'The world was a lot safer back then." It's a phrase you hear all the time from parents, a scary-new-world argument that comes up a lot in debates about contemporary child-rearing. It's the reason parents say they fear letting their kids play unsupervised (the way they used to themselves), and why two siblings walking home from a park in Maryland last month prompted a phone call to the police.
It is also, by and large, a fallacy.
In both Canada and the United States, crime has mostly dropped over the past quarter-century, particularly as it pertains to kids. In 1987, the reported number of children abducted by a stranger in Canada was 93. By 2000, it was 42. In 2013, it was 27. Other child-related crimes such as assault, theft and even bullying are also on the down-tick.
There are exceptions: A 2013 Statistics Canada report showed that crimes of sexual exploitation had gone up since the previous year – in particular, luring and instances of child pornography, largely because of the Internet. Yet, a lot of parents would sooner leave their 11-year-old unsupervised online than outside, suggesting that if our anxiety isn't unfounded, it is often misplaced.
The explanation may be evolutionary, says David Finkelhor, director at the Crimes Against Children Research Center in New Hampshire. "[Humans] evolved in an environment where one of the big perils was that a marauder from another nomadic band would swoop down and steal your children," he says. The anxiety many parents experience today is probably hard-wired, but out of sync with the conditions we live in. Meanwhile, the inescapable news cycle, constant connectivity and Nancy Grace can make it feel like crime and danger are everywhere. "You hear about a certain type of crime and you imagine that means it is occurring more, which is not the case," Finkelhor says.
Maybe not, but isn't it better to err on the side of caution? (That's the reason why plenty of moms and dads will make their 10-year-old accompany them to the grocery store rather than leave him or her at home for half an hour.) "It's funny how you don't hear parents using that logic when it comes to putting their child in a motor vehicle," says Dr. David Pimentel, a professor at Ohio Northern University and author of several papers on child safety. Pimentel explains that, in terms of risk and reward, most of us fixate on the high-impact, low-probability events. It's why we buy lottery tickets, and why we worry about dying in a plane crash rather than on the drive to the airport.
One of the few types of child mortality that has actually risen in recent years is teenage pedestrians dying after being hit by cars, says Pimentel. His theory is that many of the victims weren't given the opportunity to practice safety and independence skills when they were younger: "You can't hold their hands forever, and they never learned these basics."
The long game can be hard to keep in mind when every second is spent worrying about the terrible tragedy around the corner. Still, it's something more parents need to focus on, says Christy Dzikowicz, director of MissingKids.ca with the Canadian Centre for Child Protection. "Our job is to teach them how to thrive in the world. Far too often, we think the answer is us – parental supervision – but it's not."
Dzikowicz says there is no magic age where a kid is ready for independence, since every kid is different. If they're old enough to pee in a potty, though, they are old enough for exposure to risk. That's scary, of course, but also exciting. "We want our kids to learn to walk to school on their own," Dzikowicz says. "We want them to become capable and competent adults."