Free-Range Kids

Two Readers React to the Viral Video About Mass Kidnappings and Stranger Danger

Blame bad luck, not bad parenting

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Joe Salads
Joey Salads

As I wrote in response to the Joey Salads child abduction video—which purported to help parents become more aware of stranger danger—the worst-case scenario is far rarer than Salads suggests, and parents are already terrified enough.

Among the responses I received to my post was this troubling and very honest note:

I agree with your views in theory, but when I was 9 years old, I was tricked by a stranger to go with him and then assaulted and left for dead.  (And yes, I had been warned not to go with strangers by my school and my family.)

Skipping the details, as you can imagine, it affected my entire life from then on, as well as my parents and siblings.

My question to you is: yes, as a society we are over-protective.  But if one parent followed your advice and then their child was assaulted, or g-d forbid, killed, how would you feel?

I'm sure you've heard, and discounted, this argument before, but I didn't know if you ever heard from an actual victim, as I know they are rare. But if we can do anything to prevent something like this from happening to another child, shouldn't we?

To the person who wrote me this note, I would say this: First of all, I am so sorry and upset this happened to you. I wish you and your family every bit of joy and optimism that can be yours.

I would feel sad and grief-filled if this happened to another child, whether they were following my advice or not. (And my advice is probably the same as your own parents gave you: You should talk to anyone, you should not wander off with anyone.) And I would be very angry… at the criminal.

You're right: I am always asked how I would feel if my son had gotten on the subway and "never come home"—which is just a variation on, "What if something bad happened when you thought things would probably be fine?" The thing is: We all know how I'd feel. Stricken. So the question, when asked by the media (not you), isn't asked out of curiosity. It is asked as a way of implying that I was wrong to not dwell upon the possibility of future grief and remorse before I allowed my son out of my sight. And that if only I engaged in a little more proactive regret, I'd stop letting him do anything unsupervised.

This implies that when and if anything tragic happens to a child, it is the fault of the parents for not being vigilant enough. It legitimizes blaming the victim and/or the victim's parents. But I hope you do not blame yourself for what happened to you, or your parents.

What no one ever says is this: "Why would you ever suggest someone drive their kid to your house, or class, or office? What if they got into a car accident on the way and died? How would you feel, knowing you had suggested they drive over?"

I don't mean to be callous or dismissive. But letting kids go outside, talk to strangers, or get into the car to go to the dentist—these all come with a bit of risk. Letting kids take that "risk" is not dumb or foolhardy, and it shouldn't be guilt-inducing, even though after a tragedy we all tend to second-guess ourselves.

What we tend to do now is second-guess ourselves ahead of time. We imagine the remorse we would feel, and say, "It's not worth it."

That's why so many parks are empty.

So I don't know if that helps at all, but my main point is: If a child is hurt—God forbid—when a parent lets him go outside, I will mourn. But I will not blame the parent for failing to predict the rare and unpredictable, any more than I'd blame the parent who drives her kid the three blocks to school out of a fear of predators, and gets sideswiped by a truck. As someone once wrote to this blog: "Most of the bad things that happen to kids are as a result of bad luck. Not bad parenting."

As I was mulling this over, I got an email from another reader that added a new perspective. It begins:

I watched this [Joey Salads child abduction] video the first time and fell into the trap with the other Facebook sheep, thinking this guy had just opened my eyes to something important. And then I watched it a second time on this blog and read all of these comments and realized you are all so right. This is pure fear-mongering. Unfortunately, my initial knee-jerk reaction of "OMG, that is crazy, my kid would totally do this!" stems from the fact that I was actually attacked and molested by a stranger in public when I was a child, and I have warned my kids about stranger danger because of that. My past has haunted me my whole life and my biggest fear is something similar (or worse) happening to my children. But what does living in fear do for people? Absolutely nothing. And the comments here actually help me to realize that more clearly.

There's no way to guarantee absolute safety in any situation. But if we can agree not to blame anyone but the criminal, or bad luck, when kids are hurt, that might help at least a tiny bit to mitigate the pain.

NEXT: Mystery Planes Above Baltimore, Unpredictable Elections in U.K., Unarmed Man Killed By Cop in Venice Beach: A.M. Links

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  1. I haven’t got kids or immediate plans to have one, but what unnerves me most about the responsibility isn’t what someone might do to my kids but that someone might use my kids as leverage: public schools, CPS, cops, my wife… it’s paranoia, sure, but no more so than the sort peddled by Joey Salads. And while abductors and pedophiles are universally hated, having the authorities involved in a family’s affairs elicits nothing but contempt for the parents from a society full of altruistic punishers and cultural martinets. I’ve said before in one of your articles that it’s never been safer to be a child but never has it been so worrisome to be a parent.

    1. (worrisome re: the act of parenting, not re: the safety of the child, that is.)

  2. “My question to you is: yes, as a society we are over-protective. But if one parent followed your advice and then their child was assaulted, or g-d forbid, killed, how would you feel?”

    If we raised generation after generation of overly protective people and society became irrationally risk averse (over-protective) as a result of the rare assault, we shouldn’t blame the victims for that either.

    But I’m not sure that would only be the fault of the criminals. If the rest of us become irrationally risk adverse because of our irrational fear, then the rest of us share at least some of the blame for that.

    P.S. Lenore Skenazy is full of awesome.

  3. I am the danger.

    1. Can you watch my kids for an hour? Word around the block is you’re good with kids. Or something like that.

      1. I like your kids. They understood completely about keeping our “special games” a secret.

  4. The tragic thing is, children suffer all sorts of horrible stuff. Debilitating diseases, divorce (of parents), death (of themselves or loved ones) and that’s just the “d”s.

    What precautions can protect them against *all* of these?

    1. I think a couple Australians had an idea about that.

      1. Hey, Francisco, I have the collected works of Richard Dawkins in the back of my windowless van…come back and look!

    2. None, of course. The hardest part of being a parent is helping your kids armor up against the “regular” tragedies. There are plenty of those.

      My 7th grade daughter lost a classmate earlier this year. It was her first experience with one of the “d”s and I was proud of her how she handled it. She and her friends attended the memorial service and funeral. It still gets to me when I remember all these 12 year olds sitting in a pew holding hands. They were scared and confused, but they didn’t run from any of it.

      Most kids are gonna be fine. You just have to let them.

      1. We’ve had a lot of deaths in the family this past year. Both of my grandparents and father in law. My six year old took it all pretty well, but she cried for two days when she was told that one day, our dog would die too.

  5. Joey Salads

    Sounds like the name of a health-conscious mobster.

  6. I’m having trouble with this issue. Obviously the state shouldn’t be kidnapping 10 year olds who are trying to walk to the park. Equally obviously, the state should be able to take custody of a two year old who was abandoned in the woods. So what’s the solution? Empower judges to make the call in questionable cases where CPS cries “neglect” and the parents cry “free-range”? Write new laws that clearly define abuse/neglect (this would codify overprotection of abnormally mature children)? Require that CPS can’t act until a child has been objectively harmed?

    This is kind of like the abortion discussion in that I don’t think there are any easy answers and its something that society will be grappling with for a long time.

    1. I think a possibility would be to replace the CPS bureaucrats with a form of a grand jury. That way, normal people would be making decisions and power-tripping assholes with zero accountability could have their wings clipped.

      1. What makes you think that child protection grand juries wouldn’t be playthings for CPS goons much as criminal grand juries are for prosecutors? I’d think it was a good idea if I wasn’t pretty damn sure it would just be a rubber stamp lending legitimacy to the process.

    2. I guess the difference in the two debates is that, in the free-range kids debate, there’s a consensus that, at the very least, kids should be protected from parents who want to kill them.

    3. “The solution” is to understand that this, like many others, will always be a gray area requiring judgment that can never be perfect, arriving at individual solutions that are not certain to be ideal, but will have a better chance of coming out good than rules requiring either extreme to triumph.

    4. Accountability woould make all the difference in the world. If CPS, cops, prosecutors, judges, and all other State agents were held accountable for their mistakes, no matter how well intenioned, they’d think a *lot* more carefully about doing stupid things. As it is now, they can be as stupid and thoughtless and even evil as they want, and all they get is a free paid vacation while their co-workers and superiors figure out how to paper it over.

      That’s all, accountability. Let people sue State agents, and eliminate all immunity for State agents.

      1. Also explicitly rule out worst first thinking.

        Make it illegal for the state or any agent of it to take any action against the family unless they can first prove that the parents behavior is more likely to cause significant harm to the child than an array of common activities that most parents generally engage in (like driving in a car for example).

        If the state cannot demonstrate the proper statistics then they cannot touch the family.

        1. Sounds like a good start (do we need a parents’ bill of rights?) In the case of children walking to or from “the park,” I couldn’t believe that the do gooders didn’t at least just stop and talk to the parents before just taking off with the kids (which is probably a measure of my own gullibility with regard to CPS workers). And you’ve really got to wonder if someone in the neighborhood really has it in for these parents – just watching to see if the kids are off doing something on their own again – so quick, get CPS on the line!).

    5. No parent who identifies as “free range” would abandon their 2-year-old in the woods. That’s not even remotely what free range is about.

  7. This implies that when and if anything tragic happens to a child, it is the fault of the parents for not being vigilant enough. It legitimizes blaming the victim and/or the victim’s parents. But I hope you do not blame yourself for what happened to you, or your parents.

    Who do you blame when the kid of helicopter parents is killed in a car crash? Or raped by Weird Uncle Albert? Both of those are far more probable than being abducted by a stranger.

  8. How would you feel if you told someone to get a certain medical problem taken care of right away, & the person got run over on the way to the doctor’s or emergency room? Any advice you give that might generally be helpful could result in hurt in a specific case.

  9. I wonder if we will hear from any victims of abuse by people they knew, which we should all know is far more common than being abused or abducted by a stranger.

    1. Talk only to strangers, never people you know. Oh, wait, then you get to know the strangers! Keep moving on, then, never interacting w the same person 2ce.

      1. 2ce.

        can i get a gaze-narrow decision here?

  10. As most of you know, I spent the first 18 years of my life in a maturation tube. What you don’t know is that when I was 15 a slightly older boy in an adjacent tube lured me over with extra sweet potato paste rations.

    There is danger everywhere, but I do love sweet potatoes.

  11. But if we can do anything to prevent something like this from happening to another child, shouldn’t we?

    The problem with that line of thinking is it assumes there is no cost to teaching millions of children not to interact with strangers. It is just a variation on Pascal’s Wager and like living an abstemious life with the infinitesimally small chance there is a god, living a life in fear will necessarily deprive all of these children of a lot of the good in life. In the end i would argue the vanishingly small number of children who are not abducted because of this way of thinking is dramatically overshadowed by the joie de vivre that is lost.

    1. But if we can do anything to prevent something like this from happening to another child, shouldn’t we?

      My response to this absolute demand is “no”. Because it justifies, well, everything, up to and including seizing all children at birth to be raised in a panopticon state-run cr?che.

      Should we do something to reduce the risk? Maybe. Depends on what “something” is and whether it is a net benefit to society as a whole.

      1. yeah if we killed everybody over 18 that would stop adults abducting or molesting children pretty effectively. every single law or whatever needs to take everyone’s rights into account. talking about children is like talking about religion; something about the subject seems to stop people from thinking about it rationally

        1. “for the kids” seems to have supplanted “cuz that’s the way god wants it” as the goto justification for immoral (or illegal) laws

  12. My mom makes $70 every hour on the computer . She has been fired from work for 9 months but last month her pay was $18079 just working on the computer for a few hours.
    See here. ?? ????????? http://www.jobsfish.com

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