Like a Stinger missile against the flights of helicopter parents darkening America’s skies, here comes “America’s Worst Mom,” Lenore Skenazy, to debunk the multiple stranger danger myths that blend imagined fears with the vicarious ones kids used to be able to enjoy each Halloween:
Even when I was a kid, back in the “Bewitched” and “Brady Bunch” costume era, parents were already worried about neighbors poisoning candy. Sure, the folks down the street might smile and wave the rest of the year, but apparently they were just biding their time before stuffing us silly with strychnine-laced Smarties.
That was a wacky idea, but we bought it. We still buy it, even though Joel Best, a sociologist at the University of Delaware, has researched the topic and spends every October telling the press that there has never been a single case of any child being killed by a stranger’s Halloween candy. (Oh, yes, he concedes, there was once a Texas boy poisoned by a Pixie Stix. But his dad did it for the insurance money. He was executed.)
The Wall Street Journal, “‘Stranger Danger’ and the Decline of Halloween”
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Statistics spells out the true source for most child abuse, and it’s not random sex offenders along a trick-or-treat route:
According to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System’s most current report, Child Maltreatment 2008, of the approximately 772,000 child abuse and neglect victims in 2008, the largest percentage of perpetrators, nearly 80 percent (80.1) were parents of the victim, including birth parents, adoptive parents, and stepparents. Of the parents who were perpetrators, more than 90 percent (90.9) were biological parents, about 4 percent (4.4) were stepparents, and about 1 percent (0.7) were adoptive parents. Other relatives accounted for an additional 6.5 percent, and an unmarried partner of a parent accounted for 4.4 percent of perpetrators.
Department of Justice figures on the website of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children show how rare classic abductions “out of nowhere” truly are:
- 797,500 children (younger than 18) were reported missing in a one-year period of time studied resulting in an average of 2,185 children being reported missing each day.
- 203,900 children were the victims of family abductions.
- 58,200 children were the victims of non-family abductions.
- 115 children were the victims of “stereotypical” kidnapping. (These crimes involve someone the child does not know or someone of slight acquaintance, who holds the child overnight, transports the child 50 miles or more, kills the child, demands ransom, or intends to keep the child permanently.)
Skenazy first came to prominence when she reported how she granted her nine-year-old son’s request to ride the New York City subway alone:
Anyway, for weeks my boy had been begging for me to please leave him somewhere, anywhere, and let him try to figure out how to get home on his own. So on that sunny Sunday I gave him a subway map, a MetroCard, a $20 bill, and several quarters, just in case he had to make a call.
No, I did not give him a cell phone. Didn’t want to lose it. And no, I didn’t trail him, like a mommy private eye. I trusted him to figure out that he should take the Lexington Avenue subway down, and the 34th Street crosstown bus home. If he couldn’t do that, I trusted him to ask a stranger. And then I even trusted that stranger not to think, “Gee, I was about to catch my train home, but now I think I’ll abduct this adorable child instead.”
Long story short: My son got home, ecstatic with independence.
Long story longer, and analyzed, to boot: Half the people I’ve told this episode to now want to turn me in for child abuse. As if keeping kids under lock and key and helmet and cell phone and nanny and surveillance is the right way to rear kids. It’s not. It’s debilitating — for us and for them.
Lenore Skenazy, "Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Alone," The New York Sun
Skenazy launched a blog shortly thereafter, found herself in the center of a whirlwind of media interviews and appearances, and eventually wrote a book based on her philosophy. I have it on interlibrary loan, and I anticipate finding it a good companion volume to Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder.