Family and Relationships

back-to-school safety

Back-To-School Safety: Do Parents Need a New Strategy?

September 15, 2009 07:00 AM
by Sarah Amandolare
Parents typically take extra precautions at the start of the school year, but recession anxiety and recent high-profile kidnapping cases could be leading many to overprotect their children.

Parents Struggle to Find Balance

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In a column for The New York Times, Jan Hoffman discusses the plight of the modern parent: Let a child walk to school alone to encourage independence, or drive them directly to the school's front door to prevent crime and kidnapping? In an age when even some school buses are "fitted with surveillance cameras, watching for beatings and bullying," many parents feel more anxious than ever about their children's safety. But have they taken the wrong approach?

According to Hoffman, 41 percent of children arrived at school by bike or on foot in 1969; by 2001, that number had fallen to just 13 percent, according to National Household Travel Survey data. Children living in low-income neighborhoods often "have no choice but to walk," Hoffman writes.

From 1969 to 2001, the rate of "children either being driven or driving themselves to school rose to 55 percent from 20 percent," a statistic experts say "has also hampered children's ability to navigate the world," Hoffman reported.

This inability to think independently, and the assumption that all strangers are threats, could be putting children in even more danger. 

Opinion & Analysis: Have parents become overprotective?

Writing for Scripps Howard News Service, Betsey Hart suggests that modern parents often "blame the media for hyping the so-rare-but-sensational story of stranger abduction," such as the story of Jaycee Lee Dugard, who escaped from her abductor 18 years after she was kidnapped. It's easier to point fingers at news networks and "make judgments" about what is and isn't safe, than to talk to kids about making "moral choices," Hart says. Buying into "stranger danger" allows parents to avoid the difficult task of teaching kids to trust their instincts. Not everything can be taught or contained in a simple rule, which can be a difficult pill for parents to swallow, Hart suggests.

An editorial in The Frederick News-Post reiterates Hart's assertion of overzealous fear of strangers: "The problem is that along with honest efforts to protect our children from stranger danger, we are also creating a society where children are suspicious and fearful of adult strangers."

The editorial cited the example of a father who took his two young daughters, ages 1 and 3, into the restroom with him at the Frederick County Department of Social Services. Another person in the restroom notified a security guard that a man with two young children had gone into a stall. The security guard reprimanded the father outside the restroom.

In response to the incident, a Frederick News-Post reader commented that "an unmarried man would be wise not to venture within 1,000 feet of a child or a playground." The editorial writer conceded that this advice "may be a bit over the top" but that it is "also a sad commentary on both reality and our attempts to deal with it."

Related Topic: Overcoming irrational parental fears

The anxiety of raising children begins as soon as they are born, according to Anna Shepard, the mother of a five-month-old, in a column for The Guardian. "If there's one thing worse than being up all night with a fretful baby, it's being up when yours is happily asleep," she writes. The "vague sense" that someone is "out to get" her baby is the one thing Shepard says she was not prepared for. A friend offered sound advice: Learn "to accept that bad things happen, but they are unlikely. If you obsess over them, you'll ruin what should be a magical time," Shepard writes.

Background: Safety for kids

Many parents teach their children not to talk to strangers because of abduction fears, but children are often kidnapped by people they know, and children who become lost frequently just wander off. A child who becomes lost or is in danger must know how to find the "right" stranger for help; statistically speaking, it's generally safer for a child to approach a woman instead of a man, for example. More advice is available in findingDulcinea's feature, "Safety Information for Kids."
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