Why Parents Fear

Barbara Dafoe Whitehead

November 10, 1990|By Barbara Dafoe Whitehead

NEW YORK — New York.---PARENTS ARE FRIGHTENED. Recent research, including my own work in Baltimore, shows that parents today are truly afraid for their children. They fear that the streets are stalked by predators, out to hurt, steal or kill their children. This anxiety is widespread, not just among parents in drug-infested, gang-controlled neighborhoods, but also among parents in quiet, middle-class communities.

Social scientists and media commentators who discover this phenomenon seem genuinely perplexed by it. Isn't it odd, perhaps even neurotic and irrational, for parents to be so anxious and fearful? These experts miss the point.

In one recent survey conducted at the Mayo Clinic, 72 percent of parents expressed fear that their child would be abducted by a stranger. The study concludes that such fears are wildly exaggerated, since the actual chance of a child being abducted by a stranger is only about one in 1.5 million. Other studies have demonstrated conclusively that abductions and the sexual abuse of children by strangers are not very common occurrences. Yet for some reason, these reassuring statistics fail to comfort parents.

Recently, I conducted focus-group discussions with middle-class parents in Baltimore. I wanted to find out what matters to parents today -- what they are thinking about the family as a social institution and about raising children in the 1990s. I was completely surprised to discover what worries these parents the most.

It is not the shortage of day care, or how much they are earning, or what the government is doing, or the state of the economy, or the quality of the public schools. Their principal worry is that their children will vanish off the streets, kidnapped by a ''crazy'' or a ''pervert.''

In the Baltimore study, as elsewhere, there is little relationship between the fear of abduction or molestation and the actual incidence of those crimes. Asked whether they had actually experienced or witnessed such crimes in their own communities, the Baltimore parents said no.

But when I challenged them to explain a fear that seemed groundless, the parents were adamant. It was happening even in ''nice safe little places in the Midwest,'' so ''why not here?'' One mother said: ''Where my son used to play, I'm always looking out the window. And if I can't see him, you know, I'm screaming his name. I get so terrified someone's going to steal him.'' Another warned: ''There's crazy people out there. They might not be next door, but they're out there someplace.''

What tells us more about our society: the facts or the fears? What should we trust: the parents or the statistics? It is a grave mistake for experts, policy makers and the media to dismiss parental fears of child abduction as foolish or irrational.

These parents know that, in a few highly publicized cases, the dangers to children in our society take the form of child abduction, sexual abuse, and even murder. But they also know something more -- something that may escape the attention of the experts. They know that it is much harder to be child today than when they were growing up. When they look at the world from a child's vantage point, they see uncertainty, change and danger. They sense, in short, that their children are growing up in an increasingly menacing, predatory environment.

So when parents express their fears of abduction, they speak symbolically as well as literally, poetically as well as statistically. They know the narrow definition of child abuse. But they know the broader definition as well. They know the danger of crime, but they also recognize a larger and more insidious danger: the danger of our cultural assault on children.

This assault comes in the form of an increasingly aggressive consumer economy that grabs even the very youngest children with alluring promises of popularity and success, if only they will buy the right brand of sneakers and stone-washed jeans.

It comes in the form of a precocious peer culture, where girls want to be thin at age 9 and seductive at 11; where children talk about ''doing it together'' at age 12, and where sexually transmitted diseases, drugs, pregnancy, and the threat of AIDS are all part of teen life in America.

It comes in the form of a hands-off, me-first adult society, where children are the exclusive ''problem'' of parents rather than a responsibility we all share -- a society that is increasingly unwilling to make those sacrifices necessary to foster good outcomes for children.

In such an unfriendly culture, parents today are both frightened and angry at their growing helplessness to protect their children, not just against ''crazies'' and ''perverts,'' but against a society that peddles greed, sex and violence every day of the year.

*The writer, a social historian, is a research associate at the Institute for American Values.

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