The Kindness of Strangers?

Community becomes impossible in a world where children are taught to fear

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I know a mother who holds her 5-year-old son in front of the television whenever a program about missing children comes on and says: 'You watch this. Don't you ever leave my side.' She is not alone in her terror of strangers. Indeed, a 1987 Roper poll found that 76 percent of children feared being kidnapped; it was their number one concern. In 'Parents' Worries About Children Compared to Actual Risks,' several Mayo Clinic pediatricians reported in Clinical Pediatrics (Vol. 30, No. 9, 1991) that 72 percent of parents feared that their child would be kidnapped by a stranger.

Public perception, fueled by highly publicized cases such as that of Polly Klaas, 'America's child,' snatched from her Northern California home last year by a bearded stranger, overshadows the fact that the number of stranger abductions -- 3,500 to 4,000 annually out of 64 million children in the United States -- has remained stable for the past decade, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. A child is far more likely to be abused or abducted by a neighbor, family member, or friend. Though one child abducted is one too many, fear of strangers is vastly disproportionate to the reality.

...children are doomed to a life of self-imposed isolation, their 'community' little more than the treacherous space between destinations, bogeymen lurking behind every bush.

It's difficult to keep this in perspective when the anonymous bogeyman is everywhere -- in articles such as 'What to Do When a Stranger Says Hello' in Family Life (Sept./Oct. 1994), for example. In a sidebar 'Note to Parents,' Lenore Wright reminds parents that 'children do not need to be afraid, they need to be careful and to be prepared,' but the headline communicates louder than her reassurances. Just when we start to calm down and get our bearings in fact, another headline hooks us with fear. The stranger abduction exception begins to seem like the rule.

But young children create images from the threads of stereotypes presented by television, family, and community. In a 1987 HBO television special entitled 'How to Raise a Street Smart Child,' children illustrated their concrete understanding of the world when they were asked to provide definitions of stranger. 'Big?.?.?. bigger than you, bigger than most people,' said one child. 'A stranger sometimes wears a hat?.?.?. sometimes a black or brown jacket and is a guy with a beard?.?.?. some hair and a mustache and some glasses,' said another. Still another described the stranger as 'a punk rocker that drinks beer all day and sits around in a vacant lot.'

Though many public school curriculums are peppered with the words diversity and tolerance, the subversive message of 'stranger danger' education may be far more powerful: Different is dangerous. Thus, the figure of the stranger is invested with a range of stereotypes, each one insidiously linked to fear. This means some 20 million 'foreigners' who call the U.S. home and others who 'don't look like they're from around here' because of race or appearance are doomed to be objects of fear.

I have been there, unable to shake the image of Polly Klaas' face from my mind. Once I had seen her, heard the story of her abduction, the image grew to monstrous proportions. The 'what if' became reality. Yet parental fear of stranger abductions can interfere with some of the most fundamental tasks of parenting, as the Mayo Clinic pediatricians noted: 'It is not uncommon for mothers to report that fears about abduction inhibit their ability to foster independence and self-reliance in their children.' The gap between fact and perception has created an abyss of fear more treacherous than the actual threat of stranger abductions.

I was reminded of this with our 5-year-old son. He recently began making the trek from our house to his friend's at the end of our quiet, tree-lined street. The first few times I watched him until he became a wobbly dot at the end of the long white sidewalk and turned onto his friend's steps. Gradually, I grew comfortable and so did he. I soon stopped watching. One day my son spoke to two people he had never seen before. They asked him if he was lost. 'No,' he told them. 'I'm going to my friend's house.' He continued on his way, suspiciously looking back at the middle-aged couple as he went. 'They were staring at me,' he said later. 'Even if I was lost, I wouldn't tell them. I wouldn't tell anybody. I'd find my own way home.'

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