Stranger Danger


Casco Bay, Maine.

I pass the children every day now as they walk and bike down the island roads by themselves. They are off on their own errands or adventures.

The parents who come here from the mainland have finally shed their anxieties like three-piece suits. Sometimes, it takes days for city folks to let a 4-year-old out of their grasp and an 8-year-old out of their sight. It takes days for parents to feel safe and for children to be set free.

Gradually the summer adults ratchet down the level of warnings they routinely deliver to their children. They go from "beware of strangers" to "watch out for poison ivy." Gradually the children, unleashed, grow sturdy with independence. And trust.

Just this morning, a small girl I don't know stopped me on my walk to point out an injured swallowtail. We talked for a minute about the fragility of a butterfly's wings and then went our separate ways.

It was a passing event but one that might never have happened on a city street. In cities, suburbs, even small towns, children are now carefully taught to be afraid of people they don't know. Their wariness is worn like a shield. A stranger becomes reluctant to penetrate that defense.

Far south of here, in Union, South Carolina, Susan Smith has gone on trial for drowning her two small children. As the cameras return to that little town, I remember how this saga began. Not as a horror story of two children buckled into their death seats by their mother. But as a classic, mythic tale of the stranger.

Susan Smith came to national fame as a distraught mother, a self-described victim of carjacking and kidnapping.

When it all unraveled, and she was taken to court for arraignment, many people lined the streets shouting epithets at her. One woman said it all: "We believed you!" It was strikingly easy to play upon the fear of the stranger.

Far west of here, in Petaluma, California, another murder trial has begun this week. This defendant is indeed the stranger, a man named Richard Allen Davis, who confessed to abducting 12-year-old Polly Klaas at knifepoint from a slumber party while her sister and mother slept nearby.

Nearly two years later, another Petaluma mother of kids 11 and 13 says, "I'm still very leery when my kids go out. I won't let them go out by themselves. I say, 'Remember Polly Klaas.' "

In vastly different ways, these two horrifying trials are evidence of what has become a national obsession with the fear of strangers. As fact and fantasy, they are evidence of our terror about the abduction of our children.

It was only a decade ago that missing children became as common on milk cartons as nutritional labels. It wasn't until then that we began to fingerprint and toothprint children. But by 1991 a study in Clinical Pediatrics showed that parents had more frequent worries about abduction than about anything else, even NTC car accidents. That was before Polly Klaas' death.

In fact, there are 200 to 300 kidnappings a year by non-family members out of 63 million American children. The missing children on the milk cartons have most likely been taken by a non-custodial parent.

However bone-chilling the idea of stranger-danger, more children are murdered by parents than kidnapped by strangers. Susan Smith is more the norm than Richard Allen Davis.

Yet every magazine has had its cover stories on stranger-danger. Every television show its scare segments. Every school its lessons. In every home, parents wrestle with their terrors and with how to warn their children away from the unfamiliar.

I'm not surprised that we have become so protective of children. It isn't just the broadcasting of such tales. We live in a time when neighborhoods and families are less stable. As our children spend more time out of our care, we worry more. As we know fewer people in our communities, there are, by definition, more outsiders.

But at some point in time, we must also begin to acknowledge the risks of protectiveness. Risks that come when children are taught to be afraid. Risks that come to a diverse society when kids grow up suspicious of "others."

Without even knowing it and with the best of intentions, we can stunt our children with our deep longing to keep them safe.

Somewhere along the torturous way, somewhere between the reality of Richard Allen Davis and fantasy of Susan Smith, the freedom to ride a bicycle and the independence to walk up the road by yourself is becoming a sometime, summertime thing. These days, even the ease of talking with a grown-up about butterflies can, and maybe has, become as rare as a July day on an island road.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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