Watching TV and Feeling Terrified

Hi Readers!
Here’s a note I got from a reader and a note SHE got from her mom. The latter may sound very similar to the one in your own inbox.

Dear Free-Range Kids: I received the email below from my mother.  She is a professional worry-wart.

I’m not sure her statistics are correct, any thoughts?

(Signed) A Reader

Here is what the Reader’s mother wrote:

So tonight there were these statistics on TV by Polly Klass’s father, can’t remember his first name but he created a foundation several years ago after his teenage daughter was abducted in CA.

These are the stats:  Every year 800,000 children disappear, and a child disappears every 40 seconds

Of these 800K, 74 percent are children under 10 and 78 percent of them disappear within a quarter mile of their home.

So Mr. Klass’s message to everyone was, never let your children be outside of your home alone.  His message was part of the news relating to the disappearance of the Orange Park FL 7 year old girl. It is all over the news tonight, very sad.

The program is still on, with all these specialists commenting, saying they never thought they would agree with always being outside with your kids but now they totally endorse it.

Anyways, Love you

(signed) Mom

First of all, mom needs to take better notes. The Klaas Foundation’s website page about kidnapping statistics actually cites the same abduction study I quote on this blog and in my book:

In 1999, the most recent year for which we have statistics, 115 children were abducted and held overnight by strangers. Of these, about 40% were killed, bringing the total to 50. That is a horrible number, but it is not one a week, much less “one every 40 seconds.”

The numbers come from the Crimes Against Children Research Center, which uses U.S. Department of Justice data to derive its statistics. And the head of the research center, David Finkelhor, was quoted in the press yesterday as saying these numbers are going DOWN, not up.

Even one child hurt is a sickening thought. And that is why anyone who is no longer allowing his or her children to walk to school should probably also not be driving them anywhere, either. After all: About 2000 children die every year as passengers in cars. It is the #1 cause of death of children over age one. All parents determined to keep their children 100% safe must start by not allowing them to ride in cars.

Of course, I know that this is a warning most parents will (rightly) ignore. Why? Because they see for themselves what the odds are: The chances are very good that they can drive to the grocery with their kids, and even drive back, without getting into a fiery crash. They make their decision about their children’s safety based on their own, personal experience of life and driving.

When we make our decisions about letting our kids walk to school, however, we base them on something else: The news. News from as far away as Florida. Or Aruba. Or Portugal. The media are happy to go to the ends of the earth to bring us live coverage of the abduction of a white girl because nothing is better for ratings.

Headline News becomes the biggest source of information we use to make our decisions. Not our own experience. Not our own observations of our own neighborhoods. The news, which, by definition, brings us the most shocking and unusual stories it can find and then repeats them in order to fill day after day of 24-hour news cycles.

The current news is so shocking, of course, that it throws us off. We are human and we are heartbroken. But in our desperate attempt to make a very rare event very rare, we forget IT ALREADY IS. And we end up stunting the very thing we are trying to hard to protect: childhood.

Children were not made to sit at home, locked in, living a “virtual” life while the sun shines outside. I won’t even get into all the other dangers we’re exposing them to with that kind of existence: diabetes, depression, obesity. No, let me just say as so many commenters have on this site:

If we really want to keep our kids safe, we are fooling ourselves to think “not walking to school” is the way to do it. The way to keep our kids 100% safe is not to have them in the first place. Otherwise, they face risk every day. The tiny risk of dying in a car crash. The far tinier risk of being killed by a stranger.

And now the growing risk of being gently imprisoned by the people who love them the most. – Lenore

A Terribly Sad Day

Even as our hearts  sink with sadness, they  go out to the family of Somer Renee Thompson, the 7-year-old whose body was found in a landfill. It is impossible to think of her story without feeling rage and anguish.

It’s also a hard time to talk about the fact that her case, as searing as it is, is also exceedingly rare. That’s why it is national and, I hear, international news. That doesn’t make it any easier for her family. And it doesn’t negate the immediate urge to hold our children close. It just reminds us that we are lucky that such stories are uncommon enough to make them shocking.

As David Finkelhor, head of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, said in an interview about this case: “I am of the opinion that these kinds of crimes have declined.”

It doesn’t feel like it at the moment. It can’t. And, knowing TV, it won’t, not for a long time. But I’m very  glad the country’s leading expert on such things sees such travesties becoming ever less common, and I look forward to the day they are less common still. — Lenore

Are Kids Safer Because We Never Let Them Out Anymore?

Hi Readers!

After hearing me on NPR on Tuesday talking about the fact that the crime rate is lower now than  in the 1970s and ’80s when many of us parents were  playing outside, a couple of commenters to this blog said: That’s because we’re keeping our kids inside now!

They even suggested that I was editing out their comments.

No, actually I welcome them (I only edit out obscenities), because I know a lot of people are wondering if what they’re suggesting is true.

It’s not.

The fact is that ALL crime is down since the early ‘90s, not just crimes against children. So it’s not that children are safer because we’re keeping them inside, it’s that the United States is  safer, period. Safer indoors and outdoors, for adults and children (and for all I know, pets). There are several reasons for this that  I have outlined before and will now outline again. But first, here are the stats in all their non-alarmist glory:

All U.S. homicides: Down 40% 1992 -2005.

Juvenile homicide: Down 36% 1993 – 2005 (kids under age 14)

Juvenile homicide: Down 60% 1993 – 2005 (age 14 – 17)

Forcible rape: Down 28% 1992 – 2006

Sex Abuse Substantiations of Children, 1990 – 2005: Down 51%

Physical Abuse Substantiations of Children, 1990 – 2005: Down 46%

Juvenile Sex victimization trends, 1993 – 2003: Down 79%

These stats were collected and crunched by the Crimes Against Children Research Center, which gets its numbers from the U.S. Dept. of Justice. David Finkelhor, head of the center, says that clearly something is driving ALL crime down. Nationally, violent crime – not just against children — just went down another 2.5% according to FBI stats released last week.  Finkelhor credits these factors:

* More policing.

* More aggressive prosecution of wrongdoers.

*Less tolerance of abuse in the family. You know how nowadays, if your kid goes to school with a black eye, the nurse or social worker probes to find out what happened? That kind of intervention is bringing more abuse to the attention of the authorities, who investigate and, when necessary, prosecute. (That’s why crime IN the home has been going down even as we bring more children inside.)

*Cell phones. These are a crime fighting tool two ways: First, we can use them to report any crime, anywhere – and even take pictures. Second? Criminals know this.

*Psychiatric meds. Finkelhor calls this the “sleeper” reason crime is down. More and more troubled people are being prescribed medicine to quell their demons. When the criminally insane feel less insane, they are also less criminal. Also, as Finkelhor points out, some of the medicine has a libido-dampening effect, too.

Taken together, these factors have contributed to the stunning drop in crime. A drop my book likens to “a graph of Hummer sales, Miami condo prices or birthday cards to Bernie Madoff. An unbelievably dramatic jackknife down.”  

It’s not just kids who are safer, it’s everyone. Rather than keeping kids locked inside, we should feel less leery about sending them back out.

So, thank you to the folks who asked and thought the only way to keep kids safe is to keep them at home with the doors locked. I hope this makes you feel more comfortable allowing your children outside this summer. – Lenore

Would You Like Some Cyber-Candy, Little Girl?


I can guarantee you, that is the headline you are about to hear on TV and read in the papers. And, terrified for your children, you will keep watching or reading, which serves the media darn well. They have lured you in and are holding you captive.

Sort of like…online predators!

But the folks who actually DID the study would like to clear things up.

David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center and his co-director, Janis Wolak, took a look at the number of arrests of on-line predators from 2000 to 2006. The number of guys caught soliciting undercover cops posing as minors grew from 644 to 3,100 – a big leap indeed, but mostly attributed to more cops assigned to cyber-tart impersonation. Meanwhile, the number of guys soliciting actual youths grew, too.

To 615.

Now, look, no one wants these predators to exist at all. Be gone, you jerks! But we are talking about fewer than 4,000 perps, all told, compared to tens of millions of minors on line. In fact, over the same years studied, Internet use among minors leapt from 73% to 93%. So now all but 7% of off all American “junveniles” are on line, and 615 guys were picked up for propositioning them (odds of 39,000 to 1).

Still, it rankles to think of some creep luring a 10-year-old to the playground with the promise of Hannah Montana tickets, right?

Of course it does. (Especially if you’re Hannah Montana’s publicist.) But that is not what’s happening.

“The facts do not suggest that the Internet is facilitating an epidemic of sex crimes against youth,” said the report, point blank. First of all, the majority of the folks arrested were chasing those cop decoys. And as Finkelhor said in a little e-mail to me, those cops “act far more enthusiastic when the proposition comes down than most teens are likely to act.”

We’re not talking entrapment here – per se. But if a youth isn’t actively appearing psyched for sex with strangers, his/her chances of being stalked are microscopic. Quoth the report: “There was no evidence that online predators were stalking or abducting unsuspecting victims based on information they posted at social networking sites.” So your kids can have a Facebook page and it’s not like hanging a red light over their virtual door. That’s why we’re letting our older son get a Facebook page, in fact.

 Moreover, the creeps thought they were soliciting adolescents, not little kids (and not – duh — cops). Many of the perps were age 18-25. Not to let them off the hook, but a 19-year-old propositioning a 17-year-old just isn’t as disturbing as a middle-aged guy with tuna breath promising some kid a GameBoy in exchange for a “cuddle.”

Finally – and I know it sounds like I’m from the Internet Predator Defense Society, but bear with me – the study also found out that most of the offenders were “open about their sexual motives in their online communications with youth.” So they were upfront about their goals.

 Let me be equally upfront about mine. I am not pro-predator. Hard to find someone who is.  But I am not pro-hysteria, either. And any report about online predator arrests increasing is going to generate even more fear among parents already convinced their children are in mortal peril from the moment they wake up (if they haven’t gotten their head stuck in the crib slats) to the moment they go to bed (if they haven’t been abducted on their way home from Mandarin).

I’m sure soon we’ll be seeing more stuff we can buy to keep our kids “safe” from this newest overblown danger. And more books and articles pleading with parents to “please watch your children at all times!”

Back to that plea for 24/7 parental surveillance.

The fact is: We live in the safest times ever for children. Until we accept that happy fact, we will fret and overspend and drive everyone crazy, including those surprisingly resilient people: our kids.

Yes, the ones barely looking up from their screens.  – Lenore