I came away from the workshop with a ton of good information, but the call to abandon “stranger danger” is what really stuck with me. According to Lang, the best way we can protect our kids from abuse isn’t to make them afraid of strangers, but rather to provide them with accurate, age-appropriate information so that they know to say, “Stop!” when that overly-friendly uncle or neighbor cross a line. From a statistical perspective, that is overwhelmingly where the real danger of abuse lies: with people your child already knows.
In the long run, we protect our children with information, skills and experience, not our physical presence, and the older they get, the more true this is. In fact, the tendency to hover – or “helicopter” – can often make our children less safe when they ultimately find themselves on their own as this anecdote illustrates so well:
Parent educator Jean Ward tells a story about a preschool mother who didn’t let her daughter out of her sight. She obsessively followed “Sophie” everywhere, but was especially attentive on the playground. Jean tried to persuade this mother to give Sophie more space, but she wouldn’t hear it. When it came time for kindergarten, the mother reluctantly let her daughter go that first day. A couple hours later the school nurse called. Sophie had fallen from the climbing structure and needed a ride to the doctor.
When the parent later reported this to Jean, she said, “My daughter broke her arm because I wasn’t there.”
And Jean answered, “Your daughter broke her arm because you were always there.”
I’ve recently discovered journalist and author Lenore Skenazy, who came to the world’s attention a while back when she wrote a column for the New York Sun about letting her 9-year-old ride the subway on his own, putting her at the middle of a firestorm. While some called her “the worst mother in the world,” she pointed out that far more children die every year from falling out of bed, than at the hands of strangers. Her point, and one that I support intellectually (while I must confess to lingering emotional reservations that I’m working to overcome) is that we are vastly over-estimating the danger of the world outside our homes and that, in fact, from an objective perspective, it’s no more dangerous now than it ever was.
Trends in parenting, like everything else, tend to swing like a pendulum, and there is little doubt that is has gone way too far in the direction of over-protective, over-involved parenting in this post-9/11 era. I’m happy to see it starting to swing back, with a little help from educators like Amy Lang and Lenore Skenazy.
Here’s a CBS piece from this morning on Skenazy and her “Free-Range Kids” movement.