This is week ten of the car-less in Seattle experiment (go here) and I want to talk about one of the greatest fears car-lessness unleashes for parents. But first, some big news:

My wife Amy and I decided—with the support of all three of our children—to remain without a car for at least a full year. That’s right: family of five; busy schedule of work, school, and extracurricular activities; and no car of our own.

The earliest we’ll allow ourselves to consider purchasing a vehicle would be February 19, 2007—one year after the end of our old Volvo.

The kids’ support, I’ll admit, was bought and paid for. We bribed middle-schoolers Peter and Kathryn with cell phones, and we offered to help pay for highschooler Gary’s existing phone.

In our defense, though, this bribe was also an investment in safety and independence. Amy and I want our younger kids, like their older brother, to be able to go places by themselves, by foot, bike, transit, carpool, whatever. Now that we’re all equipped with phones, we’ll be able to keep track of each other better, along the lines described in this New York Times article. (And we can easily afford the phones out of the savings from not owning a car.)

Now, what’s the parental fear of car-lessness that I’m referring to?

  • Well, to judge by others’ reactions, the thought of preteens traveling to softball practice or drama on their own triggers the fear of “stranger danger”–the specter of losing a child to abduction by a pedophile, serial killer, or psychopath. Amy and I hear a lot of things like, “Bike all that way alone?” “Oh, I wouldn’t be comfortable with them walking by themselves. I’ll come get them.” “The bus? Are you sure that’s safe?”

    In the age of Amber Alerts, JonBenet, Polly Klaas, sex offender housing (find it in your neighborhood here), and sensationalist TV news, most parents don’t want their children ever to lack adult supervision. What’s more, people we know don’t even want our children to lack supervision.

    In fact, that’s exactly what parents are told nowadays: “Overall,” writes the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, echoing many other articles, “the most important thing parents can do is to be certain their children are supervised, even if they are in their own front yard.”

    To justify this new rule of parenting, such articles typically invoke facts such as these:

    “Every 40 seconds in the United States, a child becomes missing or is abducted.” (Better Homes & Gardens)

    “Child abduction rates have risen 444% since 1982 and are still rising.” (Safety.com)

    Such arguments create a palpable feeling that North America is brimming with dangerous strangers: a pedophile under every rock, a child snatcher behind every tree. Parents feel it, and so do kids.

    Consequently, kids rarely walk, bike, or ride the bus unaccompanied until they’re well into their teenage years. When I was a child, it wasn’t unusual for me to take the bus downtown to a record store—to buy another Elton John album, usually—when I was nine or ten. I remember riding my bike to destinations three miles from home with a same-age companion and spending hours away from home in wooded neighborhood parks. (Perhaps it inoculated me against “nature-deficit disorder.”)

    Today, giving kids that much freedom would probably be considered child endangerment. (As one consequence, parents drive their kids to school far more. In 1969, half of US minors who lived within 2 miles of school got there on their own feet or bicycle. By 2001, just 18 percent did. This shift is one reason, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention point out, that childhood obesity and inactivity are rampant. It’s also a reason that 20 to 25 percent of US morning traffic during the school year consists of parents chauffeuring their offspring to school.)

    Parents’ perception of “stranger danger” is catastrophically inflated. And the lock-down security regime that’s resulted may do more harm than good.

    Spend some time digging behind the statistics cited above and you’ll quickly learn that most “missing or abducted children” are runaways. Many kids who run away do so repeatedly, as many as 40 times a year. Every one of those incidents counts in the “every 40 seconds” statistic above. Most other missing kids have simply forgotten to inform a parent or care provider of their whereabouts and turn up again, typically within an hour or two, at a friend or neighbor’s house. (That’s happened to us before—hence, our desire for cell phones. Now, if we can get the kids to turn them on. . . )

    The majority of child “abductions,” meanwhile, are when one parent in a custody dispute doesn’t return the child on time to the other one. Babysitters, family friends, and acquaintances abduct far more children than strangers do, and they typically do so from the child’s own home, not from a neighborhood street. Internet “friends” are a new in-home danger.

    You’ll learn that child abduction rates overall (including the custody-dispute ones) are declining (not rising 442%!) and that rates of violent crime against children in general has fallen almost by half since 1973, when I was busing downtown to buy “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road.” The number of child murders in the United States has been falling for a decade and the child murder rate, after adjusting for inflation, is probably down to levels last seen in the 1960s. (See the National Center for Juvenile Justice’s 2006 annual report (pdf), for example.)

    True “stranger danger” crimes are so rare that they’re actually rather difficult to count. The US Department of Justice has done the best tally of stranger abductions (pdf). It estimated that in 1999, there were 115 stranger abductions of children in the United States, inflicted on a population of some 75 million children. (In Canada, the best recent tally (pdf) could only find 5 stranger abductions—over two years of cases—and only one of the perpetrators was a complete stranger.) From 1988 to 1999, furthermore, the Justice Department concluded that the number of such crimes did not change in a statistically significant way. That means that the odds of abduction actually fell, as population grew.

    Of the 115 US children abducted in 1999, about 50 were murdered. That number is horrible. Even one case is too many. But the United States is a really big country. It’s such a big country that even minuscule risks kill dozens of people. Tylenol, for example, kills about 150 Americans each year. Aspirin kills about 60. (Go here.)

    Besides, keeping our kids “safe” indoors exposes them to life-threatening dangers that may be of greater magnitude: finding and playing with unlocked firearms; getting into the medicine or liquor cabinet; recruitment by online pedophiles; increasing family stress (and abuse, runaways, etc.); and—perhaps most important—physical inactivity, obesity, and the health devastation they bring.

    I’m not encouraging parents to be cavalier. Amy and I sure aren’t. (We just bought our kids phones after all.) Teaching our kids how to handle themselves in difficult situations including, yes, stranger danger, has been an essential goal of our parenting. We still prefer that they go places with an adult or at least a friend, and they’re never out alone after dark.

    And I’m not belittling the risks of violence, rape, or even murder that children face. In fact, about 18 months ago, Amy took Kathryn, Peter , and a neighbor’s child all the way to San Francisco for self-defense training through a pioneering program called Kid Power. Now, after a 15-year hiatus, Amy has begun to teach self defense herself again, this time through a Seattle organization called Home Alive. So you can see we don’t this issue lightly.

    I’m just saying that the source of the danger is not, typically, strangers. Kids are 200 times as likely to be physically or sexually abused at home by their own parents or guardians as to be abducted by a stranger on the street. Similarly, older siblings and cousins, family friends, authority figures such as teachers and coaches, and other people that kids know and trust are bigger threats than strangers.

    And I’m saying, let’s pay attention to the things that actually kill North American children in huge numbers (pdf), such as car crashes and other accidental injuries, child abuse, teen suicide, and childhood cancer. Let’s also worry about conditions that begin in youth and later can take our children’s lives, such as substance abuse, obesity, and sexually transmitted infection.

    Heck, let’s devote more vigilance to things like sunburns: Childhood sunburns are the leading cause of skin cancer later in life, which takes about 10,000 lives a year in the United States according to the CDC. That’s 200 times the death toll of menacing strangers.

    But the media incite panic about child abduction. The stories are compelling. The danger strikes a nerve (and boost TV ratings.) And consequently, parents fear child abduction greatly: more than they fear any other threat to their children, according to research by Mayo Clinic pediatricians.

    In fact, I’d say that the fear of evil strangers is a reflexive, instinctive parental reaction. Even I, who know better, fall prey to it. It’s easy to understand the appeal of the brave new world of child techno-security now on the market, which offers a bevy of satellite-connected kid trackers, as MSNBC reports. You can buy your child a global-positioning-system wristwatch, piece of jewelry, backpack accessory, or cell phone and then track junior’s whereabouts online in real time. (Applied Digital Solutions has even field tested a GPS locator that you can have implanted in your child’s body.)

    The annual chances that an American child will be abducted and killed by a malevolent stranger are less than one in one million. That’s about the same level of risk most parents routinely and unquestioningly accept for the benefits of childhood immunizations.

    A bike and a complete, compact community are immunization against boredom, dependence, and obesity, with an equally acceptable and infinitesimal risk. And with odds like that, parents can probably relax and let their 10-year-olds play in the yard, let their 11-year-olds bike to drama, and their 12-year-olds ride the bus to a friend’s house.

    Every time we do grant our children independence, we’re combatting the fear that high-security inevitably spreads. We’re giving them back something that should be their birthright: the knowledge that their world is (mostly) a pretty good place, full of people who are (mostly) decent. Even better, we’re proving to them that they themselves are competent and trustworthy—that they have personal power.

    All that, for the price of some cell phones!