Posts Tagged stranger danger

Bad Parenting Diseases Spread to Social Services

Published by — Healthy autonomy is not learned in a day.  Parents need to start early.


For years I cringed, watching my brother-in-law drive my super-athletic niece to her elementary school.  It was three blocks away, in safe, famously affluent Montgomery County, Maryland, just outside of D.C..  Not so long ago, kids walked to school.  Older kids walked kindergartners.  And thus children began learning how to manage under their own steam.

I might have argued that the drive was a serious disservice to my lovely niece, except that the practice wasn’t his decision, really.  It was a community norm.  In a triumph of bad ideology over common sense, parents’ cars snaked around the block.  Several school staff had to manage traffic and ensure kids were dropped only in front of the school so they weren’t hurt running between cars.  The Principal was often out there.  Greeting students in the morning is nice, but protecting them from convoys of unnecessary cars was a weird use of her time.

It gets worse.  Parents’ fierce clinging to the myth of Stranger Danger has now taken root in culture.  Across the nation Child Protective Services have begun investigating parents for neglect, based on this long-debunked idea.

“I am not lost.  I am a free-range kid.”

Most recently, Danielle and Alexander Meitiv’s 10 and 6-year-olds got about half way to school when they were stopped by the authorities.  Again in Montgomery County — that hotbed of troubled neighborhoods — people had ratted these kids out to the police as being “unsupervised.”  But rather than tell the busybodies to buzz off, Protective Services threatened the Meitivs with removing their children unless the couple signed a “safety plan.”  Their lawyer’s review is pending.  The couple happen to be scientists with the National Institute of Health, presumably quite capable of effective risk assessment.  In fact, they were so keenly aware of bucking the fear-driven norms, their kids carried laminated cards with contact info and assurance that the kids are “free-range” and know what they’re doing.  But the kids had grown used to their autonomy — going to the park, the store — and forgotten their cards that day.

It goes on.  Last summer a Florida mom was arrested for letting her 7-year-old son play in a park near the house.  Also last summer, a South Carolina mom was arrested and jailed for “neglect” because her 9-year-old was playing in a perfectly lovely park while she went to work at McDonald’s.  How are kids of any parents going to learn autonomy if social services is against it?

Good parents are those who are working themselves out of the job.

By the age of 18, every parent’s precious darlings had better be making good choices, all on their own.  But healthy autonomy is not learned in a day.  Parents need to start early.  In teaching it’s called “release model.”  An adult teaches a lesson — like walking the proper route to the school together.  Then the adult supports from a slight distance, and finally releases the kid to go solo.  Trusting kids to adventure ever further into the world is preparation for the challenges of being responsible for themselves as young adults.

Otherwise they become among those who bomb out in college, unable to handle newfound freedom (drinking), manage their time, be on their own, or just tolerate making mistakes.  Note this nutty story of the rich kid, 30 years old, who appears to have killed his father for threatening to reduce his monthly allowance.  He went to Princeton, for heaven’s sake; what was he doing with an allowance at his age?  Rich or poor, everyone need to learn self-reliance.  Police, schools, social services and parents all need to be eyes on the street supporting kids’ autonomy from that slight distance.  If public services buy into fear-driven insanity, we’ll end up raising a generation of young adults who’ll be dependent on our support for the rest of their lives.

The body politic has panic disorder.

Bad stuff happens.  We can’t prevent that.  We can wish it away, or act all insulted when it happens.  But kids get sick and die despite the best efforts of medical science, for example.  Somehow the parents before us accepted that fact, however painful.  But that one kid who had the bad luck to break something really serious falling out of a tree isn’t proof that tree-climbing should be banned.  This is organizing for failure.  It’s like keeping a kid sit safe in his room to guarantee he’s alive when it’s time for him to run the 50-yard dash.

Panicky parenting is a form of narcissism.  Parent narcissists want reflected glory and won’t take the chance that their kid gets burned taking a healthy, calculated risk.  Conversely, good-enough parents successfully work their way out of their job.  Young adults might rely on them for help or advice.  But neither their survival nor success can continue to depend on Mommie and Dadsums.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

, , , , ,

Leave a comment

Stranger Danger is A Uniquely American Insanity

Published by — The fears that convince parents to keep their kids from free-range summer activities are unwarranted and harmful.

It’s summertime, summertime, sum, sum, summertime!!

It’s time for kids to roam the ‘hood and reclaim it as their own.  Time to build forts, dam streams, invent games, and figure out fun excuses for getting wet and cooling off.  At a minimum, it’s totally time to ditch Mom and Dad, or at least get the adults off to a comfortable distance — around, of course, but out of kids’ business.

In short, it’s a time to develop some resilience, gain grit, and suffer creativity-inducing boredom.


Where are the kids?  Neighborhood streets that once teemed with young life are now ghostly.  Only car movements indicate the presence of human life.

Instead, kids are being super-supervised by a sports, art or educational program.  They might be sequestered in a backyard.  Or hanging indoors in front of LCD screens.

But they are not out marauding in packs, because their parents are paralyzed with fears of “stranger danger.”

Actually the hoards of predators lying in wait to abduct children don’t exist.  Stranger danger is a myth, a belief that has taken root in the collective parental consciousness, against all reason.  Since the 1990s crime in general has consistently dropped, along with the tiny risk of abduction.

Kids are about 1,600 times more likely to be injured by a car than abducted.  Yes, abductions do happen, but mostly by divorced or divorcing parents, or other family members engaged in some intrafamily dispute.

Kids are 40 times more likely to be killed in a car accident than killed by a “stranger,” who, when you look carefully, is often a relation, neighbor or other person known to the child.  In the case of teenagers, “stranger” abductor/murderers include criminals and gang members whose victims have gotten themselves involved a deal gone bad.

Annually, only about 100 kids and youth fall into this last category.

The media never mentions how unusual such cases are when they milk every detail of a spectacular abduction case for weeks, if not months.  It can feel like the Visigoths are blood-lusting for your child.  They’re not.  Yet believing the myth is a mark of a good parent.

So parents opt for the hugely-higher risk associated with cars, driving kids to school or to visit a friend.  Driving deprives kids of exercise that could stave off obesity, and stupidly puts yet more potentially-lethal cars on the road.

In 2009, the number of young kids, 5-14, who committed suicide was 265.  That’s well over double the risk for even the most generous definition of stranger danger.  But you don’t see a national movement among parents to promote kids’ mental health.  Sadly.  We focus myopically on their safety instead.

Kids are more likely to die of a dozen other things, including playground accidents – which is ironic because our risk-aversion insanity has also been responsible for stripping most playgrounds of fun.  Stranger danger is only one aspect of the epidemic of fear driving the need to scrub risk from children’s lives, here in the land of the free and the brave.

How does a kid learn to be brave in a risk-free environment?

Google “stranger danger” and you’ll find endless sites brimming with tips and tools to help parents scare the bejeezus out of their kids.

Interestingly, the dire warnings not to talk to strangers don’t often make exceptions for the police.  Nor do they consider exceptions like the kindly retired couple puttering in their garden who might be of real help in the case of a scare or emergency.

The message to our kids is: Be afraid.  Other people are potentially dangerous; avoid them.  People want to hurt you.  As the adults, we’re certain that you, the child, can’t learn to assess risk, cope with challenges, reach out for help, and generally learn to protect yourself.  We don’t believe in you.  This is one way we love you.

In fact, interacting with other people, especially immediate neighbors, gives kids a sense for the sorts of people who are out there, so they can keep themselves safe.

And kids playing in the ‘hood puts eyes on the streets, keeping the place safer for everyone, including themselves.

The problem is that as parents – including me – we are not satisfied with a statistically tiny risk.  We want zero.

But at what cost?

The main job of a “good-enough” parent is not to keep a child safe, though that’s important.  Because merely preserving life is a pathetically low bar compared with the challenge of nourishing a thoughtful, careful, confident, competent adult-in-the-making.  Emerging adults need their care-takers to let out the protective leash a bit more all the time, even though it makes us nervous.  Good-enough parents cope with the risks by assigning new responsibilities as conditions of new freedom.  Kids love freedom.  But when she screws up, doesn’t call home on time, blows curfew, the leash snaps back while the parent holds the kid accountable.

The message that will grow resilient kids needs to be something like this: Take precautions and be smart.  But in general, the world is a safe and loving place, and it’s your job as a kid to help us keep it that way, and even improve it.

There is no significant stranger danger.  Get over it.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and  She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island.  She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.





, , ,

Leave a comment