Are Crimes Against Children Down Because There Are No More Kids Outside?

Hi Readers!

Quick answer to the question a lot of commenters have brought up: Are crimes against children down so dramatically simply because there are fewer children left outside to be victimized? And doesn’t that prove that we SHOULD keep our kids cooped up?

Very reasonable questions. But no:  Keeping kids cooped up is not dttbzbfktr
the cause of the crime decline — and so it’s not what we need to be doing.

The head of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, David Finkelhor, points out that ALL crime has been declining since the early ‘90s – property crimes, assault, sex crimes against adults AND children. Something is driving ALL crime down, and Finkelhor pegs these factors:

* More policing.

* More aggressive prosecution of wrongdoers.

*Less tolerance of abuse in the family. You know how nowadays, if your kid goes to school with a black eye, the nurse or social worker probes to find out what happened? That kind of intervention is bringing more abuse to the attention of the authorities, who investigate and, when necessary, prosecute.

*Cell phones. These are a crime fighting tool two ways: First, we can use them to report any crime, anywhere – and even take pictures. Second? Criminals know this.

*Psychiatric meds. Finkelhor calls this the “sleeper” reason crime is down. More and more troubled people are being prescribed medicine to quell their demons. When the criminally insane feel less insane, they are also less criminal. Also, as Finkelhor points out, some of the medicine has a libido-dampening effect, too.

Taken together, these factors have contributed to the stunning drop in crime. A drop my book likens to “a graph of Hummer sales, Miami condo prices or birthday cards to Bernie Madoff. An unbelievably dramatic jackknife down.”  

It’s not just kids who are safer, it’s everyone. So rather than keeping kids locked inside, we should feel less leery about sending them back out. Nationally, we are back to the crime rate of 1970. If you were a kid any time after that, in the ‘70s or ‘80s, times are actually safer now (even though, I know, I know – that’s hard to believe). I’m happy to talk about why it SEEMS so much less safe another time.

But for now — thanks for asking!

Meantime, if you are anywhere near the Park Slope Barnes & Noble on Wednesday night, May 6, at 7 p.m. I am doing a reading of my book: “Free-Range Kids.” (What a surprising title!) Love to see you there! The address is: 267 Seventh Ave. in Brooklyn. Bye! — Lenore

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34 Responses to Are Crimes Against Children Down Because There Are No More Kids Outside?

  1. Carol May 4, 2009 at 10:10 am #

    Since most sexual offenses against children happen by people that are known and trusted by the family (if not actually the family itself) one would think keeping kids in would increase crimes against children – except now there’s more information given to children about what is appropriate and inappropriate touching etc.

  2. Stephanie @ Faithful Follower of Christ May 4, 2009 at 10:42 am #

    Thank you for the explanation regarding the reasons crime rates have decreased. I really hope we can get the word out about this and make a positive change in our society!

  3. Jen May 4, 2009 at 10:54 am #

    Rock on! Great answer, Lenore, and thank you.

  4. Jessica May 4, 2009 at 11:12 am #

    Thanks for addressing my question! This is just the answer I was hoping to hear.

  5. Todd Tyrtle May 4, 2009 at 11:27 am #

    Great answer – I was curious about that one too.

    I think in part perceptions have changed is because of the fact that stories about child abductions (and worse) get blasted across the continent (and sometimes even the entire world) by the media. When I was a kid in the 70s and 80s, I only remember hearing about local abductions. And there weren’t that many. So of *course* to me it sounds scarier now. I went from knowing about all the crimes against kids within 100 miles to knowing about all within 6,000+ miles.

    I would like to point out I heard *far* more about local kids being abused by family members than strangers. Unsurprising, really.

  6. redfood May 4, 2009 at 11:38 am #

    And the economy. Up until recently the economy and especially employment has been good. A good economy correlates strongly with low crime.

  7. Mark May 4, 2009 at 11:40 am #

    Great answer — and I had been wondering exactly that myself.

    Another likely reason crimes are down: Roe v. Wade. Fewer unwanted children in the ’70s means fewer criminals in the ’90s.

  8. Kenny Felder May 4, 2009 at 5:32 pm #

    The book “Freakonomics” makes a surprising case for Mark’s (admittedly odd-sounding) answer.

    redfood’s answer *sounds* much more logical to me, but it turns out it doesn’t quite hold up, since the economy has gotten significantly worse since the late 90s, while crime has continued to drop.

    Here is a link to a great talk. I have to give a bunch of warnings here, though. First, it is not about free range parenting in any direct way. Second, it’s a 20-minute video. And third, it does not really answer the question of why crime has dropped. But what it does do is make the case, statistically, that the world just keeps getting safer and safer: year by year, decade by decade, century by century. And he also addresses the question of why we all feel like it’s the other way around.

  9. Another Suburban Mom May 4, 2009 at 6:44 pm #

    Great answer. Maybe you should organize some national free range day to show the reduced risk. Let kids walk to school and the corner store and we can all see that no one will die from that.

  10. scott May 4, 2009 at 10:05 pm #

    lenore, just read your interview in salon. i’ve been waiting for years for someone to write this book! i have 9 nieces/nephew under 13, and this topic fascinates me. as 6 year olds in the 70s, i walked to school with my 8 yr old brother and it was a blast, a real adventure. the other week, my 2 sisters refused to let their kids play in the front yard of our parents’ house in the ultra-safe suburbs of philadelphia by themselves in broad daylight unless an adult went outside to watch them! they are robbing these kids of their childhoods, and preventing them for thinking on their own — my 9 yr old neice asked me the other day for permission to change out of her long sleeve shirt because she was hot, my goodness!

  11. Sharon May 4, 2009 at 10:52 pm #

    Another reason cited as a reason for the drop in crime is the removal of lead from gasoline. Because lead in the soil, in the air, in the gas, can lead to mental health problems, so in getting rid of it, we may have also lowered the crime rate. (I’m sorry, I don’t remember where I read that.)

    How sad is it that when I send my 8 year old to a public bathroom by herself my first thought isn’t “I hope she washes her hands” but “I hope no one is lurking in there to grab her!”

  12. Kirk May 4, 2009 at 11:10 pm #

    Thank you so much for addressing this!

  13. Nicole Fitzhugh May 4, 2009 at 11:54 pm #

    I’m glad to see this. I’m also interested in a follow up on a previous post– the mother who let her son walk to soccer & got “hundreds of 911 calls” & then a call from the chief of police. You mentioned that the mother responded to a newspaper editorial? I’d love to see her response.

  14. Anna May 4, 2009 at 11:58 pm #

    I’ve seen the video clip Kenny Felder links to. It’s great and well worth the time to watch.

  15. beatgrl May 5, 2009 at 12:02 am #

    One place where I will never stop being worried is rest stop bathrooms. After I finish in the women’s room, I nervously pace outside the door of the men’s until my 8 year old comes out. One time I waited so long I was freaked he had been abducted or was inside being molested I almost went in there. Of course was only that he had to go #2 🙂

  16. Laura May 5, 2009 at 12:09 am #

    Did anyone hear the parenting hysteria fest on NPR this morning? First a story about this very remarkable mom who lets her FOURTEEN year old be a latchkey kid after school: followed by the story about TVs falling on children’s heads and how we even need to think about ANCHORING OUR FURNITURE to the walls:

    Is this paranoia to the extreme, or is it just me????

  17. Catherine May 5, 2009 at 12:23 am #

    Great video, Kenny!

    And Sharon, yes, there’s a strong correlation between violent crime spiking up after leaded gas was introduced in the 1920s, and reduction after it was phased out in the 1970s.

    The New York Times discussed it: and there’s a good history of corporate and governmental ignorance of tetra-ethyl lead here:

    A scientific paper (in PDF format):

    (Ironically, the same man who invented leaded gasoline also invented Freon: Thomas Midgley Jr. is said to have had “more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth’s history.” )

  18. Sierra May 5, 2009 at 12:53 am #

    Thanks for this information. It fits my intuitive sense of safety concerns with my kids, and it’s nice to have that supported by real data.

  19. Kim May 5, 2009 at 1:00 am #

    Please do talk about why it seems that way. I was born in 1972, my mother was very overprotective, but she was in the minority. I always felt very left out, swore I wouldn’t do that to my kids. But now I’m in the minority for allowing them a little more freedom to sort their stuff out.

    So yes, I’d love to hear why there’s such a perception of “it was so much easier to be kid in the olden days”. Why do so many people think kids have it rougher now?

    Also do you have an opinion on drinking and drugs among teenagers. To me today’s teenagers seem a lot more prepared to navigate those waters than my peers were. But again, there’s the whole “oh my it’s so much harder to be a teen these days”. I’m not sure I agree with that sentiment either.

    Would love to hear what you have to say about both of those topics.

    Carry on.

  20. Kate May 5, 2009 at 3:53 am #

    Lenore, you are doing a huge public service with your Free Range efforts. I hear so often “things are different now” from frightened parents, it’s great to be able to refer them to your site and quote your statistics on how actually, no, things are safer than when we were kids. My oldest (10 years old) is a born wanderer and I find that the *only* way to keep him from wandering off at inappropriate times is to allow him to wander when it’s safe and appropriate (to me, if not to 95% of other parents). It’s slightly nerve-wracking, yes, but I feel it’s my job as a parent to let him have increments of freedom so he can grow up confident and independent. That means that if we’re at the Natural History museum and he doesn’t feel like hanging out with mom and little sisters, he can do his own thing, with an agreement to meet back at an appointed time and place. He values his independence enough not to risk losing it by not showing up (OK, sometimes he’s a few minutes late, but never more than that). My in-laws are appalled at my irresponsibility but he hasn’t been abducted yet!

    As far as the “lazy parent” criticism, I look at it this way: Do you toilet-train your child because you’re too lazy to change diapers? Of course not! It’s something they need to learn. They need to learn the subsequent steps toward adulthood just as much.

  21. ebohlman May 5, 2009 at 4:32 am #

    Kim: I have a hunch that the perception of “it was so much easier to be a kid in the olden days” has probably been around for all of recorded history, just like the “kids today are lazy and out of control” perception which has been found inscribed on ancient Sumerian tablets. It’s probably come and gone, and it’s particularly bad now because most people have forgotten about the dangers (like childhood diseases and industrial accidents) that beset the kids of 3 or 4 generations ago. This is causing real problems with things like resistance to vaccinating kids; people are more aware of the relatively rare serious reactions to vaccines than they are of the much more common serious effects of the diseases they’re supposed to prevent.

    As far as drinking and drugs, teenage use of them is considerably down from a peak in the late 70s (just about any candidate born in the late 50s to mid 60s is going to get the same flack Obama did about teenage drug use). In particular, college students drink less than they did in my day (late 70s); it’s just that the problems associated with it are more publicized. Illegal drug use by teenagers tends to run in cycles, and we’re in a declining part of the current cycle.

    By the way, it’s entirely possible for a phenomenon to decline over time and yet become more of a problem over time. For example, illiteracy is declining but it’s more of a problem now than it used to be because it’s a lot harder for an illiterate person to get by nowadays.

    Note that teenage pregnancy actually peaked in 1957; it declined steadily until the early 1980s, then plateaued for about a decade and then declined sharply until a couple years ago; there have been very slight upticks in the last two years, but it’s too early to say if this represents a trend. Note, by the way, that two-thirds of teenage pregnancies are to 18- and 19-year-olds. Also, the average age of first sexual activity has changed very little in the last 50 years (it’s between 16 and 17).

  22. lawyermommy May 5, 2009 at 9:36 am #

    Great piece. However, I would like to bring your attention to a grossly underreported and under researched area.. which is Internet criminality against children.

    Internet child pornography, Internet originating pedophilia, bullying, harassment and online assault of children (and women) in general is exploding and law enforcement is still grappling with the ability to even effectively ‘police’ the Internet.
    Internet laws protecting children are at best in the infancy stage. Meanwhile predators and violent online abusers and stalkers only get more adroit at evading law enforcement with this slow response of the law to online criminality.

    In dealing with these Online reprobates and in trying to get justice for myself –(I am a lawyer) even with all my legal know how.. I encounter road block after road block and have found to my complete SHOCK that women AND CHILDREN are the prime target for unbridled abuse from the Internet at the hands of cowardly brutes and predators.

    These criminals are “hiding” in plain view under the cover of free speech and the anonymity provided by the world wide web and continue to fabricate identities and commit heinous crimes while regaling in the paucity of effective and strong legislation against their acts.

    So while I do not know the percentages of crimes against children in real time, I do know that the crimes against children in virtual time are not subject to general legal checks and scrutiny and so not surprisingly, is only getting worse.


  23. Uly May 5, 2009 at 11:02 am #

    Pretty sure there was a post about internet crimes just a few days ago, LM.

  24. NJMom May 5, 2009 at 10:00 pm #

    Thank you for addressing this, Lenore! I love data–especially when its from someone like David Finkelhor! It’s nice to have concrete facts to share when/if someone questions my children’s freedom to roam around town.

  25. Hallelujah! May 6, 2009 at 3:27 am #

    I thought I was the only person in the world noticing how smothered and overprotected kids are these days! I grew up in the 1950’s. Simply put, it was not the world depicted in “Leave it to Beaver”. Before 1955 brought a vaccine there were polio epidemics. In 1956 the Soviet Union invaded Hungary and we all thought there could be nuclear war. We lived very near the 1959 murders described by Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” and the perpetrators were on the lose for awhile before the arrests were made. But each and every day, epidemic, threat of nuclear holocaust or mass murder suspects on the loose notwithstanding, I was sent out to play in the morning and not expected to return home (except perhaps to grab a quick sandwich) until dark. I had a great time and learned how to take care of myself. I’m glad you are optimistic about today’s kids. Personally, I shudder to think of future leaders who haven’t yet learned to blow their own nose!

  26. El Deakin May 6, 2009 at 3:47 am #

    Thanks so much for answering that question! I figured there had to be an answer to that inevitable question so I appreciate knowing that now.

  27. Rajesh May 6, 2009 at 6:27 am #

    Thanks for your thoughts! I was a very worried man since I’ve 2 girls but now I’ve to just train myself not to fall into the Parent’s trap. However, you’re talking about only America, is it? How about the situation for kids around the world, especially in India?

  28. Mike Hart May 7, 2009 at 1:38 pm #

    crime is down thanks to birth control…

    its as simple as that. Since the coming of age of the generation “lost” to birth control, crime is down. All those children who would have grown up unloved, unwanted and eventually taking this out on society never happened.

    Want to reduce crime even further, make safe sex mandatory!

  29. Jeri May 8, 2009 at 11:00 am #

    I know someone who was walking to school with her two friends. A man jumped out of the bushes and killed both of her friends. Little Dot managed to run away. Little Dot is now close to 90 years old. Bad things happen. They have always happened and will, unfortunately, continue to happen. But very rarely. With our “in-your-face” media coverage of every little detail we now know about every crime – and treat it as if it happened next door. Luckily the numbers are still on our side. Most people are good, most children are safe. Kids need to play, to learn, to explore, and occasionally, they will get hurt. Most likely this will manifest itself in a broken arm or sprained ankle – a victory badge as it were for kids. Let’s not be driven by media and out-of-control torte law. Let’s enjoy life. We are so lucky.

  30. MarvinMerton May 8, 2009 at 10:56 pm #

    I’m curious to know if Finkelhor has data or research of some kind that supports his assertion that psychotropic drugs may be helping to lower crime rates. As a mental health provider, I am very interested in that theory.

    I do wonder, because, while there are many more people in prison today than 30 years ago, there are much fewer people in mental institutions. Most of those have been shut down.

  31. pakistancrimes June 16, 2009 at 1:35 pm #

    Children are always vulnerable to crimes especially in schools. I noted sexual abuse and physical punishments in low profile private schools.


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