We’re afraid to let them out of our sight. But are kids really in that much danger today?
There are 626,000 children under 18 in Dallas County.
This year, statistics say, 34 will die in a car accident, while one will be kidnapped by someone he or she don’t know.
Translation? A child is 34 times more likely to die in the car on the way to school than be abducted by a stranger.
Yet most parents these days won’t let their kids out of their sight. The kids don’t walk to their friends’ houses or to school. They don’t ride their bikes around the block or to the nearest creek. They don’t even play in the front yard without our watchful eyes.
Why then, given favorable odds of 1 in 626,000, don’t we allow our children more freedom?
The answer to that question rests in the hearts and minds of neighborhood parents.
Last summer, neighborhood resident Hilda Brewer had a moment with her son that illustrated just how different his childhood will be from hers.
“We were outside for something, and he asked me: ‘Mom, what’s that glow in the sky?’ It was a firefly,” she says, “and he didn’t know what it was. One of the joys of my childhood was to go outside and chase fireflies with jars.”
Indeed, as a child growing up in Dallas in the ’60s, Brewer remembers spending her days running wild and free.
“We rode our bikes, played outside, did everything. I think we were still out there after dark, especially during the summers,” she says. “We would walk to the 7-Eleven, which was probably half a mile from our house.”
Most of us born after a certain date have similar recollections of childhood — a time of relative freedom, when we were free to explore the world outside our homes for hours on end, with little parental involvement. Endless bike rides and bug and rock collections uncovered in out-of-the-way places are common experiences among those of us who grew up in the 1980s and earlier.
But Brewer says her son, Matthew, 5, won’t have the same experiences she did.
“We did a lot of stuff,” she says, “that parents won’t allow their children to do today, or are extremely cautious about them doing.”
She’s not alone. A survey conducted in 2002 by Web site Parentcenter.com revealed that only 5 percent of more than 10,000 parents polled let their children play outside unsupervised.
For now, Brewer allows Matthew to play only in their back yard.
“Our kitchen is on the back of the house, and I usually stay in that area with the blinds open, where I can at least hear him or see him,” she says.
As he grows up, the front yard and beyond will probably remain off limits, she says.
“If you could guarantee me nothing would happen, then I would happily put him out there, but I don’t think …,” she trails off. “It’s scary. They say it just takes a minute to turn your head, and they can be gone.”
These days, parents believe they have a lot more to worry about. While the biggest fears of our parents may have been neighborhood bullies or speeding cars, today the overriding fear seems to be that someone will kidnap and harm our children.
“There are just a lot of mean, bad people out in the world now,” says Lana Freeman, a neighborhood resident who is raising five children ages 12-21.
“It’s just different. But sometimes I wonder: Is it different? Or is it just that we didn’t know about it when we were growing up?”
The question raises a good point regarding the overwhelming media attention paid to cases of child abduction, which repeatedly illustrate the tragedy, worry and grief we could face by failing to pay attention for just a moment.
News stories like these are powerful motivation for not allowing your children to play outside alone.
“We worry a lot about our kids being abducted,” says Farrel Chapman, a Lake Highlands mother of two. “No one wants to be that parent who lets their kid play outside and then something happens to them.”
Brewer’s words echo this thought: “I would like to say, ‘Oh I feel comfortable with him being outside,’ and I do think it’s safer than we think it is,” she says.
“But I’m not willing to find out.”
“Abduction by a total stranger, while the consequences are devastating, in actuality is a rare event compared to other crimes against children.”
So says Lt. Bill Walsh of the Dallas Police Department’s Youth and Family Support Division, which oversees family violence cases and incidents of child abuse, exploitation and abduction. Children are much more likely to be harmed or kidnapped by someone within their family or closely connected, he says.
Stereotypical kidnappings, he says, where “a complete stranger takes your child by force for the purposes of sexual assault and perhaps murder” are relatively uncommon.
But these are the cases we hear about over and over again on the news, cases such as those of Amber Hagerman and Opal Jennings. Cases, Walsh says, which nationwide “probably happen about 150-200 times a year.”
According to a United States Department of Justice study about missing children, the figure may be even lower. That study found that only about 115 cases annually are classified as the most serious type of abduction — where the child is harmed or killed within the first three hours of being taken. By way of comparison, the U.S. population for children under 18 is about 73 million. If those same statistical odds are applied here, only one of the more than 626,000 kids in Dallas County is likely to be abducted this year.
Walsh also says child abductions probably aren’t any more common now than they were back in the 1980s and earlier, when many of us spent hours outside, unsupervised.
“It didn’t get the attention it gets today. We didn’t have the National Center For Missing and Exploited Children. The national media didn’t cover it,” he says.
So, if it stands to reason that most of us spent countless hours outside, unsupervised, without being hurt by a stranger — not to mention that the chances of our child being abducted and harmed are actually startlingly low — shouldn’t our kids be allowed the same freedoms?
“I’m afraid to say it, but I don’t think so,” Walsh says. “It only takes a few minutes for someone to grab a child. It is a chance I wouldn’t take with my own children or grandchildren.”
Because, Walsh insists, there are factors out there beyond our control. He knows the tricks abductors use to lure kids in, claiming they’ve lost pets, have candy, or have come to take the child to his or her parents.
But, he says, explaining to our kids that this kind of behavior is out there isn’t enough.
“What can you tell children? You tell them not to talk to strangers, for instance, but Ted Bundy put on a paramedic’s uniform and told his victims their family members had been in an accident and asked them to go off with him. Do you think they went? Of course they did. People can be very, very devious.”
And, he says, even if you teach children all the common sense in the world, even if you explain to them the most commonly used lures and drill “stranger danger” into them, it’s still not enough. There’s nothing to stop a potential abductor from resorting to even more frightening methods.
“No matter how much a child is schooled by his or her parents to not go with a stranger, do you think someone could resist me if I decided to just use brute force?” asks Walsh, himself a father of two.
So if our children can’t have the same freedoms we did, will there be consequences?
Some people believe that if our children don’t know what they’re missing, they won’t miss it. Others say that it’s “just life,” a natural progression of our children’s lives being different from ours, the way ours were different from our parents.
Regardless, there’s little doubt the freedom to play is an important part of childhood. The Institute For Play (IFP), a California-based organization that has been studying the effects of play on Americans’ lives, asserts that play time is a “foundational factor in good mental and physical health.” Play teaches kids, among other things, to:
• Learn to share.
• Resolve conflict.
• Use their imagination and develop creativity.
• Hone their ability to enjoy life.
• Develop their foremost personality traits.
Most parents these days try to substitute unsupervised play with other activities, whether it be organized sports, scheduled play dates, trips to the Muesum of Natural History, the Science Place or some other family-friendly adventure.
But the fact remains that most parents still feel a certain sense of loss for their children.
“It saddens me,” Chapman says, “because back yards are great, but they’re very limiting. There’s nothing new in a back yard. There’s really no exploring to be done.”
“Kids should be able to enjoy themselves, use their creativity and imagination, which I think sometimes they do more of that with less adult supervision,” Brewer says.
Freeman admits she can hardly take her eyes of her youngest daughter even when she’s just outside the back door.
“I keep an eye on her,” she says. “I want that door open.”
When she takes her daughter to school, where her classroom is in a portable building, she adds: “I sit there and watch her to the last second, to make sure that she got there.
“Parents just have to be so careful these days,” she says. “It’s a crying shame.”
Walsh says he wishes times could be easier, too. But, he says, there’s just no easy solution to the problem.
“As times change, we have to change,” he says. “Throughout the whole childhood life cycle, the challenges our children face will change, and your response has to change as a parent.”
But one thing, he says, remains a constant.
“Protecting them,” he says of our children, “is a lifelong job.”
For information about the NISMART study and other tips of child safety, visit the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children Web site at missingkids.com.
Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Lakewood/East Dallas.