03 May 2009


Children are safe, and should be outside

School Walk 5Lenore Skenazy's Free-Range Kids sounds like a fascinating book (she has an accompanying blog too). Her argument, essentially, is that the crime rate today is equal to what it was back in 1970, and kids should go outside alone, as they always did in human history. "If you try to prevent every possible danger or difficulty in your child's everyday life," she says, "that child never gets a chance to grow up."

Our daughters have been walking to school by themselves for awhile now, but they're not wandering the neighbourhood all day as I used to 30 years ago. They probably should, but I don't think the idea has even occurred to them. That despite the likelihood that today's environment has probably made our kids safer than any kids have ever been, particularly when you take disease prevention into account.

In Vancouver, though, we can blame this new parental paranoia on Clifford Olson, and it has spread across much of the Western world. I think Skenazy's instinct to let her nine-year-old son explore New York City alone last April—with a transit pass and some quarters for a pay phone if he needed them (he didn't)—is a good one. He wanted to try, and he was ready.

"We become so bent out of shape over something as simple as letting your children out of sight on the playground that it starts seeming on par with letting them play on the railroad tracks at night. In the rain. In dark non-reflective coats," writes Skenazy. "The problem with this everything-is-dangerous outlook is that over-protectiveness is a danger in and of itself. A child who thinks he can't do anything on his own eventually can't."

Our experience bears this out, in an odd way. The only injuries my daughters have ever suffered that required hospital visits happened, (a) stepping out of our bathtub, (b) bouncing on a bed, (c) being rear-ended in a crash in our car, and (d) scraping a chin at a swimming pool. In all cases, we were right there, and we didn't make them any safer. There are dangers in all of our lives, but they're not generally the ones we fear.

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I thought the same some time back when I saw one of those "Walking School Buses".

Some of our best adventures happened on the way to/from school, when do the children learn?

Yeah, but 30 years ago, there were eyes on the street. Now most people are at work all day. Neighbourhoods are empty. No one's watching for suspicious activity. The neighbours aren't chatting about what's going on. The busy-body isn't there. Everyone is at work, school, daycare...or in their cars, driving their kids to school...there's no one to keep an eye out for kids walking, riding and running around the neighbourhood. I forget what those red and white signs were...the ones parents put out to show they were a safe house for kids who'd scraped knees. Anyway, the program came and took my parents' sign back years ago, because they didn't have enough participants to keep going and thus no funding from government and police. Nobody's at home.
I think we're so inculcated with fear about letting kids be alone that we seek out reasons ("neighbourhoods are empty") not to let them. As far as I can find, the facts about dangers to children don't bear that out, but our fear fuels the emptiness.

That said, there are still lots of people in my suburban neighbourhood, including some busybodies. And even if there weren't -- how often did any kids need those Block Parent houses? The only time I recall a friend going to one, it was because he really needed to use the bathroom, which I didn't think was enough of a reason.

Plus, if we encourage children to be out and about once they know how to cross a busy street safely and call home if they change plans, then they look out for each other.

Where's the most dangerous place for a child? In his or her parents' car. We're probably placing our kids in greater danger if we drive them to school than if we let them walk. If we were rational, we'd be far more scared of letting them get into any vehicle than of having them wander around town by themselves.

Finally, if no one's around, who is it who's calling police when they see a kid walking by himself instead of just looking to confirm he's okay?
As a child I walked to school. So did my daughters, 30 years ago in Buffalo, NY. But here, in the "greater Los Angeles area," we hear regularly about men who try to drag twelve year old girls into their vans. Usually the girls escape. The men are not caught. I think it is a bit different now, at least in LA.
What parts of L.A. does that happen in? Is it more common in some areas than others? How often is "regularly"? There are almost 13 million people in greater L.A. too, so even if the attempts happened every week (52 a year), which they probably don't, that would be a rate of 1 attempted abduction for every 250,000 people, or 4 per million per year.

People are almost fifty times more likely to die (not just be injured) in a car crash, at a rate of 200 per million per year. And the risk of abduction is probably much smaller than 4 per million -- you probably hear about every single one, whereas a car crash has to be pretty spectacular to make the news. It may even be a smaller risk than getting struck by lightning (0.3 per million).

So, again, looking at it rationally, it's probably better to walk and accept the (vanishingly small) risk of abduction (or getting struck by lightning) than to drive. But we drive anyway, which shows again that our emotions don't process probability and risk appropriately.
Well, Derek, if it happened in your neighborhood, if someone tried to drag a young girl into a car or van while she was walking to the school your daughters attend, would you then feel safe letting your daughters walk to school by themselves the next day, rationalizing that the odds were very low that that it would happen to one of them? What if it happened again two weeks later? And again three weeks after that? Still they don't catch the guy. Would you still think your daughters are safe walking to school? This is the situation in which some people find themselves.

And when you say "...that would be a rate of 1 attempted abduction for every 250,000 people...," you seem to forget that most of those 250,000 people are not young girls out walking! If there are 20 12-year-old girls walking to school in one neighborhood, and somebody tries to kidnap one, then the rate is one out of 20; not such good odds for 12-year-old girls in that neighborhood.
I heard the same statistic about child abduction from, of all places, a Reader's Digest article. The world was no safer for kids in 1970 than it is today.

But part of me wonders if the statistic has stayed the same because parents are more vigilant these days and like to "play it safe" with their kids. I live 3 houses from an elementary school and I see my next door neighbour walk his daughter to school EVERY day. I wonder what I'll be like when my kids get to school age.

Also, I think that access to information had added to feeding our fears. Thirty or so years ago, we didn't hear about the little girl who was taken from a resort hotel room while vacationing with her family in Portugal. Nowadays, we hear about all sorts of child abduction stories worldwide and, usually, the same day it happens!

And on your note about driving to school being more dangerous, Derek - like I said, I live 3 doors from an elementary school and I always plan my days so I'm not driving to or from home around 8:45am or 2:45pm. Traffic gets SO crazy around the school at those times and I'm always scared that one day, someone will get hit...
Jann, you raise a good point. If some guy (or guys) is prowling a your area looking for young girls to lure, and is doing it every couple of weeks, you have a serious local crime problem on your hands, one that deserves police attention, and outrage and activism not only from parents in the neighbourhood, but from the girls themselves and from the community as a whole. I would not want my girls traveling alone in that area right now.

However, my point is, that's right now, with the predator remaining uncaught. Parents in Greater Vancouver were justifiably fearful of Clifford Olson when he was on his killing spree in 1980 and 1981. But then police caught him, and he went to jail, where he remains, and will stay for the rest of his life. Yet we parents keep acting like he's still out there, and has bred malevolent armies of Clifford Olsons who are around every corner. And they're not.

When there are some psychos driving around your part of L.A. trying to abduct pre-teen girls, people in your area should get angry, and the police should be out, and if it persists for months or years, people should consider moving somewhere safer where their girls can walk around, not accept that evil guys in vans are just part of life now. Further, the citizens of Miami or Edinburgh or Melbourne or Toronto or random rural areas in any of our countries shouldn't act as if those guys were driving around where they live.

An analogy is when, as occasionally happens, a cougar or a bear comes into one of our Vancouver suburban neighbourhoods, and maybe attacks pets or people. Residents are afraid, and vigilant, and don't go walking near the woods or where it's been seen. And then it's caught, or killed, and we go back to normal, with some extra awareness. We learn what to do if we see one, and we don't wander into cougar country unprepared, but we also don't spend decades barricaded in our homes and cars in case there's a cougar. More pointedly, people living in places where no one's ever seen a cougar don't do that either.

Yvette, interesting that you write, "The world was no safer for kids in 1970 than it is today." I'd prefer to say it's "just as safe." As for being so because we're keeping kids inside, the Free-Range Kids blog addresses that specifically this week. The short answer is no, that's not why, because crime as a whole (and again, for Jann's sake, on average) is down, not just crimes against kids by strangers.

Finally, I should say that while my kids walk themselves to school, they're far from free range. We walk back with them every day, and we're only just now getting comfortable with their going to or from a friend's place nearby on their own. I'm paranoid too, but I'm trying to be less so, and more rational. I'm ranting against myself here too.
By the way, as I flog this dead horse, I'm somewhat repeating what I wrote here almost three years ago.
I think you are absolutely correct Derek. Children need to learn to solve problems and to be responsible for themselves and to their families. There is a song on the new Mister Mann (John Mann of Spirit of the West) called "When I Played around with Knives." The song basically advocates letting children be and to learn on their own and, that for the most part, nothing bad ever really happened.
We were a block parent house when I was a kid... but we only had one girl come to us in ten years (she was being chased by some "mean kids" - we let her use of phone to call her mum to come get her.)

We walked by ourselves everywhere. But we also got plenty of safety lectures and quizzes from parents, teachers and police throughout. We always traveled in twos, stayed away from cars and strangers, etc. And now with cell phones, kids have even more safety tools at their disposal.

I'd be more worried about letting my kids wander around forums than my neighbourhood!