Friday, May 09, 2008

Monsters, hobgoblins and the threat to our children.

A few weeks back I was again waiting in a terminal at the airport for a flight. I found a quiet spot and was working on the lap top. I was near the large windows that fill the lounges at airports.

As I was working a mother and her small daughter came through. I am horrible at guessing ages but the child seemed around 3 or 4 years of age. She was old enough to talk incessantly and she wanted to run around.

The girl ran to one of the windows, just about ten feet from her mother. For one second the mother lost track of the child and suddenly went into panic mode. I mean she was most clearly in a real panic and screamed for her daughter. The girl turned and looked at her fear-stricken mother. At this point the mother say the girl was literally just a few feet away happily looking out the window.

So what does the mother do? She immediately starts terrifying the child. She went into a lecture about how evil people are just waiting to kidnap the girl and hurt her. She lectured her sternly about how she must never step away from “mommy” because the “bad men” will “hurt her” if she does. Personally I felt like slapping her. I couldn’t comprehend her need to literally terrify this child with rubbish like that.

Why is it rubbish? Aren’t there some “bad men” out there who would “hurt” the child?

Of course there are and thankfully there are damn few of them. A child can drown in a few inches of waters yet mothers allow children to take baths and play in wading pools. Something like 250 children, under the age of five, drown in the United States annually. This is around five times as many as are killed by an abductor.

The odds of winning the lottery are greater than the odds of your child being abducted. And if the child is abducted the first suspect, based on the odds, is a noncustodial parent not a stranger.

What about strangers molesting the child? Sure it happens just not very often. The typical molestation case does not involve a stranger. If a child is molested the first place to look is at the home. The most likely suspect is a male living in the home, usually not directly related to the child. Typically this is the child’s stepfather or the mother’s boyfriend.

What ever dangers you think lurk outside the home, and there are some, are greater inside the home. A child is more likely to be killed by a parent than be a stranger. Unnerving perhaps, but true.

Yet parents, or the substitute-parents called politicians, continue to terrify children (and many adults) with threats that are simply unreal. Every day tens of millions of children play unsupervised by their parents without being kidnapped, raped, molested or murdered. A few dozen per year are hurt by strangers. Driving with your kids on a vacation is more dangerous. You are more likely to be involved in an accident that will kill your child than having a stranger abduct and murder them. Yes, in a very real sense you, as a mother or father, are more dangerous to your child than is the typical stranger.

But even parents aren’t that much of a threat. In any one year very few parents actually kill, intentionally or accidentally, their own child. Base on the facts I’m confused as to why so many people join into these panics about some minuscule threat. One may take normal precautions but to dwell on such fears over and over again is just pathological.

It is good for a child to wear a seat belt -- adults too. But if a child took two minutes to secure the belt, instead of doing it instantly, no sane mother would start a gruesome lecture of how some terrible accident could mangle the child’s body in those two minutes. Parents do put kids in the bath and leave the room for a few seconds. They don’t usually find themselves gripped with fear in those few seconds. If they did they would need some therapy. They know that the risk is very, very, very tiny -- almost non-existent.

But this “stranger danger” thing has parents acting like terrified children in the dark, fearful that the bogeyman is underneath their bed preparing to get them. For the sake of your own sanity somebody needs to turn on the lights and get these insane parents to actually look under the bed and see that the monster is not there.

I blogged about one such panic recently in England where nutty school officials wiped out the faces of all the children in school photos lest on-line predators use them to target kids.

Now I see that animated characters are being used in the UK to warn children, many barely able to use a computer, of the dangers of on-line child molesters lurking and just waiting to carry them off. The computer and the internet are supposedly the new danger to children. Of course politicians are ready to solve this “problem” as long as we allow them to monitor our computers, invade our privacy, track our internet usage, and generally spy on us. After all -- it’s for the kids. Right -- sure it is, and I have a bridge in Brooklyn that I’m selling cheap this week.

How dangerous are on-line predators? Just take the real threat of predators and reduce it to almost nothing. The reality is that there is almost no threat of on-line predators. Your kid is more likely to be hit by lightening than lured by an on-line predator.

Bureaucrats and politicians love to scare the bejeesus out of you in order to get you to concede new powers to them. One way that they do this is to play fast and loose with words. If I talk about a child most people envision some prepubescent kid full of life and curiosity. When the bureaucrats talk about they often mean fully grown individuals who could be days away from being legally an adult.

For instance, you might remember how the gun control crowd wept about the innocent children killed by handguns every year. They want you to think of five year old children accidentally killing themselves. In reality the typical victim is a teenager, often a gang member, involved in drug dealing and other gang activities. He is often a fully grown individual who is capable of inflicting great harm on others and is often killed while attempting to do so.

When we hear of on-line predators luring away children away children we think of some pedophile offering candy to a eight-year-old in exchange for sex. That just doesn’t happen. I’m not saying it can’t happen just that it doesn’t happen.

Studies have been done of “child victims” of such on-line sexuality. And what was discovered is that almost none of them were prepubescent children. The typical “victim” was a teenager, often one who was looking for some sexual experience and found the internet to be an easy way of finding it.

One such case was actually in the British press recently. A teenage boy wanted to have sex with another male. He set out to do it intentionally. He used the internet to meet an adult male and then the boy lied to his mother as to where he was going. He packed an overnight kit, including his toothbrush and set off to lose his virginity. Having succeeded he returned home the next morning very proud of himself, so proud he stupidly bragged to his mother. The man was arrested and sentenced to jail. The internet was used but it was the teenager soliciting the adult not the other way around.

This analysis is verified by a study “Online ‘Predators’ and Their Victims” Myths, Realities and Implications for Prevention” which appeared in American Psychologist. A press release from the publication noted that most “victims” “see these relationships as romances or sexual adventures” not as attempted kidnappings or molestations.

This study was based on actual interviews with the “children” and with law enforcement to determine the specifics of the case. And Janis Wolak, lead author, warns us: “The things that we hear and fear and the things that actually occur may not be the same.”

Instead of tricking “children” so they can be kidnapped and raped the adults arrested have tended to be quite open about their interest in a sexual relationship. They are on-line looking for sex and say so. And the study found that: “In most of the cases, the victims are aware that they are talking online with adults.”

What they found, when investigating the real cases, was nothing like what parents imagine. Only 5 percent of adults pretended they were teenagers themselves, most were open about being adults. About three-quarters of the “victims” continued to see the adult repeatedly. And almost all the alleged victims, who went to meet the adult were "expecting to engage in sexual activity." Such interactions were very rarely violent, or involved stalking or abductions. In other words almost all these case of “children being stalked” were actually sexually mature teenagers wanting sexual relationships and seeking them out on-line. The idea of children being lured by pedophiles on-line is just not realistic.

I can understand that parents are worried about their kids. Parents who never worry actually worry me. But this natural fear is being exploited by unscrupulous politicians, special interest groups and bureaucrats. The truly slimy in politics immediately turn to stoking up fears about “the children” in order to win points for themselves.

When someone is trying to scare you about something or someone, and they use children to do so, you can almost always assume that they are not interested in the child at all. Such individuals are almost always scoundrels with ulterior motives that are purely or primarily self-serving. The typical “child-saver” is usually interested in profit or power or both.

As long as the populace allows themselves to be terrified by the imaginary hobgoblins of the political classes then the would-be nannies of the world will be continually creating such monsters for their terror campaigns. One of my favorite books is H.L. Mencken’s Notes on Democracy. In it Mencken discussed the role of fear in modern politics. If you took the following quote of Mencken’s literally, and applied it to virtually every worrisome issue of the day, the odds are that it would apply far more often than not.

Politics under democracy consists almost wholly of the discovery, chase and scotching of bugaboos. The statesman becomes, in the last analysis, a mere witch-hunter, a glorified smeller and snooper, eternally chanting "Fe, Fi, Fo, Fum!" It has been so in the United States since the earliest days. The whole history of the country has been a history of melodramatic pursuits of horrendous monsters, most of them imaginary: the red-coats, the Hessians, the monocrats, again the red-coats, the Bank, the Catholics, Simon Legree, the Slave Power, Jeff Davis, Mormonism, Wall Street, the rum demon, John Bull, the hell hounds of plutocracy, the trusts, General Weyler, Pancho Villa, German spies, hyphenates, the Kaiser, Bolshevism. The list might be lengthened indefinitely; a complete chronicle of the Republic could be written in terms of it, and without omitting a single important episode.

The next time some rogue tries to use your children to scare you it would be best to give him the boot. Not only will you feel better for doing so but chances are that your child will be much safer as well.

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