We're still way too afraid of "stranger danger"

Our kids are safer than ever. So are we terrified they'll be abducted?

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published February 5, 2023 7:30PM (EST)

Young girl opening front door (Getty Images/vitapix)
Young girl opening front door (Getty Images/vitapix)

It is the narrative of the darkest fairy tales — the child who vanishes, snatched at the hands of a stranger. When a new Pew study on American parenting released in January, no one could have been surprised that the results revealed a whole lot of anxiety about kids struggling with depression or being bullied. But also right up there on the list of parental concerns — above struggles with drugs and alcohol, above pregnancy, above getting shot — was "being kidnapped or abducted." 

For those of us who grew up looking at the faces of missing children on our breakfast table milk cartons or Soul Asylum videos, it's a nightmare indelibly imprinted on our imaginations. But now, in the age of security cameras and helicopter parenting, "stranger danger" is all but extinct. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports that between 2016 and 2020, a mere 366 of their case intakes "involved children who were abducted by someone who was not a family member." That's fewer than 1% of all children reported missing. Even among children who are abducted by strangers, Reuters notes that 57% of them are returned home safe. Why, then, are we still so afraid?

In the Pew study, a stunning 28% of parents of children under 18 reported they were "extremely/very" worried about kidnapping and abduction, and 25% were "extremely/very" worried about "getting beaten up or attacked." The survey seems imprecise at best — a pool of parents with children defined simply as "under 18" is going to grapple with a wide range of challenges. But the prominence of those abduction and attack fears so high on the list makes it clear how powerful our dread of the faceless bogeyman remains. 

A stunning 28% of parents reported they were extremely worried about kidnapping and abduction.

It's a story that didn't always exist. "The first major case of kidnapping that everyone knew was Charley Ross, followed by a series of others, most emphatically the Lindbergh case," said historian Paula Fass, author of 1997's groundbreaking "Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America." And, she added, "those were all ransom abductions."

"What happens in the late 1970s and early 1980s," she continued, "is that they become sexual abductions, with the image of the pedophile standing out there and waiting to take your child and do terrible things and ultimately murder your child. That looming sense begins with Etan Patz, with Adam Walsh, Kevin Collins, Jacob Wetterling. That came in a context that had two major issues — the sexual revolution of the 1970s, and of mothers going to work. Those things together created real panic, a tremendous sense of anxiety, if you take the long-term sense that mothers have the responsibility to keep their children sheltered and alive to protect them. Then these massive stories were exploited by journalists and popular culture."

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Paul Renfro, an associate professor of history at Florida State University and the author of "Stranger Danger: Family Values, Childhood, and the American Carceral State," concurred. "These anxieties go way, way back," he said. "If we're just looking at the North American context, you can see them animating Indian captivity narratives. They became even more pronounced in the latter parts of the 20th century, with anxiety about the stability of the American family, feminism and gay rights." 

This is where, as so often is the case, the cloaking narrative of "protecting the children" becomes conveniently weaponized in moments of social progress. "You see this most vividly with women entering the workforce, with dropping their children off at daycare," said Renfro.

"Women are making money, they are independent, in more ways than one, and at the same time, for a lot of critics, they are kind of abdicating their presumed role as caretakers. A lot of the onus is placed on women in these most high-profile cases. 'Why weren't you looking after your child?' That become a driving force behind the panic that really took off in the '80s and '90s with these really high profile cases."

And, he said, "I would argue that panic never really dissipated." 

I suspect that panic continues to thrive in part because the very cell phones that can keep our kids in safe contact can easily be turned against us. Any child unattended, even more than a moment, is an opportunity to go viral with a hefty dose of shock and scolding. Our outsized concern "allows us to feel like the most compassionate people in the world, and it allows us to be outraged," said Lenore Skenazy, advocate and author of "Free-Range Kids." The fact that the Pew study showed that mothers were far more likely than fathers to say "they feel judged" by other parents and twice as likely than fathers to worry about abduction can hardly be unrelated. 

Stranger abduction, while horrendous, has always been unusual. In 1981, the kidnapping and murder of Adam Walsh became one of the most galvanizing crimes in modern American history. Today, his brother Callahan Walsh, child advocate at the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, said that the organization his parents helped found has "really come a long way." For example, Walsh pointed out that thanks to increased awareness and improvements in technology, infant abductions from hospitals are almost entirely obliterated.

"Children are the most crime victimized segment of the population."

It's not that children don't remain vulnerable. "Children are the most crime victimized segment of the population," said David Finkelhor, a sociologist at the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. "For parents [to] be worried about crimes against kids is real. But they do have to have a better sense of what the relative frequencies of different kinds of crimes are." 

It's difficult to pinpoint what the loaded words "kidnapping" and "attack" from that Pew study conjure in the minds of the respondents, but to many of us they communicate an outsiderness that words like "abuse" don't.

"Most sexual assaults and sex crimes against children happen at the hands of their acquaintances, their peers, family members," said Finkelhor. "Some of those are the result of violence and abduction, but most of them are using manipulation, trickery and isolation of children to accomplish that."

As terrifying as it is to imagine some shadowy predator hurting your child, it's more unfathomable to picture that harm coming from someone you trust. Even after decades of survivors breaking the silence that once protected abusers and their institutions, "don't talk to strangers" still seems like a protective incantation. 

As a neurotic mom who has to reel in her intake of true crime podcasts and gruesome YouTube documentaries, I am as vulnerable to amygdala-stoking intrusive thoughts as the next person. And I know that real-world statistics on the infinitesimal risks of stranger danger can only do so much against the nightly prime-time deluge of narratives about INNOCENCE SHATTERED disguised as entertainment. What works better is instead to remember that parents and kids alike can build the muscles of competence and trust. 

To truly keep our children as safe as possible — while raising them to be capable, independent adults — we need to change the script. Callahan Walsh said the Center currently focuses on empowering parents and children alike "to make safe and smart decisions, whether that's in the real world or online."

Walsh observes that the pandemic "gave some parents a false sense of security, seeing their child there on the couch, and thinking, 'Well, my child's safe.'"

"We know a lot of the exploitation and the predation on children is shifting to the online realm," he said. "We have to be talking to them about who they're talking to, what kind of activities they're getting up to online, and making sure that they're able to identify risky situations in the digital world. It's about having ongoing conversations." 

Paul Renfro also noted some limitations of the data. 

"This Pew Research Study reflects very little discussion of material concerns that might kind of come from economic instability," he said. "There's no discussion of hunger or poverty or educational inequality. Yes, children are super vulnerable, and they are abused and sexually assaulted. But unless we think more structurally and more critically about the kinds of institutions that are seemingly exempt from criticism — like the family — then we're not going to get anywhere."

Most of all, we all just have to practice the difficult, painful discipline of letting go. Among her other efforts, Skenazy is currently president and co-founder of the Let Go Project, an initiative that understands autonomy needs to be a group effort. "Every kid in the class or the school or the district gets the homework assignment to go home and do something new on your own without your parents," she said. "I sometimes add, preferably outside." 

"When children think that strangers are these monstrous-looking people, that's just not the reality."

Rather than instilling fear in ourselves and our children, we need to consider Mr. Roger's advice to look for the helpers.

"When children think that strangers are these monstrous-looking people, that's just not the reality," said Walsh. "We know at the National Center, that the vast majority of people who are going to abduct a child is somebody that that child already knows. If that's the case, and they're at a gas station or a convenience store and they're looking for help, it's likely a stranger that's going to come to that child to aid in that situation."

Today, instead of the outmoded concept of "stranger danger," Walsh said that "child safety is much more nuanced than a rhyming phrase." 

"Just yesterday someone told me, 'It's not that I don't trust my kid. I don't trust the other people out there,'" said Skenazy. "Well, that's what trusting is. Your kid is not living on Mars. There are other people out there. There are cars. There are store owners. There are people on the subway. You have to trust each other. You have to trust your kid in the world now, not just in a theoretical vacuum. The only thing that gets you to right-size the fear is sending your kid out into the world where there are people, and having them come back and doing it again. And the thing that makes it easy is the joy that you feel upon seeing your child blossom and grow."

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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