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The Dangerous Illusion of Danger

Monday, 13 January 2014


We are raising a generation of children afraid of the mall.

Last week I found myself in an odd dilemma, the kind faced chronically by busy working parents of multiple children. I had a drama rehearsal after work until almost 6 p.m., needed to meet some coworkers for an after-work meal to show support for an ailing friend, and had to get my daughter to her year-end soccer banquet at 7 p.m. She was expected to bring a “white elephant” gift that she had not yet purchased to this banquet. (My wife was left to manage the other two kids’ schedules.)

To kill so many birds with so few stones, I needed to drop my daughter off at the mall across from the restaurant where I was meeting my coworkers.

“You’re gonna drop me off? You’re gonna leave me at the mall... by myself?!?” she asked with near-panic in her eyes. Yes honey. You’ll be fine.

“But… it’s dangerous! Something bad could happen!” she said. “Why can’t you go in with me?” Because I’ll only have a short while to visit with everyone, sweetie. If I’m in here 15 minutes with you, I might as well not even stop by over there.

“But… I could be kidnapped!” Much laughter from an insensitive father.

I spent a significant portion of my childhood alone in a mall. I walked or rode my bike (one mall was more than 15 miles away) almost every weekend and sometimes during the week. Never once did I find myself in any kind of trouble. When I was six, my mother would hand me two dollars and send me to the arcade -- they had these places in the mall where it was just a collection of video games, and the games only cost a quarter -- and tell me to meet her back at a certain spot at a certain time. No cell phones, just a wristwatch and a set time.

A few times, I had to ask someone at the information booth to page my mom. I remember one time being very scared because she was late… but I never got abducted to the best of my knowledge.

Stories from my past were not a comfort to my daughter. I shrugged, I gave her some money and told her it would be a therapeutic and healthy experience to learn that the mall was not a monster that devours solitary children, nor were kidnappers lurking around every store corner.

When we arrived at the soccer banquet, I relayed this conversation and experience to the other parents. They were horrified at I would drop my child off -- ("strand her!") -- at the mall for an hour. I honestly thought some of them might call DFACS on me. “Different times!” ... “More dangerous now!” ...
"What if something awful happened???"

If you get annoyed when people use facts to counter irrational fears, then stop reading.

An estimated 100-130 kids are kidnapped by strangers every year. Less than 7 percent of those are abducted in stores or malls. That’s nine mall(ish) kidnappings a year. In the whole country. Nine kids taken from roughly 48,000 shopping and strip malls every 365 days.

Your child is many times more likely to be stolen from her own bedroom. (By someone you already know.) Kids die from pool drains at three times the rate they are kidnapped. And don’t get me started on handing a 16-year-old keys to the car. Our normal lives are much more dangerous than we want to believe, so we focus our fears into places we pretend we can control. The mall. The ocean. The amusement park.

We allow our fears to be dictated completely by peer pressure.

When exactly did every minute of a child’s life become a ripe opportunity for the scene from “Pet Semetary” or “Silence of the Lambs”? When did we begin defining good parenting by how many utterly irrational fears we can instill in our children, “for their own good” or “for their safety”?

I have a dark theory. I believe we teach our children to fear other people to make ourselves more important. I believe we want to believe we are surrounded by dangerous people to feel better about the kind and decent people we are.

"Trust is bad, my child. You can't trust people. Just trust me on this."

We wonder why so many modern parents hover. It’s because we’ve as a culture convinced ourselves that, beyond our eyes or earshot, our children must be regularly knocking on death’s door. All that talk about the value of grit, resilience, overcoming failure, learning self-reliance... none of that is worth a dead child!!

If you are a parent fighting these fears, worried that you can control the fate of your child by merely stopping them from swimming in oceans or shopping in malls, make an appointment with a therapist and, in the meantime, read this article about growing up unsupervised. Then watch this great TED video about “Five Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kid Do.”

And remember what William Wallace (and Walt Whitman) said: "Every man dies, but not every man truly lives!" What kind of life are we going to allow our children to live?

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