The Long Shadow of Stranger Danger

In my leisure reading I recently came upon a few pages about the outsized fear among the public of crimes against children by strangers. It’s a fear that I deal with in my work defending persons accused of mistreating children—a fear that tempts child professionals as well as jurors to make irrational decisions when child neglect is alleged.

A friend had read Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. He found it a terrific piece of scholarship that makes a surprising point: just about every from of violence, from global war to playground bullying, has declined over the past several decades if not centuries.

My friend advised me to read the book, not because it related to my work defending persons accused of sexual assault or domestic violence or child abuse, but just because it was a fascinating book. I took his advice.

Violence against children has declined, Pinker writes in the book, partly because we value our children more now. In the days when many did not survive infancy, it was emotionally too risky to love children as dearly as we moderns do.

The decline of violence against children is indisputably a huge benefit of the increased value we put on them. But the valuation of children, Pinker writes at page 444, “has now entered its decadent phase.” He cites a litany of modern child safety measures that seek to protect children from trivial risk by keeping them from activities once routine for them:

Children are not allowed to be outside in the middle of the day (skin cancer), to play in the grass (deer ticks), to buy lemonade from a stand (bacteria on lemon peel), or to lick cake batter off spoons (salmonella from uncooked eggs) … . When the producers of Sesame Street issued a set of DVDs containing classic programs from the first years of the series (1969-74), they included a warning on the box that the shows were not suitable for children! The programs showed kids engaged in dangerous activities like climbing on monkey bars, riding tricycles without helmets, wriggling through pipes, and accepting milk and cookies from kindly strangers.

“But nothing,” Pinker goes on, “has transformed childhood as much as the risk of kidnapping by strangers, a textbook case in the psychology of fear.”

Data shows the risk of kidnapping by a stranger to be tiny. Forty times as many children are killed in car wrecks as are killed in stranger abductions. Twenty times as many drown.

Pinker cites a writer, Warwick Cairns, who has calculated that a parent who wanted their child kidnapped and held overnight by a stranger would need to leave the child unattended outside for 750,000 years.

I’ve only been focused on child abuse cases for nineteen years, but my experience also is that strangers rarely abduct or assault children. I have one stranger case right now, in Franklin County, Washington. I cannot remember ever having had a stranger case before.

Pinker tells of a New York journalist who allowed her nine-year-old son to ride the subway home alone and wrote about her decision and his uneventful trip. She was then dubbed in the media “America’s Worst Mom.” She fought back by starting a movement called “Free-Range Children.” She proposed “National Take Your Children to the Park and Leave Them There Day” to restore to childhood some unsupervised outdoor play.

In my neighborhood in Seattle and elsewhere I go in Washington State, I often see irrational limits on childhood activities. Those limits, I believe, are a reason children—already rather safe from kidnapping by strangers—are no longer safe from obesity. They also may be a reason many children don’t grow boldly into full participation in society—a reason many twenty-somethings still live under their parents’ roofs.