What I Wanted to Say to the Media Machine

The world isn’t a safe place, therefore we cannot let our children out of our sight even for a moment or something terrible might happen. This is the echo of the fear mongering media and the people who buy into it.

unsafe

The world is inherently dangerous – now what are you going to do about it?

It’s true, the world is not a safe place. It never has been, it never will be. We cannot child proof it.

However the world is AT LEAST AS safe as it was when all of today’s parents were growing up – in most cases, it is actually safer. Crime is down. And more specifically -crime against children is down.

You’d never know that based on the screaming headlines of abductions, molestations and other heinous wickedness.

But if all you read is the headlines, you miss the bigger picture.

Out of all of those crimes against children the vast, vast majority of them were perpetuated not by a stranger in a park, but by someone those children knew and trusted. A coach, a priest, a teacher, a family member.

kids at play

Play is safe.

My children are statistically safer at the park with strangers than they are at summer camp.
My children are statistically MUCH safer playing at the park than they are in my car, in car seats being properly used.
My children are statistically safer climbing trees at the park than they are taking medicine prescribed to them by their physician.

Yet no one is calling for a ban on summer camp, or demanding that children never be placed in cars, or that they never be given prescription medicine. Because society tells us that in those instances, the benefits outweigh the risks.

Summer camp is enriching. Cars are essential. Prescription medicine saves more lives than it kills.

So what is it about children’s unencumbered, unsupervised play that makes it seem unenriching, unessential and superfluous? What is it that seems so… wrong and neglectful and dangerous about letting children play unsupervised? After all, we did it.

When Lenore Skenazy went on Good Morning America to talk about her new “I Won’t Supervise Your Kids™” after school program, they opened her segment with a clip from Lord of the Flies.

Is this really the first thing we think of when we think of kids alone, unsupervised?

The following day when she went on Anderson Cooper Live, the show I bowed out of, they paired her with a “law enforcement officer” who was “outraged, just outraged”. After all, didn’t Lenore know that a 73-year-old woman was raped in Central Park at the same time that those 4 kids were there, playing unsupervised. Clearly our children are ALWAYS at risk.

And this is the problem with the conversation as it stands. Lenore and I, and others who understand math, can point out – over and over and over again – that statistically our children are safer at the park than almost anywhere else.

We can point out that play IS in fact essential in the same way that cars are, and enriching in the same way that summer camp is, and an argument could even be made that free play has saved more lives than it has taken – after all a confident, capable child is less likely to be targeted for violence than a frightened, isolated, shy child.

But as soon as we make that argument, some moment of violence inevitably occurs. And it doesn’t even matter if the violence is directed at children. Suddenly the argument has shifted and the fear mongers hold the upper hand – A 73-year-old woman was raped, by someone she was familiar with, in retaliation for something that happened the week previous, therefore ALL CHILDREN EVERYWHERE are at risk.

I sit here and stutter and try to get out the words to explain how completely ridiculous this line of argument is, words that will somehow put this back into perspective. But how do you argue with someone who believes that because an orange was pulped, all apples are at risk?

Around 65,000 people visit central park on an average day, or 25 million people annually. (Yes, many of those people are repeat visitors, clearly. In fact, some of them live there for all practical intents and purposes.) And this is in a hot crime spot, where children are ALWAYS in danger and 73-year-old women are getting raped in broad daylight. So, we would expect that when we looked at the crime stats, that we would see this reflected.

Except we don’t.

This woman suffered from the first reported rape in Central Park in all of 2012. (See link above.)

In 2011, there were exactly 2 reported rapes in Central Park. Not to downplay what happened to these women, or any women (or men) who have experienced rape, but these statistics do not tell me that our children are unsafe. Quite the opposite. These statistics tell me that children have an excellent chance of surviving a trip to the park unscathed. In fact, looking at the stats tells me that you are more likely to win the lotto than to be harmed during a trip to Central Park.

Furthermore, it seems telling that in the Central Park crime stats, there isn’t even a category for crimes against children. There is no abduction category, no child molestation category, no child assault category. There is nothing in the stats that implies that children are being targeted, abused, assaulted, abducted, or harmed in a criminal way. At all.

25 million visitors and not one criminal attack on children.

That’s well below national averages.

Now the naysayers will shout – but that’s because we watch our children now.

But is it? Because while your children may suffer from the luxury of having a parent available 24-7, there are still many, many children who do not. Children of single working mothers, children of dual income families, children of free-range parents. And I would be willing to bet that some of these children have played at Central Park and lived to tell about it.

Further – I know, for a fact, that all the helicoptering in the world cannot protect children from all harm.

One of my helicopter friends fell carrying his precious 2-year-old son down the stairs and broke his son’s leg. He was so worried about his toddler navigating the dangerous stairs on his own and yet, what ultimately hurt his child was over-parenting.

Helicoptered children have been harmed at school, at camp, by relatives, in cars, by coaches, by church officials, by doctors, by freak, random chance, by “acts of God”.

The sad truth is – we cannot protect our children 100%. We can’t.

What we can do is PREPARE them, to the best of our abilities. We can arm them with knowledge, with skills, with words and confidence – and then we can let them go, a little bit at a time, letting them lengthen the leash inch by inch until one day they discover that they are ready to be let off.

In a perfect world that moment comes when the parent too is ready to let go, but often kids know first, and as parents we have to test them and challenge them to prove their abilities one more time.

Do they know their phone number, and how to dial it from any phone?
Do they know what to do in an emergency?
Do they know the difference between a real emergency and a small set-back?
Are they able to follow the rules even when they are out of your sight?
Do they talk to you – even about uncomfortable stuff?
Will they tell you if something happens to them?
Have you given them the emotional and psychological power to do what it takes to protect themselves?
And those first few times – do they have a friend, or a group of friends, that they can go with so that they can have each others’ backs?

And then, you let them go – and because you know you prepared them well, you simply hope that lightning doesn’t strike.

unused playground

Where have all the children gone?

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23 Comments

Filed under Kids, Of Course I'm a Feminist, Rant

23 responses to “What I Wanted to Say to the Media Machine

  1. Don’t bow, nor buy into the all-pervasive Culture of Fear. Don’t.

    Great post, Bree! Wife and I were just talking about this last week!

    • Thanks! If enough of us start talking about it – maybe we can start changing it.

      • And, you know, like others, here, I also grew up with freedom expressed below. I ran free on 40 acres of land, played on the dock and shore of a lake–even went swimming–across the house, roamed the train tracks before the lake, and biked on my “purple banana bike.” I was always roaming the world by myself. I lived 12 miles outside of town, literally out in the woods of upstate New York. I’m also bettin the rural way of life still behaves the same way. Of course there’s always going to be “considerations and exceptions,” and I could get all Zen an whatnot, but not gonna. Thing is, don’t live your life in fear. Be cautious, be observant, be what you feel you must to be a good parent to raise your children (and TEACH them well!), but, please, don’t give into every little pundit out there that advocates one thing or the other. Everyone has an opinion about something (even us), doesn’t mean you have to bow to any or all of them!

        We also slept in the back of stationwagons without seatbelts. Just sayin. :-]

  2. Bee

    I was a child in the 1970’s, and my parents used to send us out to play for HOURS – we had to let them know if we left our five-acre property, but that was about it. Oh, and we could hammer and nail things, but we had to ask permission to use the saw. My parents once went to lunch with friends while my sister (age 4) was blissfully alone and fully entertained in our back field, and Mom didn’t even realize that she’d left my sister home until her friend asked, “So, is Mary in kindergarten now?” Mom DID go right back home and get Mary (who hadn’t even noticed that they were gone), but it says a lot about her loose hold on us that such a thing was even possible.

    I will say, though, I think there is a difference between that and what Lenore Skenazy is doing with her well-intentioned project. I trust humanity enough to send my kids to the park alone. I don’t trust them enough to publicly announce, “Hey, perverts and scary people! My children will be unattended at Central Park between 3:45 and 5:15 on Wednesday!” It seems a little like an invitation to disaster, a little like leaving your front door wide OPEN, not just unlocked, while you’re on vacation.

    • Bee,
      I hear what you’re saying. And if Lenore had just said “Hey I’m leaving my vulnerable child alone for the first time at a park.” I would probably even agree with you.
      BUT, she didn’t. She invited lots of kids – all the kids in New York – to be there. And I believe at least one of her older sons was there (Age 14).
      Going back to statistics – a group of kids is less likely to be targeted than a single child, or even a loner child on the fringes of a group. As soon as she breached 2 kids, they were as safe as they were ever going to be.
      AND, she was right across the street. Not across town, not even around the corner. Across the street.

      • Bee

        Yep, I get that, about the group being safer. This assumes that all of those unattended children will stay in the group. This assumes that no predatory individual will see the signs (or watch the TV clip) and hang around the park waiting for one of those loner children on the fringes of the group.

        I’m fine sending both my children to the park to play, and even more fine if they go with friends. I still would never announce that publicly, even if my 13-year-old daughter was going to be with them. My 10-year-old IS the loner child who tends to get separated from the group simply because he’s so engrossed in the beetle on the path that he doesn’t notice that everybody else is on the monkey bars now. The bigger the group, I assume that there’s more statistical likelihood that you’re going to end up with a loner, a shy kid, a kid (like my son) who loves bugs and wiggly things and will get separated at some point.

        I know it’s a difference in comfort levels, and I’m fine with that. I still think, though, that having a group of kids (with or without a 14-year-old in attendance) doesn’t balance out the higher possibility of attracting unwanted attention when you make a public announcement of unattended children.

        I enjoy Lenore Skenazy’s blog, and it’s a great reminder to hold my children lovingly but loosely. I worry, though, that the publicity could backfire very badly if someone DOES take advantage of the publicly announced situation of a group of unattended children. One kidnapping or assault, while it might fall in the range of normal statistics, could do dire things to the very valuable elements of her message!

  3. Kpopovic

    Yeah but…what’s wrong with the best of BOTH worlds; I take my kids AND THEIR FRIENDS to the park. I know they’re safe, and they’re playing, and they’re supervised. Bad things happen, yes, it’s true. And yes, we were left unsupervised…but they used to treat cancer with leaches, too. Just because we ‘did okay’ back then doesn’t mean that’s the ONLY way to do things. The truth is, there are a LOT of people out there dealing with the effects of abuse, and it isn’t just a bad day. It can ruin entire lives. It can lead to trouble dealing with relationships, drug abuse, and in the case of my brother, suicide. So if getting off my butt and taking my kid and his friends to the park and keeping an eye out for them prevents something horrible from happening…why WOULDN’T I? We can do this together; keep our kids safe AND let them explore their independence, by being there for them as they test those boundaries, showing them where problems might arise, and most importantly, giving them specific plans on how to get out of situations that could cause them pain. And the best way to do that? By being there, by watching, by knowing what’s going on. And then you’ll KNOW who has the creepy uncle you don’t want left unsupervised with ANY kid.

    • The issue that I see is that kids play differently when they know they are being supervised – and adults, by and large, can’t help themselves – they feel they have to intervene when X, Y, or Z happens, or if it it looks like X, Y, or Z is about to happen.
      Whether it is in your fenced backyard, behind a closed bedroom door, or at the park – kids need to be left alone to play sometimes.
      And, as I said, they are safer at the park than almost anywhere else. And watching your kids at the park isn’t going to tell you who has the creepy uncle, unless the creepy uncle also comes to the park and tries to molest someone right in front of you, which is beyond unlikely.

      • You don’t think there’s a big difference between your fenced back yard and Central Park? There are needles in the playground sand in San Francisco parks. Just sayin’. Why are you chastising parents for paying attention to their kids…when the schools are BEGGING parents to put down their stupid cell phones and PAY ATTENTION to their kids! As for creepy uncles, if you make an effort to get to know the families of the kids your kids are hanging out with then yeah, you know who the creepy uncles are, and the drunk moms, and so on. And there are plenty of parents who can chaperone without intervening. More importantly, having a responsible adult around when something DOES arise lends opportunities to discuss situations, offer alternative solutions to problems and discuss better ways to solve things. From silly disputes over who gets a turn on the swing to what to do if a grown up asks you to help them look for a puppy. I figure, it comes down to this: yeah, your way may be fine. But if you’re wrong? I don’t want to be that mom on the television, sobbing and asking some perv to return my child. There’s a middle ground, a rational place where kids can be safe and still be kids, and THAT place is where I’m standing. We’ve had too many bad things here for me to not be keenly aware of just how precious life is. So in this? There are 37 registered sex offenders in a 10 mile radius of our school. Thanks. I’ll stick around, make sure my kids and their friends get home safely.

    • atomic sagebrush

      Because being brutally honest here – I DON’T take my kids to the park as often as my kids need and deserve to be at the park. And I never take their friends. It’s not fun for me. My kids are high energy and have no fear, and it’s stressful for me to see them climbing stuff that I’ve been programmed since birth to think is too high (even though I climbed higher, younger.) There’s screaming and arguing, hunger and thirst to sate, noses to be wiped and someone always needs to pee – half the time it’s me. I can’t keep an eye on everyone all the time anyway and in addition to the kids, there are a zillion parents there too that you have to be watching out for. The kids constantly want me to take part in the activity, push them on the swings, etc. I just don’t enjoy it at all. An hour at the park leaves me exhausted and we’re at each other’s throats by the end of it. It ends up being another thing that I know I should do but don’t, like brussels sprouts. They lose out.

  4. Taryn

    Amen. I thought you’d be pleased to know that I saw a little boy that I estimated to be 8 years old riding his bike down the street all by himself. He was wearing a helmet and appropriate shoes and he was just fine.

    -T

  5. Pingback: Free Range Kids » A Woman Is Raped in Central Park…So No Kids are Ever Safe There?

  6. Karen

    Great post! We need to teach our children to be cautious, but allow them the freedom to grow up -freedom that should come in baby steps as they show readiness for increased responsibility.

    • Wow – thanks. Your reply felt like a warm hug. Like someone else actually gets it. I’m not advocating for throwing toddlers into the deep end without a lifeguard. I’m advocating letting them advance to that stage at their own pace, with help and encouragement from me and my hubby, until one day they are ready to take that leap – and even then, I advocate having myself, and a lifeguard present until the kids prove themselves worthy.
      And before anyone jumps all over that and tells me that no kid is EVER safe without a lifeguard, let me rebut with facts – half the lifeguards I know are themselves “kids” under the age of 18.

      • Karen

        Have a hunch that I might be one of the older parents responding – our children are 14 and 16. Not an expert, but we live in an affluent area that is considered the middle ring of Charlotte, NC – between the inner city and suburbs. Yep, we have registered sex offenders, crime, and all of the other scary things mentioned, but that is life. I, too, believe that it’s not such a terrible place and that the good outweighs the bad, but more importantly, we have a responsibility to teach our children how to survive in the world they live in, trust their instincts, and make wise choices. We’ve seen too many kids in our area going off to college completely unprepared for how to cope away from home. Highly recommend the book “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee” by Wendy Mogel.

        • Thanks for the cyber hugs 😉 It renews my faith in the future. And yes – I too believe it’s all about preparing our children to be adults in the world that they have been born into. And thanks for the book rec. I’ll check it out.

  7. Betty

    Loved this. Posted it on my FB page. Write on!

  8. Maria

    I loved this article. I live in a country in the top three highest homicide rates in the world. If I responded as disproportionately to this risk as parents in the US seem to do, my children wouldn’t leave their room. The moral panic surrounding crimes against children is just that, a moral panic. No one is saying nothing bad happens to children– nor would I now say, “take off your seatbelts kids,” because there is no inherent value to the risk that would present as opposed to the prevention it also clearly has been proven to provide. But, kids DO need to be unsupervised when they can handle it, for lots of reasons, including testing their ability to use what they have been taught in everything from handling relationships to emergencies, and simply how to be alone in the world. And kids need to grow up without the unfounded fear that they are in danger at any moment from anyone. I can’t lie to my kids that way. I want them to be smart and make good decisions. I don’t want them to start taking unreasonable risks when they find out it really isn’t true that anything and everything might kill them if I’m not there to stop it.

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