9:31AM
    • I do understand how you feel. But we cannot lock our children up in a crystal cage to protect them forever from ALL danger. Sooner or later they have to ascend the staircase into the grown up world. Likewise I wouldn't want them dragged into the world by the scruff of the neck.

      I wish, were it to any avail, that our society was all luverly and niiice; but it's not, and all we can really do is just protect them as best we can. So that when they have their own kids, they will know how to look after them.

      Commenter
      3217
      Date and time
      September 11, 2013, 9:53AM
  • I will never, EVER, try to help out a lost kid ever again.

    Once I encountered a young child standing in a supermarket crying, clearly having lost his parents. So i knelt down to speak with him at eye level as to not appear intimidating and asked him where he last saw his parents.

    Just as he was calming down and looking around with purpose rather than hysterically crying, a psycho mother swoops in "what are you doing with my child" and at her hysteria, the boy again started wailing.

    I've never felt so embarrassed and humiliated in my life. She was basically accusing me of something awful. There was no opportunity to try and explain that I was trying to help find her, she swooped him up in her arms and stormed off leaving me standing there like a total fool with the burning eyes of dozens looking on.

    So yes, if you want to talk about community, there's no point when the majority of mothers see a man in their 20 somethings as a potential sex-criminal rather than a good Samaritan trying to help a lost child.

    I repeat: never again.

    Commenter
    Adrian
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    September 11, 2013, 9:58AM

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