What Happens When We “Dangerize” Childhood

Hi Readers. Here’s a slightly updated column I wrote for my syndicate, Creators, this week.

What Happens When We Dangerize Childhood

This has been a big week for pointing fingers … including at me.

As the lady who started “Free-Range Kids” after letting my 9-year-old take the subway solo,  I’ve spent a lot of time explaining that crime rate is actually LOWER than it was in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, which means our kids should be able to enjoy the same kind of childhood WE had — playing outside, riding their bikes, even walking home at age 8.

But then a madman murdered 8-year-old Leiby Kletzky, who was  indeed just walking home from camp in Brooklyn. And suddenly, the idea of Free-Range Kids sounds about as sensible as letting children ride their trikes along the interstate. As the headline on one of the big “mommy blogs” read, “Boy Abducted Walking Home Alone: Is Free-Range Parenting Dangerous?”

To which I would like to pose a different question, based on the fact that 25 times more children die as car passengers than as abduction victims (that is, about 1,300 children younger than 14 die in cars annually, whereas about 50 are murdered by strangers): “Is Putting Your Kid in the Car Dangerous?”

I ask only because, as a society, we have decided to focus on the least likely, most horrific, most TV ratings-garnering child deaths and base a lot of our parenting decisions on them. Gever Tulley, an author and educator in California, coined a term for this: dangerism. (And he wrote a book about it, too.)  We decide, irrationally, which dangers are worth obsessing over and which we will shrug off as small, unavoidable risks.

So when I get a letter such as this one — “That little boy’s parents should have known better than to let him walk alone at such an early age” — I have to stifle a scream.

The parents should have “known better” than to trust their city — my city, too — where we are enjoying the lowest murder rate since 1961? Known better than to trust their neighborhood, which the state assemblyman described as a “no-crime area”? Known better than to trust their 8-year-old when, in most countries of the world, kids start walking to school at age 7? This is like saying the parents of the baby killed by a falling tree branch in Central Park last year should have known better than to stand under a tree.

We have yet to dangerize a walk in the park. But we are in the process of dangerizing any walk by any kid in any neighborhood, no matter how safe.

It is hard to get a grip on how uncommon a crime like the Kletzky murder is, because it is precisely those uncommon crimes that are exceedingly common on TV. They start out on the news and then get recycled in the crime dramas and “special investigations” and, eventually, on the anniversary shows (smarmily marketed as “tributes”), to the point where the story becomes indelible. Then, when we ask ourselves whether it is safe for our kids to walk outside, up pops Lieby Kletzky’s photo, like the top story in a Google search. And just like that top Google item, it seems the most relevant, even though actually it is the least. It is so easily accessible because it is so rare. If it were happening all the time — like kids being killed in car accidents — we’d search for an iconic image and draw a blank.

So the next time someone tells me, “I would NEVER let my child walk outside, because it’s just too dangerous,” here is how I will reply:

“I hope you NEVER put your children in a car. How could you ever forgive yourself if, God forbid, something terrible were to happen? It is YOUR RESPONSIBILITY to keep your children safe! Personally, I would rather have my kids stuck at home, unable to go anywhere, than take the TERRIBLE RISK of putting them in the car. Maybe at 13 or 14 they can start riding in a car, but seven or eight? Too young! Parents should know better! It’s just not worth a lifetime of regret.”

That’s how wacky — and stifling — we can get when we dangerize everyday life, so let’s try not to. (And let’s keep the blame-the-parents impulse in check, too.) — L.

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