On Being A Vigilant Parent

The picture in the Boston Globe shows parents hovering over their children while they play in the pool — watching their every step, never taking their eyes off their offspring. During the summer of high-profile child abductions, the message to parents is: Be vigilant. Your child’s safety is up to you. “Parents are on red alert,” the article tells us, “with many drawing their kids closer, setting new limits, and regarding even neighbors in a new light.”

While the media offers colorful detail to enrich every parent’s “worst nightmare,” and warns us essentially “to watch them every minute,” the facts, if we were to take them seriously, might actually encourage us to relax, at least regarding this particular issue.

The overwhelming majority of missing children are abducted by parents or are runaways. Of last year’s 725,000 missing children cases, only 200 to 300 constituted “the most serious cases,” in which a child was murdered or held for ransom. This year, “the number of abductions in the non-family, murder/ransom category is projected to be lower . . . than ever before: about 100.” (Boston Globe, August 7, 2002)

Compared to the widespread egregious (and easily preventable) dangers to our children — such as increased poverty rates, diminished drug prevention programs, cuts in after-school programs, and lack of health care, to name a few — child abduction is a relatively minuscule problem.

Yet the media encourages us to think of tragedy as something that “only takes a split second to strike,” and then it offers us unrealistic and irrational solutions for averting such a tragedy — including gluing yourself to your kid, reminding him never to speak to strangers under any circumstances, and even specifying the maximum safe distance (21 feet in case you are wondering) between a child under six and the supervising adult.

There is a pattern when it comes to parenting advice. It makes problems look private. It poses private solutions. And it often eschews common sense. On my most skeptical days, it strikes me as almost designed to make parents feel crazy and helpless and guilty.

Let’s consider reality.

Is it sensible to prohibit your child from talking to strangers? “Teach children not to talk to people they don’t know. Period,” says Nancy McBride, director of prevention education with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

But why do we instill this fear of strangers when it is not strangers that are really the problem? After all, it is mostly parents that abduct children or children who themselves runaway. What’s wrong with our families that kids are trying to escape them or that parents feel compelled to steal children out of them? That’s a much harder question, one that does not lend itself to neatly bulleted solutions in parental advice columns.

Not to mention, it’s irrational to instruct children NEVER to talk to strangers. You are getting on the subway with your kid and he accidentally steps on someone’s toes. It’s wrong for him to say, “Excuse me”? Your kid is lost in the park. He should remain completely mute? Not speak to a soul? You have a heart attack while walking down the street with your kid. He should not look to the nearest person for emergency help?

As always, there are appropriate precautions, but also a lot of judgement calls. Once when a crying child — about 7 years old or so — came rushing down our street, I asked him what was wrong. “My mother’s boyfriend was hitting me,” he said.

“Do you have someplace safe to go?” I asked him.

“To the laundry mat where my father works,” he answered.

“Can you get there by yourself?”

“Well,” he hesitated, wondering, I’m sure, if he could trust me, or whether he should even be talking to me. “I’m not supposed to cross the street by myself.”

I offered to walk him there. He agreed. I gathered up my own children and we all walked to the laundry mat. I did not require that he hold my hand. I didn’t force him to talk to me any more than he wanted to. I let him walk a little ways ahead of us, as that’s what seemed to make him comfortable.

Later, I talked to my own kids about the whole event. What did they think about the fact that he had accepted help from a stranger? What signals had I given the boy that I was a safe adult? We talked about situations where they might need to talk to a stranger and considered ways they could be thoughtful and strategic about it. We noticed how smart the kid was to get out of a dangerous situation, even though it meant being alone on the street and getting a stranger’s help.

After all, we live in a society where, according to University of New Hampshire researchers, “Family members and relatives make up 20 percent of the offenders against children, but they make up a majority of offenders against children under age 4 and are disproportionately represented among kidnappers and sex offenders.”

(http://www.unh.edu/news/Jun00/tm_20000626crimes.html) Being able to talk to a stranger may be precisely the life-saving skill your child needs to know.

But that is not the main reason to rethink this strategy of sealing our children off from people they don’t know. There’s also the fact that talking to strangers is exactly how they become not-strangers anymore. It’s how we become familiar with people, develop connections, create community. As always, some precautions are sensible, but absolute mandates that force our children into a bubble instill fear and isolation.

Advising parent/child proximity accomplishes very little beyond making us feel guilty. You can’t always be less than 21 feet away from your preschooler. It’s impossible. Many parents have multiple children under the age of 6. Many family day cares require a minimum 6:1 child/adult ratio. How do you take 6 kids to the playground and stay less than 21 feet away from all of them at the same time? It’s simple. You don’t. You take reasonable precautions, of course. You go to a playground that you know to be safe. You instruct the kids to stay inside the fence. You remind the kids to use the equipment appropriately.

While we’re being told to scrutinize the distance between ourselves and our charges, the Children’s Defense Fund (May 6, 2002) reminds us that seven million children return to empty homes after school. But, unlike the extremely rare cases of child abduction, the fact that many parents have to work two jobs to make ends meet is not exactly treated as a national emergency.

The pictures in the paper of parents conscientiously trailing within a few feet of their children suggest that kids’ safety is a minute-to-minute thing that is within your control if you are within arm’s reach. But let’s get real. Most tragedies that affect children unfold over a period of time and can only be averted by systematic changes in how wealth is distributed, how benefits are doled out, and how community is constructed.

Where’s the parental advice about THAT?

A recent report on child poverty by Timothy Smeeding found “that America still has a child poverty rate of 14.8 percent, the highest among the 19 rich members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development for which [Smeeding] has data. Only Italy comes close, at 14.6 percent. The next closest is Canada at 9.6 percent, then Britain at 8.4 percent. France’s child poverty rate is only 2.9 percent, Taiwan’s is 2 percent, and Sweden is at the bottom of the list, at 1.3 percent.” (Jeff Madrick, NYT, June 13, 2002.)

So what’s the proper parental advice? Move to Sweden, of course. Second choice: Taiwan.

Noneconomic indicators flesh out some of the tragedies that need fixing in U.S. society. Guy Stevens, former economist at the Federal Reserve, notes that “the U.S. is ranked 33rd in infant mortality rates. Eighteen percent of American women have minimal or no prenatal care, higher than in any other rich nation. Fourteen percent of children have no health insurance. Only 60 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds go to child care, well below the European rate, and many of those go to centers that are inadequate.”

This is the context in which parents are instructed to turn their gaze always inward — to never avert our eyes from our own private offspring, to ignore the larger reality in an effort to feel (mistakenly) that we can control whatever’s less than 21 feet away. But in our irrational attempts to stave off private tragedy, we render ourselves utterly useless in addressing ongoing, systemic, and widely felt tragedy. Child abduction may be every parent’s worst nightmare, but as grown-ups, we’re supposed to know that bad dreams are exactly that. Check inside the closet for monsters if you want, but make sure you return to the stuff of everyday waking reality — the chronic hurts our kids face. We can do something about those by understanding them and organizing to change them.

Leave a comment