A Nation of Hysterics
Lenore Skenazy, a columnist for The New York Sun, caused quite a stir earlier this month when she wrote about letting her 9-year-old son take a subway and bus by himself across Manhattan. The boy had been begging her to allow him to test his big city commuting skills on his own, and she finally agreed, handing him a map, a subway token, some quarters, and a $20 bill.
She didn't give him her cell phone, nor did she secretly tail him as he sallied forth across Gotham alone.
Within days Skenazy was on various television news programs, explaining why she was not, contrary to the opinion of many commentators, America's Worst Mother.
Skenazy pointed out that for a child to be abducted by a stranger is literally a one-in-a-million event (there were about 115 such abductions in the U.S. in 2006, of which about 50 resulted in the child's death. There are about 75 million children in America).
She emphasized that New York is a very safe city, with the same crime rate as Boise, Idaho. And she insisted that not allowing children to go anywhere without adult supervision is bad both for the children themselves, and for parents who give free rein to their neurotic obsessions with risk and safety.
These are excellent points, and reminded me of something a friend told me recently. She lives in an upscale Denver neighborhood, with her husband and two small children.
Another of the neighborhood's young mothers (needless to say discussions of this topic always focus on the responsibilities of mothers, as opposed to parents) had asked her if she had checked the Internet to confirm the precise location of the neighborhood's registered sex offenders.
My friend had not, but she soon realized that failing to do so could well mark her as a negligent mom among her hypervigilant peers. And of course by doing so her own anxiety level regarding her children's safety was raised, even though at a rational level she realizes (she's a lawyer) that a sex offender address registry doesn't tell you much of anything about actual risk.
All this reflects a more general problem: the many cultural and political forces pushing us to behave like a nation of hysterics.
At the beginning of the 21st century, the typical American suburb is just about the safest place that has ever existed in the history of the world -- yet it's full of terrified people.
Statistics have little power in the face of a media environment in which extraordinarily rare events, such as strangers kidnapping children, are presented as commonplace by profit-hungry "news" outlets, for whom the bottom line is that fear sells.
Politicians realize this too. The ongoing overreaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks is only the most vivid example of how our leaders cynically exploit our fears by making wildly exaggerated claims, such as that Islamic terrorism poses an "existential threat" to America.
Indeed, the reactions to Skenazy's column are a nice example of how the personal is political, and vice versa. Skenazy notes that one acquaintance told her that he requires his daughter to call home after she has walked the one block to her friend's house, even though they live in a typically crime-free suburb.
Other parents informed her they don't allow their children to walk alone to the mailbox.
This kind of thing encourages children to see the world in fear-ridden terms, and to grow up to become the sort of people more interested in having their government protect them from largely imaginary threats than in preserving their civil liberties.
At this point, we should be more afraid of having our children stolen from us by Republicans than by kidnappers.
Paul Campos is a professor of law at the University of Colorado. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2008 The E.W. Scripps Co.