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The Kids Really Are All Right

• May 28, 2013 • 10:00 AM

(PHOTO: DIEGO CERVO/SHUTTERSTOCK)

The facts say children have never been safer. So why can’t we loosen the leash? Taking stock of parental anxiety on the 30th anniversary of National Missing Children’s Day.

Like most parents today I enjoyed far more independence as a child than my children do. I biked to school at eight and roamed the gritty streets of New Haven while not much older. By those standards, my kids live under a kind of house arrest, rarely alone at home, and they’re escorted to and from school, sports practice, and pre-arranged, adult-supervised “play dates.” All of which is highly irrational and counterproductive: kids are far safer—even without lock-down parenting—than we think.

Hard to believe—with milk cartons and AMBER alerts reminding parents daily of our greatest fears—but child victimization rates in the United States have dropped dramatically over the last three decades and may be at their lowest point ever. Between 1970 (when detailed figures became available) and 2009 every category of child victimization has declined: child sexual abuse down 53 percent; physical abuse down 52 percent; aggravated assault down 69 percent; robbery down 62 percent; larceny down 54 percent. Bullying has dropped by a third in the last five years. And despite the horrors and headlines of stranger abduction—this year it’s the Cleveland kidnappings; a few years ago it was Jaycee Lee Dugard—confirmed cases are so rare (perhaps 100 or so a year) that the odds of your child being kidnapped and murdered stand at about 1.5 million to one.

Lisa Jones of the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center rejects my suggestion that children are safer simply because of the new parental paradigm of paranoia-fueled supervision.

Researchers who study child victimization see the declining rates as something of an epidemiological mystery. “We really can’t pinpoint the causes,” says Lisa Jones, a research associate professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center. She guesses a variety of factors are at play, which she collectively refers to as societal “mobilization” for childhood safety: public awareness campaigns targeting children, parents, educators, and health care providers; improved mental health treatment (including new pharmacology options) for offenders; more attention from law enforcement; and harsher sentencing laws and oversight (i.e. sex offender registries) for predators. The trends might also be linked to declining rates of teen pregnancy, drug use, teen runways, and other risk factors for child victimization.

Of course, in my mind, another risk factor might be “freedom to roam” and few kids nowadays have as much as we did in 1970. But Jones rejects my suggestion that children are safer simply because of the new parental paradigm of paranoia-fueled supervision. The data, she says, shows that even so-called “free-range kids” are safer than children of earlier generations.

That’s also the conclusion of Ohio Northern University law professor David Pimentel, whose recent paper in the Utah Law Review, “Criminal Child Neglect and the ‘Free Range Kid’: Is Overprotective Parenting the New Standard of Care,” argues that the perception of danger to children is grossly exaggerated. Your children are three times more likely to be struck by lightning than abducted and killed by a stranger, Pimentel notes. And this flawed assessment of risk produces in parents a response that may create different kinds of risks: parental fear of child safety is linked to declining physical activity, and increased rates of obesity, in their children. Studies also show that, on the whole, driving to school is more dangerous for kids than biking or walking. And other studies show a correlation between childhood self-reliance and responsibility—qualities we presumably value—and the level of independence within one’s external environment.

Pimentel’s parenting style was shaped during a working sabbatical in Sarajevo where it was common for children as young as three to walk freely, often running family errands. Back home in Florida, and later in Ohio, Pimentel let loose his six children, now ages seven to 24. Not all of his neighbors recognize his methods or motives, at times calling police to report the peripatetic adventures of his pre-adolescents. Not surprisingly, Pimentel notes, the only child victimization category not in free fall is neglect—a crime defined, in many ways, by generational and community standards and which, in some views, includes his laissez-faire parenting style. (Child Services hasn’t come calling yet, but he wonders….)

The difference between Pimentel and me, I suppose, comes down to the accuracy of our risk assessments. He reasons that the developmental benefits to his children of autonomy and independence outweigh the miniscule possibility of kidnapping (or rape, assault, or some lesser affront). It’s not unlike the decision we make when our kids swim in the ocean—there is a risk of shark attack, but it’s so small, we often conclude, that it isn’t worth sacrificing the fun and physical benefit of a romp in the surf.

As I’m writing this (seriously) a 31-year-old Albuquerque man is arrested and charged with kidnapping a four-year-old girl. The news frenzy is heating up and I read about the heroic (I see her as pragmatic) mother who chases the suspect by car for seven miles before crashing into him. The little girl is fine. “Yes, kids do get abducted,” Pimentel told me in a moment of data-driven prescience only a day earlier, “And when it happens, whenever it happens, everybody will know about it all over the country.” But despite the fears such headlines engender, the data don’t lie: kids are far less likely than ever to be the victim of a crime. (Little consolation for the mom in Albuquerque).

Thirty years ago Ronald Reagan proclaimed May 25 National Missing Children’s Day. I suspect he would be happy to know that the steep decline in missing, exploited, and victimized children in the years since has been, for whatever reason, one of our great public-policy success stories.

All of which got me thinking. If child victimization rates were so much higher when I was young, how did I escape unscathed? Pimentel reckons I benefited from what most kids today sadly lack: parent-guided street smarts. I was taught always to stay with a friend or two; I knew which neighborhoods to avoid; I could recognize a creep when I saw one; and I knew that, contrary to present parenting wisdom, it was OK to talk to strangers, because, statistically speaking, they were far more likely to offer me sound advice than cause me harm.

Maybe it’s time I helped my children learn the same lessons … before they head off to college.

David Villano
David Villano is an award-winning, Miami-based journalist who has contributed to dozens of publications, including The Miami Herald, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Newsweek, Mother Jones and the Columbia Journalism Review.

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