A few years ago, our house was broken into. We went out for about an hour, left one window open a few inches, and forgot to set the alarm. We live in a big city — we always set the alarm. Our kids remember it. They remember their rooms in disarray and the money stolen from their drawers. They remember the feeling of fear that swept over us as we realized the magnitude of what had happened. It wasn’t the stuff that mattered, it was that we no longer felt safe in our home.
We thought long and hard about moving somewhere else. A gated community? A different neighborhood? A different state? More than anything, I wanted to move back to the safety of my home state, Connecticut. And then the school shooting in Sandy Hook happened. That’s when it hit me: If we make decisions in a state of fear, we will never truly be safe. Bad things happen everywhere. All we can do is cope with our fears and choose to focus on the positive so that our kids can feel safe in this world.
We live in a scary world where bad things can happen without any warning. Cars crash, cancer surrounds us, and children sometimes go missing. Sometimes.
All of these things can happen in our lifetime. To live is to face obstacles at times. To be human is to worry about potential obstacles. But, lately it seems as if parents live in a state of heightened fear. The what-ifs command our Facebook feeds as people share stories of the latest abduction, the latest disease to strike small children, and the latest foods to avoid due to contamination. We are constantly connected to the Internet, and the Internet scares us with dramatic stories almost every day.
The latest scare-tactic to make the rounds involves a “social experiment” concocted by YouTube prankster Joey Salads. He went to a park with a fluffy white puppy and asked parents for permission to put their kids’ stranger danger skills to the test. With parent permission, Salads approached the children with the cute puppy, engaged them in conversation, and lured them away from the park. Naturally, the parents appeared to be horrified.
It didn’t take long for this so-called social experiment (if a well-dressed man with a big smile and a cute puppy talks to kids in a park while the parents watch, are we sure it’s an “experiment”?) to land in my feed several times over. Each share captioned the video with some version of, “An important reminder for parents.”
Do we need to teach our children about stranger danger? Absolutely. Do we need to live in fear of child abduction? Not according to the latest statistics. Recent research shows that stranger abduction only represents one-hundredth of one percent of all missing children. While no parent wants a child to walk away with a friendly man holding a puppy, kids are more likely to go missing as a result of running away, getting lost, a custody dispute, or miscommunication.
It’s important for parents to ground their fears in reality in response to click-bait headlines and scary stories about the safety of children. The truth is that fear and anxiety trickle down. Children, even toddlers and infants, pick up on and internalize parental anxiety. If parents live in a constant state of fear of the potential dangers lurking around every corner, how can children possibly learn to become independent?
Instead of succumbing to fear, parents are better off to prepare children to thrive in the world. Hold their hands when they cross the street until they are old enough to cross independently. When they are able to cross alone, teach them how. Guide them. Practice with them. Watch them. Then trust them.
Don’t just send them to a friend’s house around the corner, practice the route. Point out familiar houses and practice crossing at street corners (again). Then let them go and take comfort in the fact that your children are responsible.
People love to reference the laid back parenting style of the ’80s. In hindsight, we always see the good. We remember long days spent outdoors and the taste of cold water running through a hose. We remember flashlight tag after dark and roasting marshmallows on dirty sticks over an open fire. But do we remember the time our parents spent preparing us for those memory inducing bursts of independence? Is there a chance our parents peeked at us from behind the curtains? Is it reasonable to assume that they, too, had worries?
The difference between parenting past and parenting present is that worries seem to take center stage today. Parents trouble-shoot every possible scenario to protect kids, when what they should be doing is empowering kids. And the viral videos and horror stories? Those only fuel the parenting fears. The more we share them, the more we worry about the day-to-day safety of our children.
If we want to raise confident, capable, and responsible kids, we have to dial back our fears. We have to learn to cope with our emotions, remain focused on the present and teach our kids to separate when it is developmentally appropriate to do so. It wouldn’t be appropriate to leave a 4-year-old alone at a park while a man with a fluffy puppy walks around trying to engage kids because children that age are generally trusting of adults and drawn to cute things. An 8-year-old, on the other hand, can be taught to respond, “No thanks, I need to find my mom,” and run the other way.
It’s time to put a stop to fear-based parenting and focus on raising kind, confident, and happy kids, instead. That begins with dialing back our fears and focusing on the positive.