Our Paranoid Society is Too Hard on Kids — and on Parents

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In the latest sign that America has gone stark-raving nuts at the expense of its parents and children, the Rochester, New York Democrat & Chronicle reports that a “mother faces child endangerment charges for letting her 10-year-old hang out in a Lego Store while she shopped elsewhere” in the same mall.

Not a week goes by without a report of parents getting arrested, or having their children seized by social workers, for the “crime” of letting them walk to or from school or a local playground.

Despite the fact that violent crime — including crimes against children — has been on a downward trend since the early 1990s, we’re constantly propagandized about the danger of letting kids out of our sight.

Despite the fact that parents these days almost uniformly educate their kids on how to respond to being approached by strangers (don’t talk to them, don’t get in cars with them, move away from them, scream bloody murder if they touch you), the conventional wisdom is that our malls and playgrounds are veritable buffets for hordes of predators.

But that’s not true. According to Lenore Skenazy of Free Range Kids (citing US Justice Department Statistics), of the 800,000 children reported missing in the US each year, only 115 are “stranger abductions” (most are teenage runaways and 90% of abductees return home within a day).

I’ve been through this kind of freakish security theater myself. When my youngest was five, he wanted very badly to walk to and from the local deli and buy his own lunch. It made him feel very grown-up. And since the deli was all of 500 feet away over low-traffic residential streets, I let him do that a couple of times a week.

The first few times I secretly followed him to make sure he looked both ways when crossing the street and didn’t talk to strangers. After that, I waited on the front porch for him to return, with an ear cocked for any hint of trouble.

Then one day he was picked up by two strangers who scared him into entering their car.  Those strangers — police officers in uniform — drove him home and chewed me out for letting him make the short journey “unsupervised.” They weren’t pleased with my response, but fortunately chose not to escalate the nonsense when I pointed out that it was, indeed, nonsense.

Most of us who are, say, 50 or older, remember childhoods in which we were substantially free to wander within a reasonable distance of home. Our parents gave us rules, of course, but it was understood that roaming one’s community was part of the process of growing up. They didn’t worry about us unless we were late for dinner.

These days, allowing a kid to leave the house alone if he or she isn’t old enough to drive is treated as a bad idea at best and, at worst, as criminal neglect. That kind of fear-mongering is bad for kids, bad for parents, and bad for society. Let’s stop encouraging, even demanding, parental paranoia.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

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  • Paul K. Brubaker Sr.

    Children and adults and pets are much more likely to be harmed by family and the local law enforcement than by strangers. [MY opinion]

  • Blaine

    The kid was left for 2 hours and had no means of contacting his mother. You could have driven to Buffalo and back in the time he was left alone.

    • I can’t count the number of times I was alone for two hours at ten years old. The difference was that back then everyone and THEIR mothers didn’t think it was their business.

      • Blaine

        At ten I was alone often enough around the house and property, and with a bow and hunting arrows, BB gun, firearms in the house.

        I was not ever left alone in a store or other place of business with the exception of the library for that length of time, and I highly doubt you were either. That might not be criminal (and will likely be dismissed anyway), but it certainly is irresponsible. Two hours has the appearance of being abandoned, she could have swung by every 20-30 minutes to make sure the boy wasn’t getting into trouble and to show some face.

        If I were that 10 yr old I would have left when questioned and waited near the fountain outside the store – where there is public seating. IDK what words were exchanged between store employees and the kid to have it end with the deputies being called. Based on his behavior and responses it might have seemed very reasonable. It doesn’t help the Sheriffs have an office in the same Mall and can get there in minutes at a slow walk.

        Not saying I agree with the arrest, but the mom needs a wake-up call. A warning would have probably done the trick, and that’s likely how it will end – a warning from the judge.

        • When I was 10 and I went to the store with my mom, she did her shopping and I did mine — which means I was either across the large store from her, or elsewhere in the multi-acre shopping center (we didn’t have a mall in my town).

          She might be at the grocery store and I might be at K-Mart. Or she might be at one end of the block-long grocery store shopping for groceries while I was at the other end looking at books or sporting goods. Or she might be at the furniture store and I might be in the five and dime. And yeah, it might be two hours.

          I agree that the judge should have given a warning. To the cops. To knock the fucking nonsense off.

          • Blaine

            Ultimately I leave it at this – I do not believe the mom broke any laws and the arrest/appearance ticket should not have been issued. Local media have contacted local CPS and there is no specific law on the books that was broken. This will be tossed.

            That doesn’t mean the shop employees were wrong to call PD, I wasn’t there for the back and forth. I’m local to this story and have shopped at that Lego store many times. The place is basically one open room, it would be tough not to notice one unattended kid over that long a period.

            There are enough people responding who were as, or more independent at age 10 than this example, myself included. The world is not what it was when I was 10. LE is not what it was when I was 10, or even what it was when I was 20. They mostly behave as mean spirited robots and that needs to be taken into account.

            As a parent of 9 yr olds, I wouldn’t leave them alone in a Mall for 2 hours without contact.

            I’d also imagine most people, whatever side of this situation they bounce, would not leave their 10 year old, or if watching a relatives’ 10 year old for the day, leave them alone for two hours at a Mall with no means of contact.

          • Very good points.

            I will say that the information problem concerning what exactly happened goes both ways. That is, we do not know for sure that there was “no contact,” or no available contact, in the situation.

            It seems very possible to me that:

            1) She told the kid where she would be and to come there in any situation that made it seem like the right thing to do; and

            2) She occasionally popped over and, without allowing the kid to notice her, checked on the kid’s status.

            I’m pretty sure my mom did the latter when I was a kid and she was shopping for extended periods while I buried my nose in the book section, etc.

        • dL

          at 10, i was riding my bike to stores..Graduated to motorcycle(Honda 50, bitch) at 11. W/o a helmet, too 😱

  • JdL

    When I was eight, my parents let me ride a Greyhound bus across Oregon to visit grandparents. Don’t remember if I had to change to another bus along the way, but it was no big deal. I was plenty competent and there was no shortage of people to ask for help if I had needed it. Now kids are told never to ask others for help: they might all be child molesters! Freeping ridiculous. I do remember being told (not in this specific context) to be wary of any adult offering food or wanting me to get in his car. That was filed away in my mind, but it wasn’t something either my parents or I obsessed about. I didn’t expect to meet anyone like that, and I never did.