Selling Parents Fear

In March, Lenore Skenazy let her nine-year old son ride home from Bloomingdale’s on the New York subway — by himself. Then she made the mistake of writing about it in the NY Sun.

As you can imagine, a lot of parents thought she was nuts. Her son could have been abducted! It wasn’t safe!

Being a parent means having sudden, unexpected moments of panic when your child drops a heavy weight on his head or stuffs undoubtedly poisonous plant leaves in her mouth. Really, it’s a wonder we don’t lock ourselves and our kids inside and never venture out, except then radon would kill us.

There are, of course, a bunch of products that play on those fears. You want to baby-proof your home, and looking at everything you could buy you might think it’s possible, but you can’t, short of removing all plants, books, sharp corners, and electricity. You can make your home reasonably safe, but true baby-proofing short of putting your kid in a giant hamster ball is unachievable.

Even once you’ve given up on making your child perfectly safe, how do you decide what’s reasonable? For instance, what about SafetyTats, temporary tattoos with your cell phone on them? The company’s very tag line is, “just in case.” At first I didn’t see the need for them — Eli is quite capable of telling sales clerks that he’s lost. But what if we were in an amusement park, where Eli or Liza could get very, very lost and it could be hard to track us down? What if I had a non-verbal or autistic child?

Overall I decide what’s reasonable to worry about by how likely it is to happen. That’s one reason why I don’t even worry about anyone abducting Eli or Liza. In 2004, The Today Show claimed that 58,000 children go missing each year. According to US Census data, there were 72 million children under the age of 18 in 2000. That works out to an abduction rate of 80 per 100,000 children. However, the 58,000 number covers all “non-family abductions”. There’s more to it than meets the eye, as the STATS.org report explained.

But in such cases, as the media rarely notes, 90 percent of “abductees” return home within 24 hours. The vast majority are teenagers running away with friends or romantic partners and over 99 percent are returned alive and uninjured. (Although many teen girls are involved with sexual activity during the time when they are “missing,” the statistics do not distinguish between voluntary and coerced sex because if the girl is under-age and the male is not, she is not considered capable of consent. The majority of the “missing children” covered by this statistic (65%) are female and 59% are aged 15-17.)

This time [in 2006], Today was more conservative in its estimate, claiming that only 5,000 children go missing each year. While this is an improvement over 58,000, the implication is still that there are 5,000 stereotypical kidnappings, in which a stranger or acquaintance abducts a child to hold for ransom or abuse and kill him or her. According to the Justice Department, there are only about 115 such incidents each year.

115 a year works out to be less than 1/5 of a child per 100,000 kids. For comparison, in 2003 the leading cause of death for children was unintentional injury, at a rate of 1,000 or more per 100,000 children, spiking to 15,000 per 100,000 for kids over the age of 15. More than half of those unintentional injury deaths come from moving vehicle accidents. Even if you accept the inflated rate of 80 abductions per 100,000 children, that rate is still beaten out by homicide, suicide, heart disease, and even the flu.

If I’m going to live my life, I only have so much time to worry and plan for contingencies. Given that, I think I’ll make sure Eli and Liza’s car seats are buckled in correctly and that they get their flu shots.

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