How Kitty Genovese Changed Childhood

From my piece on Time.com today. (Time writes the headlines, not me):

How Kitty Genovese Destroyed Childhood

We once may have been too slow to call the cops. Now we’ll dial 911 if we see a couple kids walking alone to get pizza.

by Lenore Skenazy

Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death 50 years ago today. She was 28. A tragedy. The press reported 38 onlookers heard her screams and decided not to intervene. That account has since come under fire, but it nonetheless created a perception of ourselves (and certainly New Yorkers) as unconscionably reluctant to get involved.

We’ve been making up for it ever since — and that’s too bad.

We may once have been too slow to call the cops (though that’s still disputed), but today we are definitely too fast. Oh, I don’t mean we shouldn’t dial 911 if we see someone being murdered, or threatened, or hurt. Of course we should! In fact, the simple 911 number to call for emergencies was developed partly in response to the Genovese murder: Now everyone could have a quick, easy way to summon the cops anytime, anyplace. A great leap forward.

The leap sideways, or perhaps downward, came as the general public gradually became convinced that it not only had an obligation to help anyone in danger, it had the obligation to call the cops anytime it noticed people who could be in danger, especially kids, even if they were fine and dandy at the time. This has given rise to a near mania for calling the cops when people spot a child on his or her own anywhere in public.

Read the rest here.

Reports of uninvolved bystanders led to hyper-involvement today.

Reports of uninvolved bystanders led to hyper-involvement today.

 

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31 Responses to How Kitty Genovese Changed Childhood

  1. vjhr March 13, 2014 at 10:51 am #

    Yet as recently as 1998 Seinfeld’s finale was all about NOT getting involved when witnessing a crime.

  2. lollipoplover March 13, 2014 at 11:11 am #

    “It has become so unusual to see children outside on their own that a nervous public immediately picks up the phone at such a sight, hyperventilating about danger.”

    Yes!
    I hope neighbors in our community will never see kids outside as unusual. They’re everywhere. It’s a sign of a good neighborhood. I hope dispatchers and police will use common sense and disregard busybodies with mental problems and let kids have freedom to play (or pick up pizza). Crime tips are helpful, but it is not a crime for children to play outdoors.

    I remember during the ice storm this winter the news had to broadcast for the public NOT to call 911 if they are out of power. Everyone has differing opinions of what constitutes an emergency. I feel bad for 911 dispatchers.

  3. anonymous mom March 13, 2014 at 11:18 am #

    I think another change may have been 9/11, when people started being encouraged to “report anything suspicious.” It’s one thing to report an actual crime (and hopefully, if possible, assist an actual victim); it’s another to be actively looking for potentially suspicious behavior and then reporting it just in case they might be up to something. To some extent, we’ve encouraged people to become a nation of snitches, and we’ve been happy to live up to that.

  4. anonymous mom March 13, 2014 at 11:26 am #

    @lollipoplover, I also think the issue is that people don’t bother to know their neighbors. If you know your neighbors and see a child out who you think is too young, you can simply escort them home. You don’t need to call 911.

    I am very fortunate to live in a city neighborhood where people are very interested in community and where many people are suspicious of the police, and those who aren’t know that the response time is so slow that you really don’t call unless it’s an abject emergency. I had a neighbor who, when my son was maybe 7, saw him out walking, wasn’t sure if he was allowed to be (he was going to a friend’s house right around the corner, so he was), and so walked him home. I told him that I had known he was out, but I appreciated him looking out for my son, which I really did. There was no need to call 911. Another time, a friend of mine’s 4-year-old escaped the house and started wandering the neighborhood. Another neighbor saw him, and started calling around to find out who had a little red-haired kid. After a couple of calls, he found out who it was, and delivered the kid back to his house. I can’t even imagine calling 911 if you could resolve the situation safely without doing so.

  5. E March 13, 2014 at 11:37 am #

    I appreciate the note about the headline author. It seemed especially sensational and disrespectful of Kitty Genovese.

    I would also agree with anon mom that post 9/11 altered people’s behavior and mindsets.

  6. Sharon Davids March 13, 2014 at 11:49 am #

    About 10 years ago in Maryland a little boy (about 2 years old) slipped out the condo when his great grandparents (about 70 years old) were not watching him. He started to wander the halls of the condo and even took the elevator by himself.

    He was found by neighbors within minutes and returned to the correct condo. The police were never notified. The boy is in middle school today and no harm from the incident.

  7. David DeLugas March 13, 2014 at 12:00 pm #

    Well said, lollipoplover, well said!

    Well said, Lenore. The determination of what is an acceptable risk has always been with the individual. Too dangerous to bungee jump? Ah, nothing to it. But when it comes to one’s own children, parents have always been the ones to do so . . . until lately when everyone in the “village” and beyond chimes in and, not only recommends or suggests (information is fine), but commands and punishes if parents do not act as those others have determined is within limits. Is a child at great risk of actual harm walking the streets (whether playing, exploring or going for pizza)? How about playing tackle football, participating in gymnastics, skateboarding without knee pads or, gasp, a helmet. We can all discuss, even debate, how we can protect children from harm. For some, that might be bubble wrap and a safe room in a secure environment. For others, it might be allowing kids to be kids, to camp, to fish, to climb trees, and to be free to grow physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. Ultimately, by the opinions of the US Supreme Court interpreting the US Constitution, it is the right of parents to decide how to raise their own children except when state intervention or infringement of that right is necessary to protect children from actual harm . . . not imagined harm. The National Association of Parents was founded, in great part, to bring parents together, all parents, mothers and fathers, married and unmarried, so that there is push-back against the intrusive acts of law enforcement, CPS, and others. Keep writing, Lenore, as your Free Range Kids mantra is not just about attitude and values in the USA, it is about the freedom to parent, even if differently than others would, and freedom matters (or should)! https://www.parentsusa.org

  8. BL March 13, 2014 at 12:49 pm #

    “The boy is in middle school today and no harm from the incident.”

    So miracles do happen! :-)

  9. SKL March 13, 2014 at 1:38 pm #

    I remember hearing my mom talk about that case (and I wasn’t even alive 50 years ago). I agree, we’re talking about two different things. Obviously someone screaming for help during an assault needs help! A child sitting in a cool car for a few minutes, or walking happily to his sports practice, does not. Sometimes, though, it’s gray.

    Here’s an incident that happened the other day. It was the one warm day of the year so far, and many people went to the park. The park has a pond that was mostly iced over. There is a clear sign saying “stay off the ice.” But, there was a group of idiots (young men in this case), one of whom felt the need to prove he could walk all the way across the pond despite his friends’ warnings. Some folks nearby whipped out their iphone, but I am not sure whether they were calling the cops or just checking their emails.

    I didn’t call anyone, for the record, but my conscience was bothering me a little. You don’t fool with melting ice on a pond. I figured that with all his buddies nearby, and him being an adult and all, he would probably end up OK one way or the other.

  10. kate March 13, 2014 at 2:08 pm #

    A generation ago, it was considered normal to let your grade schoolers walk to school and friends homes. I had one friend who did not have these freedoms and that family was considered overprotective. We always wondered if a family member had experienced a traumatic event that would cause them to be so paranoid. We y could not see any other reason for this type of behavior.
    Now, other parents wonder if my kids are safe when I allow them to walk home by themselves. They often assume that I cannot drive them when they show up at a friends house by foot or bike. They don’t even consider that the kids are capable of traveling by themselves a half mile up a quiet road.

  11. SOA March 13, 2014 at 2:19 pm #

    I am going to disagree. I think people still tend to not get involved. Just from my personal experiences. Just yesterday my autistic 6 year old son bolted away from me and ran all the way home and the line of cars that were used to knowing he rides home with me in the car did nothing. Not one of those parents thought to make sure he was supposed to be running full out right past our car. This is a small group of parents that pick up at that spot every day that live in our neighborhood so they should be familiar with us. Instead I finally ask someone sitting there if they saw where he went and her answer was “I was looking at my phone sorry”. I think that is more of how our society is now more than anything else. Got our eyes always on a screen we don’t even notice things like a little boy tearing out down the street with no parent in sight.

    He was found safe at home but scared me at the time because I was not sure if he actually even went home since he tends to become distracted.

  12. E March 13, 2014 at 2:19 pm #

    @SKL, the people who whipped out their phones were probably waiting to capture him falling thru so they could upload to Youtube and hope to be featured on Ridiculousness or Tosh.O (shows that feature the stupidity of humans on video).

  13. SKL March 13, 2014 at 2:28 pm #

    E, I did consider the possibility of them trying to get a photo of stupid. 😛

  14. SKL March 13, 2014 at 2:35 pm #

    SOA, I realize that your son has special needs, but not everyone would know that by looking at an autistic child. I would not think anything amiss about a nearly 7yo child who lived within walking distance going home on foot.

    I would rather have parents view “walkers” as normal, vs. interfere with every young kid who tried to walk (or run) home.

    I understand your situation was probably scary because you know your son’s abilities / reactions are not typical for his age. But your situation is an exception, and I’d like to keep it that way.

    Yesterday my kids had a snow day, and I didn’t realize it until after I’d dropped them off. Another mom blocked me from leaving the parking lot, and let me know the sitch. So on the way back home, my kids were talking about what they would do if they were ever left there on a day with no school. Their first thought was to walk home, bringing any friends who were similarly stranded so that we could call their moms with my cell phone. 😛 I pointed out that it would take at least an hour to walk to our house (it’s 5 miles, and on a snow day, the weather would not be conducive). We talked about what they should do instead. But it was interesting that they assumed that walking home would be the first choice, even though they have never walked home before. They are 7.

  15. Bob Cavanaugh March 13, 2014 at 3:20 pm #

    Wow this is a sharp contrast to this story which I heard on the radio this morning. http://www.komonews.com/news/local/State-agrees-to-pay-8-million-to-6-abused-siblings-250194891.html

  16. Papilio March 13, 2014 at 3:21 pm #

    @SOA: Hey, just wondering, I don’t know your son and what he can and cannot do, but if he ran home I assume you live within walking distance from the school. Maybe, after a long day in school, your son would rather move around a bit (or a lot) instead of getting buckled up in the car? Would it be possible to pick him up on foot and then walk home together?

  17. marie March 13, 2014 at 3:25 pm #

    Yet as recently as 1998 Seinfeld’s finale was all about NOT getting involved when witnessing a crime.,/i>

    Seinfeld’s finale generated a little controversy, as I remember. The joke of that show was that through the whole series, we had let ourselves be entertained by characters who really weren’t nice people at all. Funny? Definitely funny. But not particularly nice people. So the finale took their not-niceness and their cynicism and shoved it back at us.

    The whole point of that finale was that REAL people would not have done what Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer did.

    That’s the way I saw it, anyway. YMMV.

  18. J.T. Wenting March 13, 2014 at 3:30 pm #

    people not calling the police or trying to help stop or prevent crime is the norm here.
    And the reason is simple: police either don’t come anyway and if they come they tend to treat the people helping the victim as the criminals, and the criminal as a victim.

    Same with seeing people in trouble, like a drowning child? Don’t try to help, don’t call the police, just walk away. That way you can’t be charged with anything, like being called a pedophile for touching a child you were trying to save.

  19. SKL March 13, 2014 at 3:41 pm #

    I think also with child abuse, in some situations people are afraid or reluctant to call until the child is seriously harmed or dead. And then when the police question them, “I used to hear screaming/crying for hours at a time, the child was always overdressed so no skin showed, I saw him hit her with this and that and the other thing.”

    It probably depends on where you live.

  20. marie March 13, 2014 at 3:42 pm #

    people not calling the police or trying to help stop or prevent crime is the norm here.

    When I think about how many families have been put through the meatgrinder that is our justice system–many, many times for non-violent crimes, how many children have grown up with a parent in prison, how many children have been removed from the home…I think I understand a little better why some neighborhoods refuse to cooperate with the police. Cooperating with the police often does more damage than good. When a community refuses to inform on someone selling drugs, maybe we should consider if prohibition is a good law instead of assuming that the neighborhood is full of shady people. When they refuse to inform on perpetrators of gang violence, we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that those people don’t care and that they are all in on the violence somehow. They care as much as I do, but if the law makes things worse for them, the law should be questioned.

    Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow talks about this topic.

  21. marie March 13, 2014 at 3:42 pm #

    people not calling the police or trying to help stop or prevent crime is the norm here.

    When I think about how many families have been put through the meatgrinder that is our justice system–many, many times for non-violent crimes, how many children have grown up with a parent in prison, how many children have been removed from the home…I think I understand a little better why some neighborhoods refuse to cooperate with the police. Cooperating with the police often does more damage than good. When a community refuses to inform on someone selling drugs, maybe we should consider if prohibition is a good law instead of assuming that the neighborhood is full of shady people. When they refuse to inform on perpetrators of gang violence, we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that those people don’t care and that they are all in on the violence somehow. They care as much as I do, but if the law makes things worse for them, the law should be questioned.

    Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow talks about this topic.

  22. Gina March 13, 2014 at 4:35 pm #

    The fact of the matter is, as you allude, the original Kitty Genovese story was reported incorrectly. In fact, many people DID get involved.

    It is my belief that many people who call 911 to report something that is not dangerous are doing so to call attention to themselves and be seen as heroes when they retell the story. Our friends tend to hear stories the way we tell them.

  23. Warren March 13, 2014 at 6:01 pm #

    There are basic problems with any service be it 911, private alarm companies or whatever.

    1. The dispatchers do not have the authority to disregard calls.
    2. All calls are recorded and logged, therefore if not investigated………..asses are on the line.
    3. Callers of minor incidents which are more personal, such as not liking that a kid is waiting in the car, will exaggerate things to make it more an emergency.

    Callers should be required to give their contact info. for follow up interviews.

  24. Andrea March 13, 2014 at 9:03 pm #

    “I didn’t call anyone, for the record, but my conscience was bothering me a little. You don’t fool with melting ice on a pond. I figured that with all his buddies nearby, and him being an adult and all, he would probably end up OK one way or the other.”

    SKL, I would be curious know why that part of you thought you should call the police. What would they have done, other than told him to get off the ice, which they wouldn’t really have a right to do since going on the ice wasn’t a crime (putting the sign there did not make it a crime). So calling the police would have been an attempt to control someone else’s legal behavior because you didn’t like it (even though it was “for his own good” that you didn’t like it — that still does not give you authority over him or his choices). It’s a shame that we as a society are being programmed to think that we should be doing that.

    TL;DR version – SKL, don’t be bothered by the fact that you didn’t call the cops. You did the right thing.

  25. SOA March 13, 2014 at 10:54 pm #

    SKL: Yes, I thought that too. At the same time though I think those parents at least might have an idea that he is special needs since it is a small neighborhood and small school and it gets around. Plus you can often tell just by watching how he acts. Actually one of the kids is in special ed too whose parent was out there and has probably seen my kid in there. So maybe they knew and still did nothing or maybe not.

    Either way it was my responsibility so I don’t blame them but it sure would have been nice if they had stopped him or at least waited for me to tell me which way he went or hell even noticed him instead of staring at their phone! I know one of the moms that is normally out there absolutely knows he is special needs because we are facebook friends and she did not stop him either if she was out there yesterday.

    I still tend to think people are always going to have their minds on their own shiz and therefore are not going to be much help to others. I have seen it a lot. You have the busybodies who make hobbies out of paying attention to others, but otherwise I don’t think most people even put it on their radar.

    But I am taking a cue from Free Range kids and teaching him to walk or run home safely and let him do it today while I drove beside him in the car making sure he knows to stay on the grass and out of the street and he did wonderfully. So I might let him do it now but I told him only IF he tells me first that he is walking home and I say he can. I don’t ever want to feel like I did again where I had no idea what happened to him. Scared the life out of me and my other son.

  26. SOA March 13, 2014 at 10:58 pm #

    I would be taping the jackasses on the ice too with my phone so I could get a viral video. Might as well profit off their idiocy.

  27. ebohlman March 14, 2014 at 12:29 am #

    Your quote from Pimentel reminds me of something Dave Cullen, the author of Columbine and one of the reporters who covered the shooting at the time (and one of the few to admit that he got a lot of the details wrong at the time) wrote about the zero-tolerance policies that were put in place afterwards.

    He wrote that by all means we should investigate any behavior that appears suspicious BUT, if it turns out to be a false alarm, we should just drop it and NOT try to figure out a way to justify punishing the person investigated.

    The problem seems to be that the authorities believe that once they investigate something, they’re not doing their job if unless they “take action”. Investigators may not get good performance evaluations for work spent determining that there was no harm. Taxpayers question why they’re paying “their” money to an agency that isn’t getting “visible results” (this is the big fallacy behind the libertarian belief that government screws up most of the time: when government works properly, it doesn’t make a lot of noise and so doesn’t get noticed).

  28. SOA March 14, 2014 at 7:01 am #

    I agree with ebohlman. I am okay with being proactive and investigating things that seem suspicious or off. But once they realize there is no threat, apologize and move on. You don’t have to try to bend over backwards and make something up to justify it. Like with the boy that got arrested for having a pocket knife in his trunk. I am okay with them wanting to look into him since was making weapon videos on you tube, but you don’t have to overreach to justify it. Just look into it and see if he is a threat or not.

  29. pentamom March 14, 2014 at 10:49 am #

    SOA just out of curiosity why would you follow him in the car instead of on foot? If he bolts and runs the wrong way it seems me that it would be easier to keep track of him on foot than in a car.

  30. SOA March 14, 2014 at 1:52 pm #

    Because he jogs and I am not a jogger. So he would be so far away from me I might as well just stay home and let him do it 100% alone because he would be out of my sight in about 20 seconds. I don’t mind walking, but if he wants to run, then I would actually need to be in a car to keep up with him. That is how I lost him the other day. He started sprinting full out and no way I could keep up with him. That kid has a future in cross country track most likely.

  31. SOA March 14, 2014 at 1:54 pm #

    I actually am going to let him do it and supervise for another week or so and if he seems to have it down, then I will trust him to do it alone. I need to make sure he knows what he is doing first though and keep up with him. If he can go a week showing me he knows the way and knows to stay on the grass and watch for cars, I am going to trust him. I want to make sure first though he can really remember the safety rules.