With the tragic news of the abduction and murder of ten-year-old Hailey Owens this week, many parents are afraid that the same thing may happen to their children. And many are wondering if they should be doing more to protect their children. Those are legitimate concerns and questions, and there is not a simple sound-bite response. Instead, I will offer two articles that I hope will help.
1. I highly recommend this article about Patti Fitzgerald‘s advice for parents of young children. It is an excellent explanation of why children should not fear all strangers, only certain types of strangers. Click Here
2. In addition, I wrote a chapter about parental fear in my book, Critical Connection. Here is an excerpt from that chapter. I hope it helps clarify that often we are most afraid of the wrong things. We tend to be afraid of the most emotionally terrifying things, but we should rather focus our attention on less scary but far more dangerous things.
In their best-selling book, Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner explore the fears that control parents (and grandparents, teachers, coaches, and so on):
No one is more susceptible to an expert’s fear-mongering than a parent. A parent, after all, is the steward of another creature’s life, a creature who in the beginning is more helpless than the newborn of nearly any other species. The problem is that they are often scared of the wrong things. Separating facts from rumors is always hard work, especially for a busy parent. The facts they do manage to glean (from experts and other parents) have been varnished or exaggerated or otherwise taken out of context to serve an agenda that isn’t their own.1
Rumors and sensational stories rule the day, making us afraid of letting our kids near everything from tap water to corn syrup. New parents fear that their infants will die in their sleep. Parents of toddlers fear sharp edges on furniture. Parents of preschoolers fear that their children won’t know how to read before kindergarten. In fact, there seems to be a new set of fears for every stage of development, many of them introduced by marketers of child-safety products and fueled by the media’s fascinating and often terrifying stories.
Some fear is healthy; only adolescents think “NO FEAR!” is a great motto for life. That may make sense in the video-game world where you can hit the reset button at any moment, but it’s a ridiculous notion in the real world. A little fear is a very good thing. Reasonable fears motivate us to wear seatbelts, drive within the speed limits, and avoid texting while driving. Reasonable fears motivate us to get an education, get a good job, work hard, spend within a budget, and save for a down payment on a house. Reasonable fears guide us from harm, but irrational fears restrict us from achieving our goals and helping others. They keep us from raising our children to be independent and strong.
What Are the Odds?
Levitt and Dubner point out that many parents will not allow their children to play at a neighbor’s house if they know there is a gun in the house, even if it is safely stored, but they will not hesitate to allow their children to play at a house with a backyard pool. However, the statistics show that a child is more than 100 times more likely to die in a swimming accident (1 in 10,000) than by a gun accident (1 in 1,000,000). That’s 10,000% more likely! But guns, even when hidden under lock and key, are much scarier than pools, so we find it hard to believe the facts about their risks. The authors cite a variety of other fears that have been blown out of proportion, such as flammable pajamas, deadly passenger airbags, and beef riddled with mad cow disease. The statistics show that these fears are not founded on real data, and that the threat of harm by these scary “killers” is insignificant. And yet we ignore the real dangers all around us. Instead of buying a brand-new Volvo with eighteen airbags, we could take a much simpler, affordable, and efficient action: commit to not using cell phones while driving. Instead of throwing out all our plastic containers because we are afraid of BPA, we could stop consuming so much soda and junk food, stop smoking, and drink a lot less alcohol.
Our job as parents is to act on facts and critical thinking, not on mere emotion. Unfortunately, the most common dangers we face are not scary or imminent. Household chemicals, secondhand smoke, and cell phones in cars are not inherently scary to most of us, yet they cause deaths every day. We are afraid of the wrong things. We worry that our children will be abducted by some stranger at some random time, but in reality, in nearly every way, our kids are much safer than they’ve ever been. Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids, writes,
Researchers have found that the number of kids getting abducted by strangers actually holds very steady over the years. In 2006, that number was 115, and 40% of them were killed. Any kid killed is a horrible tragedy. It makes my stomach plunge to even think about it. But when the numbers are about 50 kids in a country of 300 million, it’s also a very random, rare event. It is far more rare, for instance, than dying from a fall off the bed or other furniture.2
While it is certainly noble to protect young children from danger, it is not fair to overprotect them, especially as they get older. We need to protect them just enough, but not too much. That is not to say that teens should be left to raise themselves. After all, they need to be required to wear their seatbelts and not talk on the phone while driving, otherwise they will be in grave danger. But it is not healthy to keep older kids in the safe cocoon of home all the time for fear of a rare peril. Our kids need to learn to be competent and independent people who can not only do but learn to do. Protecting them from every failure disables them in the long run.
Responding to Fear
Fear is not easy to control, but we can certainly respond to it in a mature way. It is natural to fear sharks (thanks to Jaws), but it is not fair to keep kids out of the ocean. The odds of a shark attack are 1 in 11.5 million—astronomical odds in favor of safety. The real dangers on the beach are UV rays and riptides. Be afraid of the common dangers and protect your children from them, but let them swim—for the love of life. Skenazy says, “Children deserve a life outside the cage. The overprotected life is stunting and stifling, not to mention boring for all concerned.”
I believe that as my children grow up, it is my responsibility to train them to protect themselves from danger and give them an increasing amount of freedom according to their age and development. I try not to be an overprotective parent. Kids should be allowed to make mistakes, to deal with minor injuries sustained while they’re having fun, and to handle many of their own troubles on their own. The trick is knowing when to protect them and when to let them be on their own. While it is best to err on the side of caution in the early ages, it is best to err on the side of freedom in the later teen years. As parents of early adolescents, we are right there in the middle, somewhere between high caution and low caution. Use your mind and intuition, and get advice from parents you respect.
So, put the Xbox in the closet, push your son off the couch, and send him out there into the world to explore the creek with his friends, hunt with his grandfather, or ride his bike to the convenience store. He is not going to get abducted, lost, or shot. Train him to be smart, have fun, and wear a helmet when riding his bike. Just don’t let fear rule the day. It is more dangerous for kids to sit inside eating junk food and playing video games—even though it’s less scary.
Jen Hatmaker writes about her journey from fear to joy in her excellent article “Brave Moms Raise Brave Kids.”
Oh sure, when my kids were babies I lived in total fear, because obviously now that they were living outside my body, the universe was conspiring to kidnap/maim/emotionally injure/murder them. It was just a matter of time. Were it not for my diligent oversight, our neighborhood would undoubtedly be overrun by white vans with dark windows waiting for me to simply turn my back whilst they zipped my kids over to the black market. But then I kept having more babies, and . . . We emerged from several potentially life-ending scenarios unscathed: public restrooms, parks, driving over bridges, eating raw carrots, not-washing-hands-after-pee-pee, and I began to lighten up . . . I don’t want my kids safe and comfortable. I want them BRAVE. I don’t want to teach them to see danger under every rock, avoiding anything hard or not guaranteed or risky.3
We need to parent above and beyond mere protection and provision. A strong parent-child relationship will include training in wisdom, for wisdom will serve our children throughout their lives. We should be discussing what is right, wrong, and in between with our kids. It’s about training them to discern on their own how to live life well.
Protection and provision are good things to provide our children, but we can provide so much more. Dr. Perri Klass says, “Here’s the paradox: If we protect our children too absolutely, we actually end up exposing them to other risks. And leave them without the skills, experiences, and minor life lessons that they’ll need to handle the big challenges as they grow up.”4 For example, an infant must be fed, clothed, changed, transported, and even cajoled into sleep, or else he will get sick and die. Now flash forward eighteen years, and that same human, now full-grown, had better not be helpless or needy, or else something very wrong has taken place in the meantime. In order to have success in his adult life, that eighteen-year-old should be a strong, self-sufficient young man who is able to learn on his own at school, have a variety of healthy relationships, and do the jobs required of him. After all, he is a legal adult with full rights and privileges: working, paying taxes, continuing education, voting, getting married, having children, and even fighting in a war. He should be ready to fly on his own—maybe not soar yet, but well enough to survive. In time, he can learn to thrive.
CHAPTER 7—FEAR LESS
1. Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (William Morrow Paperbacks, 2009).
2. Lenore Skenazy, Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts With Worry) (Jossey-Bass, 2010).
3. Jen Hatmaker, “Brave Moms Raise Brave Kids,” Jen Hatmaker (blog), January 17, 2013, http://jenhatmaker.com/blog/2013/01/17/brave-moms-raise-brave-kids.
4. Perri Klass, MD, “Are You Overprotecting Your Child?” Parenting.com, 2013, http://www.parenting.com/article/are-you-overprotecting-your-child.