Not deferential enough: Are the kids alright?

Posted Friday, March 6, 2015 in Opinion

Not deferential enough: Are the kids alright?

by Gina Hamilton

An old childhood friend shared a story from a notorious conservative site that I was shocked to have to agree with.

It was about a family who was threatened with the loss of their children because they let them walk outside unattended by adults.

Now, for younger readers, this may come as a shock, but said childhood friend and I and everyone we knew walked around unattended by adults virtually everywhere we went, before and after school, and all summer long. It was just the way we did things. There were woods to explore, with creepy burned down buildings in them that just ached for stories to be made up about them; there were places to dig up arrowheads, places where you could collect tadpoles and catch tiny fish, places where you could, if your parents were particularly unwary, strip down and go swimming. And this was in the midst of a small suburban town, which was pretty crowded, really.

There were bike trails where you could jump over something the boys called "the sugar bowl" and really hurt yourself if you missed, and they all missed. (Helmets were virtually unheard of in those crazy days.)  You could get yourself seriously lost, although kids have a pretty good sense of dead reckoning. You could eat a poisonous berry or something and get really sick.

But amazingly, no one we knew suffered any of these fates.

There were days when parents corralled kids, and took us to Maple Hill, our local "country club", actually more of a rec center, where they had a nice outdoor pool, a bar that served lunches, tennis courts, shuffleboard, tetherball, and other things that kept kids occupied for an extended period of time. However, they'd often leave us there unsupervised and return for us at the end of the day, giving us enough money for lunch and a mid-afternoon snack.

There were also days when the family went off to play mini golf and get hot dogs and frosty mugs of rootbeer at the local pop stand. We'd go to the zoo at least once a year, and if the weather was rainy, we might take the train into town and see the art museum and the natural history museum.

We were sent, sometimes complaining, to summer camp for a few weeks, where we learned to canoe and sail and build birdhouses. We took riding lessons and dance classes and played Little League baseball. And then there were the family vacations -- one at midsummer to some new and special place, and the other at the end of the summer when we'd have a family reunion with our grandmother and all our aunts, uncles, and cousins.

But the vast majority of our days were spent in the company of other children, just as wide-eyed and innocent as we were, and just as unlikely to be a source of help if we got into serious trouble. No one had a mobile phone back then, so if somebody did get hurt we'd have had to abandon that child and ride off to seek help from a police person or some likely adult, which could have taken an hour or more.

The rationale for not leaving children unattended isn't that they might get injured, which does seem fairly likely, given the chances we took and the locations we were in. Instead, the modern fear appears to be that a child will be abducted, raped and murdered.

Now, this sort of thing undoubtedly happens, but given the number of children in the country and the number of stranger abductions, it doesn't seem to happen with much regularity. A child is a lot more likely to be abused by a family member or a family friend, an adult trusted by the parents, than to be snatched by a stranger. A child is much more likely to be kidnapped by a noncustodial parent. A young teen is much more likely to have been taken by a former boyfriend. Most of these situations resolve within hours.

The statistics tell us that every 40 seconds, a child goes missing. The vast majority (99 percent) of these are runaway situations that are quickly resolved, or a child who isn't following the clock or the sun, and comes home later than expected, or a noncustodial parent keeping a child longer than anticipated. About 7,000 children are missing for longer periods of time, but of those, only about 100 are stranger abductions. The rest are family abductions or runaways.

So the fear factor, the terror that allows parents to stunt the growth, socially and emotionally, of their own offspring is based on an incoherent fear that their child will be one of the 100 out of 75 million who are abducted by a stranger and never returned.

The odds of that are less than the chance of being bitten by a shark or being struck by lightning, and fairly close to winning a large prize in the lottery. Or to put it in sadder terms, your child is 100 times more likely to be injured by a firearm, and 30 times more likely to die from a gunshot, than to be abducted by a stranger.

But while we could be doing something about gunshots, we aren't. If the family in The Blaze story had guns in their home, and one of the kids hurt himself with one, they'd be considered victims.

Instead, we are putting parents through the wringer who only want what's truly best for their kids, including graduated independence. That's wrong and misguided, and departments of children and families should cut it out.

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