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?
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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!
My dad did admit the phones were a bribe, but he didn’t tell just how big. He essentially avoided a revolt by the younger two children by offering the cell phone option! I looked on the link to the Dept Of Justice sight about the sex offenders and found that we have a sex offender that lives no more than two blocks away, and happens to live on the route to the bus stop. Just something to think about. The paranoia of parents in america today is astounding. The devices that my dad mentioned are rediculous. not to mention I am very thankful they wern’t advailable when I was well, 15 or 16! (Gary, I thought we said you couldn’t go to that party!)
Alan, you are an example to us all! I appreciate you putting the stranger-danger in perspective. You say “carless”? Not even car sharing/renting for those trips to the mountains?
When I was growing up in big, bad New York City (in the 80s and 90s) I was “commuting” around the city on my own using public transport by the time I was 10. For us, a car was a ridiculous thought. In fact, (Gary, you might want your dad to skip this sentence) I didn’t even get my license till I was 18 and had already been in college for a year and my first car didn’t come my way until 6 months later.My point is that while we know that bad things do happen to good kids, education, trust and common sense make a world of difference. My mom let me get to soccer practice, to friends’ houses, to parties (as I got older) and spend entire days bumming around the city alone because she had to (my dad passed away when I was 6 and she was busy earning a living and living her own life). And she always felt comfortable doing it because she had taught me not to speak to strangers, not to go into strange homes and to use stores as “safe places” if I felt uncomfortable. But more importantly, I taught her that it was ok to trust me.I wasn’t a particularly goody twoshoes when I reached my teenage years, but I held a couple of rules sacrosanct: I always told my mom what time I would be home and kept to that or, failing that, called to let her know when I would be home (using a payphone no less) and always told her the truth about where I would be spending my time (except once when I was almost out of high school and boy did I get grounded for that!).It seems to me now that I am 32 and living in a much smaller, much safer seeming city, that parents are wildly over-protective. Granted, I don’t have kids of my own but letting my kid ride a public bus in Seattle where the driver is right there is a heck of a lot safer than having me ride two different subways home from a high school dance when I was 15 and nothing truely bad ever happened to me. In fact, the only time I WAS mugged was in 4th grade in the hallways of my school.This is a long and rambling post to say, “YAY to your family for living without a car and for trusting your kids to be the intelligent, common sensical creatures you are raising them to be.” We don’t need more reasons to drive and the last reason we should have is unnecessary overprotection of kids. Let them be independant and you’ll be amazed at how much they honor that trust and at how much better of an adult it will make them.
Colin,We RIDE in cars, even borrow or use FlexCar. We just aren’t going to own one for the next year (at least).I’ll write another post some time about how much less driving we do, now that we have to beg, borrow, or pay for the privilege.
Brilliant article, Alan. I hate how the media distorts the truth for ratings. Thanks for those facts. Keep blogging about your carless experiment—I’m taking notes.
Very good points about child safety. Reminds me of the South Park episode “Child Abduction is Not Funny.” The parents learn that most harm to children is, statistically speaking, inflicted by parents, so they go to greater and greater lengths to protect their kids, ultimately pushing them out of town to fend for themselves :).
I thought this story from the P-I was interesting and relevant here: there’s an organisation co-ordinating “walking buses” to get kids walking to school in adult-supervised groups: http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/268681_lcenter02.html
Very interesting, Eldan. Thanks.The “walking school bus” is a social innovation that made its first Cascadian appearance in Burnaby, BC. There the school transportation coordinators worked to set them up.There are walking school buses in Australia, the UK, and many other places. Check out http://www.walkingschoolbus.org/
This is a brilliant article that should be on the front page of every newspaper. I’ve been trying to tell friends for years that the whole concept of dangerous strangers in this country is a fiction created by the press to sell stories. I however, cannot express myself like you can. You really should attempt to get this published mainstream. You should be on talk shows. It is absurd watching the hoops parents go through guarding their children. Where I live most parents who don’t drive their kids to school actually wait at the bus stop with them to make sure a pedophile doesn’t kidnap them before the bus comes. I am not kidding. I just laugh at them and I also pity them. It is sad to be so deluded on a national scale. God help us. And kids today are soooo fat. When I grew up there were only two fat kids in the entire school. Now fat kids are everywhere….because over protective parents won’t let them walk anywhere.
Thank you for this insightful article. I totally agree! I grew up in Seattle (not too long ago, I’m now 23) and have been a professional nanny in the Bay Area and an occasional babysitter here. My own childhood (only 10-15 years ago) was so different than the experiences of my babysitting charges that I can only feel sad for their loss. It is not only the constant supervision (by parents, child care providers, or family friends) but also the lack of unstructured free time that has changed the meaning of childhood now. I often wonder what childhood memoirs will be like in twenty or thirty years given the lack of freedom, independence and space for imagination that kids today suffer. I grew up in northeast Seattle and walked several miles to school. Summers were filled with miles of biking along the Burke Gilman with one other same-age companion to visit the pet store or hobby shop in the University Village (now replaced by the Apple Store). I even took the bus to Bellevue Square with other pre-adolescent friends. Last summer, the kids I nannied live a life of computers, internet fantasy games, and summer camp after summer camp. As a nanny, my primary job was to drive them around. Try as I might, it was nearly impossible to engage them in outdoor activities and creative play because the lure of technologies like internet and t.v. were too powerful. Their intellectual, emotional and spiritual lives most definitely have suffered as a result of their parents’ desire to protect them from false risks, to keep them indoors, and to cram as much structured ‘learning’ as possible into their childhood.Kids do not need constant supervision or endless series of planned activities. They need time to discover and engage with the world on their own terms, not always before the eyes of a paranoid adult. I commend you for respecting your children and for maintaining a realistic, not sensationalist, outlook on parenting.
Thanks, Deejoshy and Susan for chiming in,Susan—I remember the U Village hobby shop. In fact, I remember biking to it about twenty years before you. How ironic, that it’s been replaced by an Apple store, given the rest of your tale.
This is SUCH a helpful article. I had a feeling all those abduction statistics were skewed but didn’t have the skills or the initiative to track down the truth behind the statistics. Thanks so much for doing the research for me on those wacky stats. My oldest child of 3 is now 12 years old and we are starting the discussions about what autonomy is ok. I am inclined to let her ride the bus, go off on her bike, or walk the dog alone, but I have to deal with the skepticism and arched brow from my very liberal, smart, and open-minded friends when I discuss it. No parent wants to make a wrong decision about their kids, especially about safety. The culture of fear surrounding this topic is pervasive, thanks for taking a well-aimed stab at it. You nailed it for me, and I am now going to QUIT WORRYING about this topic!
A great op-ed in the LA Times on this theme is here.
Great article. We went carless for a year in Seattle in 1998/1999. Our oldest daughter was 12/13, our son 6/7 and our youngest daughter was born mid-way through the process.Seattle is a great place to be carless. Not only is it difficult to get anywhere by car anymore, but the Metro and Sound Transit Systems really do work. My daughter did bus back and forth with friends—downtown to the movies—from Ballard to West Seattle for a birthday party—to the softball game at Queen Anne Park—etc. We didn’t have cell phones at the time, but she always had change for a pay phone.Because we had been regular bus users even before we got rid of our car, our daughter knew how to use the system and how to follow family rules while riding. The day a driver was shot on the Aurora Bridge, every member of my family was on a bus (not the same one). However, we knew that this sort of thing was extremely rare (it hasn’t happened in Seattle since), and we did not stop riding.We now live in Wenatchee, with our two youngest children, and find this to be a very walkable city. Last weekend we walked downtown to the YMCA for rock climbing, and spent most of the day just enjoying the downtown – on foot. My husband takes the kids hiking in the surrounding foothills. No need for a car, because they can walk to the hills from almost anywhere in town. My son can now go hiking with just his buddies.I highly recommend that every parent teach their children to do things like this (walk, bus, bike) by doing it with them at first. They will be much safer if we take the time to teach them to be independent.
Kudos to all the people who refuse to buy into the media myth of child endangerment. I used to spend whole days by myself at the age of 8, riding and walking around my neighborhood and getting a real education on the world and people around me. I find that this makes me feel a little out of place at times being 28 in a country where most men my age don’t even know how to take care of themselves at all. Viva la revolution! It will not be televised (hopefully!)