The sickening stories of Autumn Pasquale, found in a dumpster, and Jessica Ridgeway, abducted while walking to school, are enough to drive any parent crazy with sadness. Those poor girls! Those hideous monsters! How can we keep our children safe?
The answer, I’m afraid, is: we can’t. Not totally. Not ever. Not even if we drove them to school every morning. What we can do is teach our kids some basic safety rules. And then we can try to teach ourselves how to gain some perspective on these crimes—perspective that will keep us from desperately locking up our children inside. Let’s talk about the safety rules first.
Here’s a good one: teach your kids to talk to strangers.
If, God forbid, your child ever does feel threatened—say she thinks she’s being followed by a creep in a van—you want her to feel perfectly fine running across the street to the stranger raking leaves and saying, “I’m going to stand next to you ’til that guy goes away.” You want her to run into a store if she’s scared or ask a passer-by to call 911. Most people are good and will not suddenly turn into psychopaths simply because a kid runs up to them. Teach your children never to talk to them and you have removed a huge safety net.
“You can talk to anyone, you just cannot go off with anyone” is a much better lesson. This gives your kids a world full of help, but tells them to scream, kick, and yell if anyone ever tries to take them away.
The other great safety lesson has nothing to do with stranger-danger because, as you probably know, the vast majority of crimes against kids are committed by people they know. So teach them the “Three Rs” of abuse:
Recognize it. No one can touch you where your bathing suit covers.
Resist it. Scream. Fight. Run.
Report it. Tell your children that if anyone makes them feel weird or wants them to keep a secret, they should always report it to you and you won’t be mad at them. This helps dissipate any guilt and destroys the secrecy predators depend on.
But of course today you’re probably not focused on the pervy uncle’s potential for abuse. You’re thinking about the kids who did encounter a murderous stranger.
Ask your brain, “How safe is a car ride?” and up comes a generic image of a car on the road. Ask your brain, “How safe is walking to school?” and up comes a very specific image of Jessica or Autumn.
It’s impossible not to think about that, when this is the story the media values most. The story of a (white, middle-class) child abducted is so precious to news organizations that they will go to the ends of the earth to cover it. That’s why many of us still remember the name Maddie McCann—the girl stolen from her hotel room in Portugal. Can you think of any other noneconomic news story that has come out of Portugal for, let’s say, the last 500 years?
McCann’s story came to us because it fits the shape of our worst fears: an innocent child, stolen. The stories of Jessica and Autumn only seem to prove how “common” this crime is. So I ask you to take a look at this list just sent to my blog by a reader named Yan Steiner:
Brian Barrientos, 11
Peter Anthony, 18
Chris Khan, 18
Neil Rajaba, 18
Darian Ramnarine, 18
Kevin McClung, 17
Christina Lembo, 16
Hannah Gilmer, 16
Ava Kendall, 6
“There are more, but I’m stopping now,” wrote Steiner. “What do they have in common with Jessica Ridgeway? They’re all children, and they all died tragically recently. But since none of them was abducted, we never hear about them. They all died in car crashes, most as a result of drunk drivers.”
We live in a society that “dangerizes” some things and not others. We “dangerize” the idea of kids walking to school by focusing on the extremely rare instances of abduction. But we don’t dangerize driving. I guess a car crash just isn’t as good a news story. Too common. As a result, it feels like letting our kids walk to school is very dangerous, while driving them is safe.
In reality, both are very safe. But we can’t keep stranger-danger in perspective precisely because our brains work like Google.
Ask your brain, “How safe is a car ride?” and up comes a generic image of a car on the road. Ask your brain, “How safe is walking to school?” and up comes a very specific image of Jessica or Autumn, or even Etan Patz, or Jaycee Dugard. These are names from different generations and different sides of the country. But precisely because there are so few they’re easy to remember. Their names bubble up to the top of our mental list. And then, just like with a Google search, it feels as if their stories are the most relevant to our lives.
They’re not. They are tragic and horrifying, and my heart hurts when I think about them. But keeping our kids inside so they won’t be kidnapped makes even less sense than keeping our kids out of cars because they could die in a car crash. (The true numbers are about 50 children killed by strangers every year, and 1,400 in crashes.)
We happen to be living in very safe times. The crime rate today is lower than it was when most of us parents were growing up (and walking to school) in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. But the world is not perfectly safe and it never can be.
All I can tell myself, and you, to maintain some sanity and allow me to let my kids out of my sight, is this: all the fear in the world doesn’t prevent death.
It prevents life.