Kids need a community
August 23, 2002
Responding to the frightening images of the kidnapping, rape and murder of children that now occupy the national media, President Bush has initiated a special White House conference on the subject.
The outcome of such a conference, and the accompanying media coverage, however, is likely to produce the opposite of its intent.
If one were to know about this problem only from watching television, one might develop the impression that this is a widespread epidemic, and that parents should take extraordinary measures to protect their children. The facts suggest very different strategies.
First of all, even from the organizations that may benefit financially from reports of higher crime rates in this category, the statistics show that such crimes, far from being epidemic, are in fact decreasing quite dramatically.
The FBI figures indicate that three years ago there were 134 abductions by non-family individuals, while last year there were 93, a drop of more than 30 percent. Less than two abductions per state.
The coverage of child abduction coming from most media, pictures on milk cartons, etc., leads one to believe that missing children have been abducted by strangers. Actually, almost all of them are either runaways or have been taken by a parent in violation of custody provisions.
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Children do get lost and parents understandably become frightened, but only about one in 9,000 children who have been reported missing have been abducted by strangers.
The disturbing fact is that children are in far more danger from their parents than from strangers. In the U.S. more than 2,000 children are murdered every year (more than five a day) and over half of these murders are committed by the children’s parents, with most of the rest by other family members or acquaintances.
Sixty-six percent of these children are less than a year old, and 58 percent of the one- to four-year-olds are killed by kicking them or beating them with fists or a blunt instrument. The problem is vast, almost beyond belief. Hundreds of thousands of children are abused every year ? estimates run up to four million, and the abuse is perpetrated almost entirely by their parents.
In its best moments, nothing is more rewarding than parenthood. But it is an extremely difficult role, one of the most complex and demanding of any role in our society. Ours is the only society in history that has asked two parents, and increasingly one parent, to do everything that children need, including keeping them under 24-hour surveillance.
In other cultures and in other times in history there have been fewer demands on parents and more assistance from extended families, and from the larger community.
The result of today’s increasingly demanding parental roles (every article written about parenthood adds a new responsibility) is that parents become frustrated, frantic and sometimes violent. Alone, distraught and unable to cope with the situation, the parent becomes abusive.
What every parent needs, not only at those times, but continually, is help from others. Unwarranted anxieties about kidnapping and molestation, however, have increased dramatically over the past few years, making parents worried about all strangers.
The current media obsession with kidnapping has amplified these worries beyond all rationality, leading parents to be even more afraid of strangers. Rather than being grateful for the helping acts of people unfamiliar to us, we become frightened when we see them pushing our children in swings, buttoning their jackets, tying their shoes, wiping their noses ? even just talking to them. As a result they are less and less likely to offer such help.
The greatest protection any parent or child can have is a responsive community. The help of stranger is increasingly necessary. Kidnappers are rare, but the need for the assistance of strangers is constant.
Children need to be warned about getting into cars with strangers, but in most situations they can be made as comfortable with adults as they are with other children they also may not know.
In Scandinavian countries, children are taught that adults are their allies, and that when they are hurt or need help they should run to the nearest adult. How far we have come from that comforting definition of community.
Making parents afraid of strangers having contact with their children robs parents of one of the most important sources of help they could have. Paradoxically, and tragically, this current wave of concern, exacerbated by media saturation and White House attention, including a 12-page guide to protecting one’s child, will likely result in far more injury and death to our children.
La Jolla, Calif.
Former Aspen Design Conference board member