Sad Memories, Overprotective Impulses, and Keeping Things in Perspective

Hi Readers — By now I’m sure you’ve heard of baffysithi
new leads in the Etan Patz case,
the missing child case that may have marked the beginning of our obsession with stranger-danger. Now comes this “follow up” in Psychology Today, of all places, reminding parents to be worried all the time about abduction.

As if this fear had slipped most parents’ minds. As if it’s helpful for anyone to focus on the idea of their children being murdered. As if stranger-danger is even a valid concept, considering that the vast majority of crimes against children are committed by people they know.

It is SO EASY to send parents into a tailspin of terror by mentioning the Patz case. I’m one of them. That’s why I try not to think about it too much. Not out of any “denial.” Just out of emotional self-preservation, which in turn allows me to preserve my children’s freedom.

At some point I’ll address the latest iteration of this stranger-danger obsession of ours: A recent magazine show featuring a creepy ice cream man trying to lure children into his clutches. The idea that there are any non-psychopathic ice cream men in America is becoming increasingly hard to grasp.

But that’s for another post. Right now, let’s just take one quick glimpse at the Psychology Today piece, by a woman named Susan Newman, who writes:

“Yes, childhood is supposed to be a period of innocence, but as long as people who prey on children exist, parents must be watchful…. Reopening the public to the Etan Patz case hopefully will caution parents to dangers sadly still present.

Leave it to others to parse why a crime that happened 33 years ago is a good way to remind parents of dangers “still present,” I’m going to go get some ice cream. (If I don’t ever post again, alert the police. And Psychology Today.) — L.

35 Responses to Sad Memories, Overprotective Impulses, and Keeping Things in Perspective

  1. Cedric April 23, 2012 at 11:42 am #

    Huh. I was going to email you and ask if you had any comments on the recent re-opening of the case.

  2. North of 49 April 23, 2012 at 11:47 am #

    We’ve reigned in our kids’ range this past weekend to “in sight of the house.” Not because of some pervert, but because 5 police officers in 4 cars came screaming into the area and after a bear on Friday. “Oh, but the bear is gone…” said one of the local kids when he was trying to convince us to let our kids out to play with him. Yes, a kid came to our door to ask our kids out to play.

    So, it isn’t some human we’re scared of, but a wild animal. And for good reason. The police weren’t able to get it.

  3. Ross April 23, 2012 at 11:49 am #

    I have to think that we’re living through a period of ‘child empowerment’ with the advent of the ubiquitous camera-enabled smart phone. I just don’t see kids cowering in fear of possible abductors any more, so much as I’m seeing kids fully in control of their rising generation. Woe to the want-to-be abductor who visits a bus stop in suburban America these days! They’ll be on Facebook in seconds.

  4. Really bad mum April 23, 2012 at 12:22 pm #

    Helicopter parents seem to forget adults get abducted/murdered too. most probably more so then kids.

  5. g2-47b3524bac621938528bd9410ba220f6 April 23, 2012 at 12:50 pm #

    A friend of mine recently has been promoting a public speaker whose message is not “Beware of Strangers” (because we have times we need to trust strangers) but “Beware of Tricky Adults.” You know, the adults who ask you to keep something secret. Or for help with a task that an adult can do better than a kid. My friend—who did suffer abuse at the hands of a relative—understands how true that is.

    It’s not strangers that are the danger. It’s adults, stranger and known, who aren’t reacting the way that they should.

    Ah, here’s the link. Safely Ever After.

  6. B. Durbin April 23, 2012 at 12:52 pm #

    I hate when you log in and it strips your name in favor of a random string of characters. That’s me above.

  7. skl1 April 23, 2012 at 1:46 pm #

    Well, I must say that it’s interesting to know the little boy was given a dollar by the neighbor guy the night before he disappeared. That very same year, I was given hush money by the dirty old man on the next block after he couldn’t keep his hands to himself. I felt guilty about it and kept it secret for many years.

    I do not advocate living in fear, but things like that do remind us of some street smarts we could impart to our kids. Did Etan tell his dad about the $1, and if so, did the dad think anything of it? What other warning signs were there? Pedophilia was on every block and then some in those days (as I knew first-hand); I can’t imagine that parents didn’t have a clue; but maybe I’m wrong.

    The linked article is pushing a book called “never say yes to a stranger.” I wish it would link to an online copy so I could see how bad it is.

  8. JLH April 23, 2012 at 4:48 pm #

    Lenore, in this post, and another recent one (I can’t remember which one, or the details of it), I get a sense that you are reaching the point of throwing your hands in the air, that trying to convince people the world is anything other than a scary, evil place where children must be kept literally tied to one’s apron strings until adulthood is a fruitless task.

    I for one rely on your positive, upbeat, confident attitude towards the prevailing world view in order to maintain my own sense that my children deserve more freedom than society deems sensible. Please, please, please keep up the fight, and know there are many who believe in your message.

  9. Taradlion April 23, 2012 at 6:37 pm #

    I was wondering when you would comment. I was thinking, “wow, no new high profile cases so now they are covering a case from 30 years ago on every news station…” They ran a news “teaser” (for lack of a better word) during Wheel of Fortune that lead my daughter to ask, “What happened??”….I told her it wasn’t something to worry about now.

    On NY1 (the station that covers the 5 boroughs of NYC), they were actually showing shots of SoHo at the time and now and interviewing people to show how much safer it is now….all the while talking about how this case changed how parents parent.

  10. EtobicokeMom April 23, 2012 at 8:04 pm #

    I am not aware of this case (our media is too busy with the more current Stafford case to report on anything else), but surely the fact that a 30 year old case is front page news is proof positive of just how very rare this is!!! In recent months our media has been screaming headlines at us about missing teens. One disappeared a few years ago; after years of speculation, her body was found last month and it was determined that she had committed suicide. Another girl called home after a media blitz about her ‘disappearance’ to say she was ok. An Amber Alert for a small boy resulted in him being found. With his mother. Another Amber Alert resulted in a baby being found (tragically not alive). In his father’s care. Some of these are tragic, awful cases. Others less so. But despite the fact that none (except Stafford) were stranger abductions, I heard a woman being interviewed on the radio this morning saying that all these cases show you can’t be too careful.

    And for the record, what parents should really take from the Stafford case is to teach their kids to walk home alone safely, not that walking home alone is a bad idea!

  11. pentamom April 23, 2012 at 8:14 pm #

    Well, in fairness, the 30 year old case is news not just because they went digging around for something to talk about, but because there’s been a break in the investigation after all this time.

    “That’s why I try not to think about it too much. Not out of any “denial.” Just out of emotional self-preservation, which in turn allows me to preserve my children’s freedom.”

    That is a great way to put it, Lenore. I got accused of the Ignorance Is Bliss attitude one time when I tried to explain this approach to politics. It’s not that I’m uninformed, it’s just that wallowing in it doesn’t accomplish anything and can tend to give you an exaggerated view of some things. I’ll have to remember this way of explaining it, in that context, or in this one.

  12. Heather G April 23, 2012 at 8:51 pm #

    My mother and I were talking about the case yesterday. Since it happened shortly before she had me it’s one of those things that sticks in your head as you parent. One thing that bothered her then, and does now, is that despite the fact that they had a suspect that was known to the child the “lesson learned” was to be afraid of strangers. Talk about 2+2=7. Even now, with the focus on another potential suspect who was also known the the child, stranger danger is again being pushed.

    My mother was lucky enough to have a brother in law enforcement to remind her that most crimes are committed by those close to the victim. She was lucky enough to be given tools to teach and empower her child in the early days of the stranger danger push. She was lucky enough to have someone to calm her fears as the news filled up more and more with scary stories, despite the local crime column remaining conspicuously empty week after week. She was lucky enough to be given the tools to remain grounded. Thanks to her I am also lucky enough to have all the same. I feel sorry for the parents whose perspective is skewed by all the fear-mongering being thrown at them from every direction. Without trusted council to remind them of the facts and empower them to teach and empower their children all this must seem like too much for the world to overcome.

  13. Brian April 23, 2012 at 9:12 pm #

    I don’t understand how someone so dumb can get a phd. A guy near the school who never did anything or abducted anyone is her “big case.”

    Then her version of the statistics which show a much greater chance of being hit by lightning twice then being abducted by a stranger is :
    “According to the Department of Justice, the number of children abducted by non-family members is small in comparison to the almost 800,000 children reported missing each year. However, if one child is missing and he or she is yours, the number is too high.”

    Really? A Phd who is supposed to be a scientist uses the stats that way? It is just plain sad.

  14. Lollipoplover April 23, 2012 at 9:21 pm #

    The Psychology Today/Susan Newman garbage about fearing the ice cream man just makes me sad. The ice cream bell is such a beloved noise of summer in our neighborhood.
    I just finished my coffee and morning paper where I read the new CDC statistics on childhood deaths and injuries.
    Accidental injuries still remain the leading cause of death for youths 1 to 19. On average, one child dies every hour from fires, falls, and other accidents. If only Susan Newman spent time promoting smoke detectors and fire escape plans, not making children and parents fear the Good Humor man. Also of note, the CDC reported an alarming jump in deaths from prescription drug overdoses. So, even the Xanax and other anti-anxiety drugs parents take to cope with the parenting fear culture is a risk now. It’s a vicious cycle, and it needs to stop.

  15. emmyz75 April 23, 2012 at 9:27 pm #

    I guess I need to watch a little more CNN and find out exactly what this reopened case is about.

    What I wanted to comment on was the ice cream truck dramatic scenario (cue the gasps and tears from the group of moms!). My husband DVR’ed that and played it for my 8yo son, while I sat by and rolled my eyes. Fearmongering at it’s finest.

    My husband is from overseas, in what we would probably assume is a backward country. You molest someone there, you will die for it. And guess what? The kids roam freely and safely. Neighbors still act neighborly rather than suspicious. They still understand and employ (and reap the benefits of) the basic concept of community.

    Maybe the root of this problem is that American “justice” is too easy on deviants and predators?

    It made me think a little….

  16. Uly April 23, 2012 at 9:37 pm #

    I guess I need to watch a little more CNN and find out exactly what this reopened case is about.

    This six year old kid, on his first trip to the school bus alone, disappeared and was never found. He’s almost certainly dead, they never solved the case, and now they have a new lead so they dug up a basement in the hopes of finding him.

    He was the very first face on a milk carton. His name is not pronounced the same way you’d think.

    That about sums it up. It’s understandably tragic for his family. For the rest of us, there’s not much to distinguish it from any other missing child case. Few though they are (relatively speaking), they aren’t very interesting except to the people affected by them, and I’m sure those people would rather not be affected by them as well.

    What’s surprising is they’re pushing this 30 year old case, and there was an actual kidnapping just a week or two ago that was very shocking and upsetting. (Two, actually, that I can think of – one an abduction of an infant and the murder of her mother, the other a kid disappeared from her bedroom at night. It’s a strange coincidence that they’re so close together, but that’s all it is – a coincidence, not a trend, not a pattern, not a reason for most of us to panic.)

  17. pentamom April 23, 2012 at 10:01 pm #

    Almost went off the road (well, not really, but that’s the common phrase) to hear Margot Adler, the NPR reporter on the first report I heard about the Etan Patz case re-emerging, say something to the effect of, “Since 1979, crime has decreased greatly, but people still view child safety the same way.” This was after explaining how the Patz case made a major difference in the whole “don’t let your kids go anywhere by themselves/milk carton” mentality.

    I DID literally shout “Woo-hoo, go Margot!”

  18. Andy April 23, 2012 at 10:11 pm #

    @emmyz75 “Maybe the root of this problem is that American justice is too easy on deviants and predators?”

    Hardly. Compared to other countries, USA locks more people for longer time than any other western country and more than most countries in the world.

    Additionally, other countries do not have an equivalent of sexual predator registry and other western countries do not have death penalty.

    I do not know country you live in, but a lot of non-western countries have tough penalties against molesters, but they rarely investigate allegations assuming that the child lies. The social stigma for being molested is usually higher than the one in the USA, so the victims are less likely to talk.

    I doubt that prevalence of child molestation in USA is higher than elsewhere. More likely, the problem is generally recognized and less of a taboo.

    “The kids roam freely and safely. Neighbors still act neighborly rather than suspicious. They still understand and employ (and reap the benefits of) the basic concept of community. ”

    The crime rate in USA went down and fear of crime went up. Plus, HOA based communities in USA have huge power over lives of people living there. For instance, they can basically legislate curfews, checks on people going in/out and so on and basically anything you can do with your life.

    The communities elsewhere tend to have much more informal power. So I guess that reasons are not going to be somewhere else.

  19. Becky April 23, 2012 at 10:14 pm #

    Lenore, perhaps you and other readers had adverse reactions when hearing about this case being reopened, but being 32, I had never heard of it before and couldn’t care less. My response to hearing the news was, “Well, they’ll probably find that he was taken by someone he or his family knew, as is usually the case, and not a stranger. Perhaps this will help some people to see that fear of unknown persons snatching children is irrational.” I suggest that anyone who is disturbed by this case think about it from the point of view of their children…who have never been impacted personally by this poor boy’s story, and should never need to be.

  20. yosteff April 23, 2012 at 10:33 pm #

    On Saturday afternoon, the neighbor kids rang the bell and off ran our almost 8 year old DD to wander the block chalking sidewalks and digging worms. Then we stood in the kitchen and talked about Etan Patz. The unthinkable happened, for them lightening did strike and as parents we can’t imagine their pain.

    For us though, the solution is not tying our daughter to our apron strings. It is teaching her to listen to her gut and giving her permission to take any course of action that makes her feel safe. She asked me once, what if an adult makes me feel uncomfortable and I kick them and run away but it wasn’t the right thing. I said, taking care of a problem like that is a mom job. You just do what you think is right at the time. Being confident and empowered is not a guarantee that she will be safe but on some level you have to count on lightening not striking or you’d never leave your house.

    We live on a busy city street with lots of car traffic in an working class urban neighborhood. There is a lot to look out for, and it means that our daughters range is smaller than ours was at her age but she does spend most of her weekend out of our sight and i am glad for that. It’s called having a childhood.

    After our talk in the kitchen on Saturday, I admit it, I peeked outside to see where DD was, and I called her to come home immediately

    The kids were riding bikes without helmets and I made her come home for hers. The risk of a head injury from biking, while still tiny, is much larger than the risk of being abducted off the street.

  21. skl1 April 24, 2012 at 12:36 am #

    Off topic, but related to the expectation of keeping young kids in sight: This past Saturday I took my kids to a park where they could ride their bikes around the winding paths. When it was time to leave, my more stubborn daughter decided she was going around the trail again. Well, since she is not the boss of me, I continued toward the car with my other kid. It was no surprise when Miss Stubborn ran out of “gas” going up a hill, and as the bike is a little big for her, she hasn’t yet figured out how to get herself started again. At that point I was out of her sight, on the other side of a building and perhaps a quarter mile from the kid. Cue sad calls for “mommy!” A few adults were walking near me, looking concerned and probably wondering why I was so nonchalant about my helpless, scared, STUBBORN child experiencing the natural results of her actions. I said to her sister (partly for the adults’ benefit), “see, she decided not to listen and got herself all scared over there. Go help her out while I put your bike in the trunk.” She ran off to do so. Folks continued to appear surprised, but now because a petite 5yo was sent off to take care of her sister AND competently did so.

  22. mollie April 24, 2012 at 1:41 am #

    “Helicopter parents seem to forget adults get abducted/murdered too. most probably more so then kids.”

    Amen and amen to that. I always point out to anyone who wrings hands about kids being lured away that *I* could be lured away as well, by a particularly clever sociopath.

    Here I am, walking along downtown, and I decide to cut through an alley, I’ve done it all the time. Suddenly there’s a guy in a uniform, looks to be police, there’s tape up around a doorway, and he says, “This is a crime scene. You can’t be here. You have to go this way back to the street. Didn’t you see the signs?”

    “Oh!” I say, surprised and a little bit embarrassed. As he points the way and I walk past him, he trips me, chloroforms me, and stuffs me in a panelled truck. No more me.

    And that’s just one scenario. I can come up with thousands. Does it keep me home, afraid to leave the house? Hardly. And I feel the same way about my kids… well, almost. I admit there are moments when I feel a surge of concern for them, wondering if they’ll have bad luck out there, and I never worry about myself that way.

    But I’m every bit as attractive a “target” as my kids, really, and I do remember the whole “take back the night” campaign when I was a young woman. We had been raised to assume that wherever we went, we were going to get raped by a stranger, and it was a big movement, to “take back the night” for “vulnerable women.” It was an empowerment thing.

    I was gearing up to write a book about the parallels between that movement and what I was longing to see for children. I planned to call my cause “take back the day” (let children play and explore unsupervised again, the way we once did) — but Lenore saved me all the trouble, wrote a brilliant book, and the cause is called “Free Range Kids.”

    I thank her nearly daily for spearheading this and doing such a great job as the go-to gal. Yay, Lenore!!!!!!!!

  23. Lollipoplover April 24, 2012 at 3:10 am #

    @Mollie- so very well said. I second everything you say (except the alley officer in a uniform scenerio- I am not very trustful of police, sadly.)

    I also refuse to allow my children to think they are targets. One of the funniest old shows we watched was the original “Little Rascals”, the old ones when Spanky was still very cute. There were quite a few scenerios with “bad men” but the kids actually beat the shit out of them! On of our favorites is “Fly My Kite” where the kids catch the bad man, tie him up with a rope, and drag him over glass, rusty nails, and other sharp objects. They also electricute him and beat him with rocks! I think what my kids enjoy the most is that the kids don’t run to their parents at every turn. I don’t even see parents in most episodes. I wish an Our Gang on my kids any day over the crazy parenting I see now.
    I also thank Lenore for this little piece of sanity in this parenting world.

  24. skl1 April 24, 2012 at 4:19 am #

    Lollipoplover, I used to love the Little Rascals too! I guess it involves too much mayhem for today’s generation. I should buy the series on DVD so my kids are not deprived.

    As latchkey kids, our childhood wasn’t all that different. We’d go out and find junky old stuff to combine into “useful” implements and vehicles, etc. Solve all problems without even thinking of getting an adult involved. Even give the neighborhood bullies what-for. So much more satisfying than sitting in an afterschool program, I assume.

  25. Maureen (@moeyknight) April 24, 2012 at 8:12 am #

    mollie – thanks a lot. I don’t know if I want to walk outside in the dark anymore. 😉

  26. Kate E Fiedler April 24, 2012 at 1:21 pm #

    I checked out the site for the book posted above that is (I quote) “whose message is not “Beware of Strangers” (because we have times we need to trust strangers) but “Beware of Tricky Adults.” Yeah, like the one who wrote this book. On their “tips” section #2 is “NEVER LEAVE YOUNG CHILDREN UNSUPERVISED… NOT EVEN FOR A MINUTE.” Because if you use the bathroom while they are playing they will die, right? and concludes with #15 “TEACH SAFETY CONCEPTS IN A LOVING, EASY-GOING MANNER. SCARE TACTICS CAN MAKE A CHILD FEARFUL AND ARE NOT NECESSARY.” What child is going to feel safe if they are under constant supervision? And while does the author have to use all caps?

  27. Heather G April 24, 2012 at 10:16 pm #

    Kate Fiedler, sounds like a case where we need to take the good and leave the bad. Or maybe hope that young children means toddlers and not 8 year olds.

  28. Heila April 24, 2012 at 10:28 pm #

    @Kate, I also saw that one, but then decided that they must mean toddlers in public rather than any age child at home.

  29. Penny April 24, 2012 at 11:58 pm #

    Ironically (for the purposes of this article), the latest suspect is the neighborhood handy-man who Etan, and many of the other neighborhood kids, knew well. It didn’t have anything to do with “stranger danger.” It may very well have been “known person turns into monster.”

  30. Cin April 25, 2012 at 2:14 am #

    I have a good friend who was abducted as a child and her face was one of the first to be featured on a milk carton, after Etan.

    When she was 14, she found herself on a milk carton, and had to completely rethink her life.

    Her abductor, like most abducted kids, was one of her parents.

    She is one of the first people to tell you that parental abduction is the real issue, the more common crime, and it can destroy a child’s life. She works to help abduction survivors now — and her kids are pretty free-range.

  31. mummasdooryard April 26, 2012 at 3:20 am #

    Ooooohh, the Psychology Today article upset me so much, that I just had to leave a comment. I so seldom leave comments, but I wanted to let you know, Lenore, that you ARE reaching young/new parents, as well as those who’ve had more experience. We’re not all crazy with fear!

    Here’s what I wrote to Ms. Newman:

    I have to agree with the other comments here–why must we always see the world with the “worst first” mentality? I am a new mother, and I too feel profound, heart-stopping panic at the very thought of anything happening to my son. But what frightens me more is the idea that, if I become obsessed with the possibility that he may be abducted (and ignore all statistics to the contrary), he will grow up tethered, sheltered, and hampered. In short, if I teach him to always be afraid, he will be afraid. Forever.

    I think what the other commenters are missing as part of your article is balance. As the first comment suggested, children are far more likely to die in car accidents than be abducted. And yet we still drive cars. Moreover, children are most often abducted by people they know–not the shadowy peddler of candy in a white van.

    Of course I’m not saying that it doesn’t happen, and I know that I would be devastated if it happened to my family. But I am choosing to teach my son BOTH how to identify and deal with dangerous situations, but also to live life with enthusiasm, rather than hiding in his bedroom or relying on me or my husband to do his thinking for him for the rest of his years.

    I seek that balance–I think you should have, too.

  32. Jim Collins April 26, 2012 at 4:32 am #

    As I sit here reading this and listening to a baseball game on the radio a commercial comes on advertising that you can have your child’s picture taken and their fingerprints digitally recorded so that you can give them to police if your child becomes “missing”. All you have to do is bring them to a certain store at a certain time.


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