Murder Rate Bumped Off (of List of Leading Death Causes)

Hi Folks! This just in: Homicide has dropped off the Top 15 causes of death in America. It’s been replaced by something called, “Pneumonitis,” an illness caused by people accidentally breathing food or liquid into their lungs — a problem most prevalent in folks over 75. In other words, it is one of the panoply of things that can finally kill us if we live a long, un-murdered life.

There’s good news at the other end of the spectrum, too: Infant mortality has dropped to an all-time low of 6.14 deaths per 1000 births. Read that again: all time low.

Even the death rate from accidents has gone down, according to the Centers for Disease Control, which compiled all these stats.

This is the first time in 45 years that homicide is not among that top 15 causes of death in America. Put in Free-Range Kids terms: The murder rate was higher when most of us parents were growing up than it is now, for our kids. And since I know someone will say, “So what? That just means kids are safer because we are keeping them inside, or GPS’ing them, or making sure they are supervised at all times!” let me quickly note that murder is down among adults, too, and it’s not because we are helicoptering them. Moreover, the murder rate is lower than it has been for almost two generations, which means it is lower now than even before parents began hovering. So I don’t see this study as an endorsement of overprotection.

No, I see it as a reality check: Our parents didn’t feel guilty or terrified when they let us play outside and the murder rate was higher. Today’s kids deserve the even-less-risky chance to enjoy a Free-Range childhood. — L.

M'am! Don't you realize the murder rate has gone down?

Help Needed: How New Is TV’s Kids-Getting-Killed Obsession?

Hi Folks! This article on tv.msn talks about the trend of using kids in danger — or actually murdered — as the “newest” hook on TV dramas. It lists several of this season’s shows — “The Walking Dead,” “Breaking Bad,” “American Horror Story,” “Dexter” — that feature poisoned, executed and/or potentially eviscerated kids, including baby twins.

I totally agree that these shows are using the ultimate terror as the ultimate hook. But I don’t see this as a spanking new trend. The handful of “Law & Order” episodes I’ve watched  over the years involved kids snatched off the street to their doom. And certainly, in the movies, missing or dead children catapult a legion of righteous cops and crazed parents into action.

So I’m asking you, folks: Do you have any thoughts about how long this trend has been mounting? A professor friend I was talking to the other day, Leonard Cassuto, said that the very SIGHT of a dead child had been taboo on TV until recently. I’d love to hear from some of you who watch and digest TV fare: What are the trends on TV dramas right now, vis a vis kids in peril?  Thanks for cogitating on this with me. — L.

Hello, children! Won't you step into my edgy TV drama?

P.S. And if you need a break from thinking such somber thoughts, you will LOVE this short video.

What Happens When We “Dangerize” Childhood

Hi Readers. Here’s a slightly updated column I wrote for my syndicate, Creators, this week.

What Happens When We Dangerize Childhood

This has been a big week for pointing fingers … including at me.

As the lady who started “Free-Range Kids” after letting my 9-year-old take the subway solo,  I’ve spent a lot of time explaining that crime rate is actually LOWER than it was in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, which means our kids should be able to enjoy the same kind of childhood WE had — playing outside, riding their bikes, even walking home at age 8.

But then a madman murdered 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky, who was  indeed just walking home from camp in Brooklyn. And suddenly, the idea of Free-Range Kids sounds about as sensible as letting children ride their trikes along the interstate. As the headline on one of the big “mommy blogs” read, “Boy Abducted Walking Home Alone: Is Free-Range Parenting Dangerous?”

To which I would like to pose a different question, based on the fact that 25 times more children die as car passengers than as abduction victims (that is, about 1,300 children younger than 14 die in cars annually, whereas about 50 are murdered by strangers): “Is Putting Your Kid in the Car Dangerous?”

I ask only because, as a society, we have decided to focus on the least likely, most horrific, most TV ratings-garnering child deaths and base a lot of our parenting decisions on them. Gever Tulley, an author and educator in California, coined a term for this: dangerism. (And he wrote a book about it, too.)  We decide, irrationally, which dangers are worth obsessing over and which we will shrug off as small, unavoidable risks.

So when I get a letter such as this one — “That little boy’s parents should have known better than to let him walk alone at such an early age” — I have to stifle a scream.

The parents should have “known better” than to trust their city — my city, too — where we are enjoying the lowest murder rate since 1961? Known better than to trust their neighborhood, which the state assemblyman described as a “no-crime area”? Known better than to trust their 8-year-old when, in most countries of the world, kids start walking to school at age 7? This is like saying the parents of the baby killed by a falling tree branch in Central Park last year should have known better than to stand under a tree.

We have yet to dangerize a walk in the park. But we are in the process of dangerizing any walk by any kid in any neighborhood, no matter how safe.

It is hard to get a grip on how uncommon a crime like the Kletzky murder is, because it is precisely those uncommon crimes that are exceedingly common on TV. They start out on the news and then get recycled in the crime dramas and “special investigations” and, eventually, on the anniversary shows (smarmily marketed as “tributes”), to the point where the story becomes indelible. Then, when we ask ourselves whether it is safe for our kids to walk outside, up pops Lieby Kletzky’s photo, like the top story in a Google search. And just like that top Google item, it seems the most relevant, even though actually it is the least. It is so easily accessible because it is so rare. If it were happening all the time — like kids being killed in car accidents — we’d search for an iconic image and draw a blank.

So the next time someone tells me, “I would NEVER let my child walk outside, because it’s just too dangerous,” here is how I will reply:

“I hope you NEVER put your children in a car. How could you ever forgive yourself if, God forbid, something terrible were to happen? It is YOUR RESPONSIBILITY to keep your children safe! Personally, I would rather have my kids stuck at home, unable to go anywhere, than take the TERRIBLE RISK of putting them in the car. Maybe at 13 or 14 they can start riding in a car, but seven or eight? Too young! Parents should know better! It’s just not worth a lifetime of regret.”

That’s how wacky — and stifling — we can get when we dangerize everyday life, so let’s try not to. (And let’s keep the blame-the-parents impulse in check, too.) — L.

Such Sadness. Leiby Kletzky, R.I.P.

Hello, Readers. It is with an actually, physically aching heart that I report to you the death of an 8-year-old Brooklyn boy, Leiby Kletzky, who disappeared from a short, solo walk yesterday and was later found in a dumpster. Here is the story.

I bring it up because it seems to prove that the incident that kicked off Free-Range Kids — my letting my 9-year-old ride the New York City subway alone — was foolish, or worse. At the time I said that I felt this was a reasonable and safe thing to do, because I believed in my son, my city and my own parenting. Despite the sorrow I feel even in my joints, I still do.

There are horrible people in the world. There always were, always will be. There were horrible people in the world even when we parents were growing up, and our own parents let us play outside and walk to school and visit our friends on our bikes. Our parents weren’t naive. They knew that we live in a fallen world. They also knew that they had a choice: Keep us locked inside for fear of a tragic, rare worst-case-scenario, or teach us the basics — like never go off with a stranger — and then let us out. They let us out.

Today we are faced with a worst-case scenario that could end up re-defining childhood as did the Etan Patz case 30 years ago.  (A case that had no parallel in my city until today. ) That a stranger abduction like Leiby’s is rarer than death-by-lightning just doesn’t seem to matter at a time like this. But it does.

People will blame the parents for letting their son walk even a few blocks on his own. I’ve already read some of those comments. They are like knives. Is it better to have a city — a country, a world — where no child is ever outside again without an adult? Where parents who let their kids to walk to the bus stop are treated like pariahs? Where the parks are empty, the playgrounds are empty, bikes sit in the garage and children hunker inside with their terrified moms and dads?

It is really hard to even suggest that life continue on as normal, but that is what I truly believe is the only response to this crime. Not that we take it in stride — I think it will always hurt. But that we take it in context. Saying that my city’s crime rate is down to the lowest it has been since 1961 seems ridiculous at a time like this. But it is down, and to act as if every block is full of darkness means — to borrow a phrase from terrorism — the darkness has won.

I’m shaken. I’m sad. I’m so sorry for what has happened. And I will send my sons out again. — Lenore

Spread the Joy of the Season with “Toothprints!”

Good Morning, Readers: Wondering what to get those parents on your list?

Dear Free-Range Kids: I thought you might be interested to see this.  A local dentist was advertising this service.

http://www.yoursafechild.com/parents-toothprintsr.html

Now if your child’s body is found but so decomposed that it can’t be
identified visually, you can use “toothprints” to record his/her
dental records so he/she can be identified.  It apparently also helps
scent dogs track your child’s body to find it.

This is really, really morbid.  I can’t believe parents spend money on
this kind of thing.  The local police gave us a kit to fingerprint our
kids and save a DNA sample in case either of them were killed in some
gory way, and I didn’t even save the free kit.  I can’t imagine
spending money to do this. — Nicole

Jaycee’s Story and the Yale Bride Who Was Murdered

Hi Readers — After the terrible story of Jaycee Dugard’s abduction and 18-year imprisonment came to light a few weeks ago, the media was on fire with reminders that our children are NEVER safe on the streets and anything like this could happen at any time on any unchaperoned trip to school. You’ll recall one bit of advice I questioned was an article that said we should never — that’s right, NEVER — let our children go “anywhere alone.”

Last week, Annie Le, a graduate student, was murdered at Yale.  Shouldn’t the talk show hosts and fearmongers be wringing their hands and tearfully reminding us parents, “Never — NEVER — let your children go to Yale”?

 Why aren’t they?  — Lenore

CNN or C.A.N. — Child Abduction Network?

One reason Americans are so extremely terrified about child abductions is that whenever we turn on the TV or computer, there’s another one. As if these horrific crimes are happening 24/7, when actually the media is only too happy to fly across the country — or world — to set up camp wherever a cute, white girl has disappeared. Tight news budgets get thrown out the window  for a story like this. But because that story then shows up on our screen at home,  it feels like it’s happening right around the corner. All the time.

What happens when there is NOT a new story like this for the media to feast upon? Instead of traveling to another state, or country, they’ll travel back in time. The show 20/20 just did an hour-long look at the Etan Patz kidnapping from 30 years ago. And here’s CNN’s Nancy Grace page , from a few days ago: “Third Grader Stepped Off School Bus, Disappeared.”

Start reading it: ” With the weekend arriving and a long day finally over, 8-year-old Cherrie Mahan stepped off her yellow school bus on a chilly Friday around 4 p.m….”

Oh, by the way, CNN finally adds at the end of paragraph three: This was in 1985.

I’m not saying that it doesn’t make sense to sometimes revisit a cold case in hopes of solving it. I do hope someone solves this one. But it begins to  look suspiciously self-serving when networks desperate for viewers keep coming up with the exact same kind of story, served up any which way they can. How about the cold case of an African-American teenager gone missing? Or a schitzophrenic adult? Or someone who isn’t winsome, white and under five feet tall?

A newly Free-Range mom dropped me a little note this morning trying to help all of us (herself included)  put our fears in perspective: The chance of a child being kidnapped and murdered? 1 in 1.5 million. The chance of a child ending up at some point with some form of depression? 1 in 4.

It is extremely depressing, disheartening, lose-your-faith-in-humanity-izing, to keep being presented with the most vile crimes on earth as if that’s what life  is all about. As if that’s just what you can expect if you’re bringing up a kid these days.

So what’s the alternative?

One of the chapters in my book is called, “Turn Off the News.” At the end it has some suggestions for how to get started  going Free-Range, including, “Get up and go out. Spend that hour you were going to watch ‘Law and Order’ on a walk with the kids instead. Look around at all the unspeakable crimes not being committed. This is called the Real World. (Not to be confused with MTV’s version, which is a crime all  its own.)”

When we depend on the media to shape our world view, we’re going to get a world view that looks a whole lot like the view from a harried, ratings-obsessed assignment desk: If it bleeds, it leads. If it’s sad, we’re glad! If it’s an abduction, ramp up production! 

Which they sure do.

But if a network thinks its job is to terrify us, maybe it’s time to turn the tables and terrify them: Let them watch their viewers mysteriously disappear, never to be seen again.

Someday, they may even do a cold case special on us. — Lenore

The Crime of “CSI”

It’s nice when science takes the time to confirm one’s own sneaking (or even not so sneaking) suspicions. In this case: That TV crime shows are driving us crazy with fear.

In a report titled, “CSI: Mayo Clinic,” Mayo psychiatrist Timothy Lineberry and his team studied two sets of data: One, a list of crimes, victims and circumstances as seen on CSI and CSI: Miami over the course of two years. The other: a list of crimes, victims and circumstances in real life, as compiled by the Centers for Disease Control over the course of two years.

You may think the stories on crime shows are “ripped from the headlines,” but Lineberry found that the shows usually forget to rip the ones involving minorities, for starters. (For that matter, so does TV news. But if the victim is young and white, you will soon see more of her family than your own.)

Meanwhile, TV crime shows also forget to mention how often alcohol is involved, probably because a drunk guy with a gun is not nearly as compelling as, say, a charming psychopath. Or criminal mastermind. Or, as I saw on Law & Order the other day, a Serbian war criminal roaming the streets in search of a young girl — any girl — to drag off and rape.

That’s not going to affect whether you let your daughter walk home from school, is it?

Most significant of all, in terms of warping our perceptions, is that the shows forget to tell us that most homicide victims know their killers. Most violence is not random. Most of the time, murderers are not hiding in the bushes – or mall, or playground  — just waiting to pounce. But on TV, the guy with the machete/chainsaw/van is usually some fiend out to nab the next sucker walking by. 

That one little fact has had a huge impact on the way we live.

It wouldn’t, of course, if we were better at separating perception from reality. But seeing crime after crime on TV, it’s hard not to feel at least a little nervous. After all, our brains are hardwired to react to dangerous situations. It would be nice if they filed dramas under “Don’t worry!” and TV news under, “Tabloid crap (and weather)!” But in fact, it all gets thrown in the hopper and stays there a very long time. (Anybody have a hard time picturing Hannibal Lechter?)

So when we’re trying to figure out, “Is it safe for me to take a little walk tonight?” we end up flashing on a pile of maggot-covered bodies, courtesy of CSI. Bodies of people murdered by strangers. Result? ”Maybe I’ll just stay in.”

Parents are even more affected. Never mind that while there are about 50 children kidnapped and killed by strangers every year (according to numbers from the Crimes Against Children Research Center), there are about 1,000 killed by family members or acquaintances. Since most of us aren’t exposed to crime in our real lives very much (thank goodness), all we have to go on is what we see on TV.

And so we think, “It’s a jungle out there! Strangers are hiding everywhere, with duct tape. I will not let them kill my kid!”

In we yank our offspring. (And dare I suggest that at least a few of the older ones will end up watching CSI because they’re not out playing kickball?)

The only way to regain perspective  — read: sanity — is to counterbalance the crime shows with more and more reality. More walks in the neighborhood. More chats with friends outside. More chats with strangers, even, because most of them aren’t carrying machetes. Or, for that matter, duct tape.

— Lenore

Learning The Wrong Lessons from Sandra Cantu’s Death

It’s front page news out here in San Francisco where I’m visiting, but it’s probably front page news out by you, too: The tragic story of 8-year-old Sandra Cantu, who was abducted and murdered last week in California. Today’s front page story is as inevitable as the media attention: “Case Forces Parents to take Tougher Look at Children’s Safety.” http://tinyurl.com/cfsyyw

It’s hard not to take a tough look after a killing like this. As the parents interviewed by the San Francisco Chronicle say, they are hugging their children closer and talking to them about safety. This is good news. Children should be taught to run, kick and scream if someone is trying to take them away. Teach them NOT to be polite. Also, by the way, teach them they CAN ask for help from strangers.

But of course, these are not the only lessons parents are taking from this tragedy. At least in the Chronicle piece, many parents have vowed to no longer let their children go outside alone, ever. “I used to let my kids walk to the park, which is a block away,” one mother is quoted as saying, “My 11-year-old would chaperone. But after this, there will be no more walking on their own to the park. This is a long-term change.'”
 

It IS a long term change, but not one that makes sense. First of all, her children were not walking alone if the 11-year-old was walking with them, right? And so already they were exceedingly safe. But even walking alone is generally safe, something really hard to remember in the face of one little girl who wasn’t.

The chances of being abducted and killed by a stranger stand at 1,500,000 to one, according to the Crimes Against Children Research Center. This is a number that does not go up or down a lot year to year. To keep your children inside or guarded at all times because of chances like that would make sense only if you also vowed never to take your children in a car, considering the odds of them dying in an accident are 40 times greater.

And yet, even though five child passengers are killed each day, you never see parents vowing, “I used to let my kids come with me in the car. But after this, there will be no more driving. This is a long-term change.”

This is not meant to be flip. Only that if keeping children safe from any possible death, no matter how remote the danger, is your goal, you literally cannot let them do anything. If they eat, they could choke. If they run, they could trip. If they go to school, they could fall down the stairs. Any of those could lead to death.

By all means, teach your children to be assertive. To fight, bite kick and scream  if they are in trouble. But beyond this, the lesson from Sandra Cantu isn’t, “Never let them go outside until they’re 17.”  It’s that there is no lesson. Only a very sad story that will replay itself in most parents’ minds longer and louder than all the other stories that don’t end this way. — Lenore