What’s a parent to do?

I find this story disturbing on so many levels. A known pedophile is deported back to New Zealand. His modus operandus is to approach kids in streets, carrying a kitten. In his last place of abode, police found a soundproof cell in the backyard. He watches kids with binoculars. Of late, he has been hanging around schools.

Police have warned schools and parents in the area.

On the one hand, this man has committed no crime in New Zealand. So now, in effect, he will be stigmatised in the community where he lives, punished for a crime he has not committed, and may never commit.

On the other, this is not exactly a safe person. I know that as a parent, of primary school age children, I would be deeply alarmed. You bet I would be talking to my children about not approaching strangers, and walking them, or driving them to and from school. Mollycoddlying them, in fact.

One of the consequences of that will be criticism for being risk-averse, for wrapping my children in cottonwool. We are constantly told that children these days have no freedom to explore, to be unsupervised, to learn to look after themselves.

From a parent’s point of view, supervising children, walking to school with them, not allowing them to roam around the neighbourhood, reducing risk, is all about seatbelts. To be sure, the chance of a child being attacked, assaulted, raped by a pedophile is very low. But the consequences, if it does happen, are exceedingly bad. So metaphorically, we get the kids to wear seatbelts.

I have, only once, in 42 years, been involved in a car accident. I have never, ever, been in an accident when I have been driving a car, in 25 years of driving (aside from dents in carparks). But I always, always, wear a seatbelt, and I always, always, ensure that my children, and other passengers in the car, wear seatbelts. No one criticises me for that, even though it seems that the risk of an accident is exceedingly small. In fact, transport police and road safety campaigns urge me to belt up.

Why then, do I get criticised for not allowing my children to walk home by themselves? Especially if there is a known pedophile in the area.

15 responses to “What’s a parent to do?

  1. The problem is when your response to an unlikely-but-awful risk is to ensure that your children face a likely-but-minor risk. Trading off the possibility of sexual abuse against a much greater likelihood of obesity with all the low quality of life problems that go with it is not one that I would like to make, but my inclination is strongly towards the “run round the neighbourhood” end of the spectrum.

    Depends how old the kids are, but walking with them to and from school (see also “walking bus”) and reading while they play in the park may suck time out of your day, but the payoff is active, happy children who will sleep like very tired things once they get home :)

  2. “Why then, do I get criticised for not allowing my children to walk home by themselves? Especially if there is a known pedophile in the area.”

    Bundling those two sentences is kind of cheating.

    It really depends on the probability of random people on the street molesting your children, vs having a car accident with your child. I suspect the latter is much more likely, but because of the particular horror with which we regard sexual abuse, the former risk looms larger in the mind. If I have time this evening, I will attempt to quantify those risks so we could have a stab at what a rational policy might be.

    If you add the rider ” there is a known pedophile in the area”, then you ought to add a similar one to your assessment of car accident risk, like “my car is known to have serious steering faults” or “there have been reports of diesel slicks on the road” or something like that.

    I just bookmarked today this article – http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2008/02/fear_of_interne.html – which among other things talks about the way we overestimate the likelihood of risks that affect our children.

  3. PS: we should also consider the onerousness and the cost to society of parents transporting children everywhere. Seatbelts are cheap and wearing them is convenient; the comparison isn’t entirely fair.

    And consider the likelihood that a child will have a serious car accident in Wellington this year, vs the likelihood that one will be molested by a random stranger. Just judging by my impression of the news, the former is far more likely, though the latter is more scary.

  4. Yes, I did pull a cheap debating trick in those two sentences. But even so – known pedophile in the area? I would be keeping a much closer eye on my children.

    And, ah, we do actually walk to and from school most days. If I am heading on somewhere else after taking the girls to school, then we might drive, but not otherwise.

    I have another post in mind about this risk issue, but maybe for a few days time: I’m quite busy working on the carnival of feminists just now (due to go up sometime this evening).

  5. I do have a bee in my bonnet about walking to school; as a cycle commuter it’s painfully obvious that we have a terrible tragedy of the commons, where parents take their kids in the car because of all the traffic, but in the school hols, the traffic disappears….

    Anyway, when I’ve talked to other parents about why they drive their children to school, stranger danger has been prominent among their reasons.

  6. I found that news story chilling too, a shiver went down my spine when they mentioned the sound proof cell. I think I would walk my kids to school myself, in this situation, but actually many parents don’t have that option due to a paucity of time, so the car becomes the only way viable to be sure of safety.

    I haven’t finished thinking this through yet, but it seems to me that the worry of a parent is actually an important thing to consider when making decisions. If a parent is losing sleep because they are worrying about their child walking to school then that has flow-on effects in that household – a tired, stressed parent who is at the least grumpy with all and sundry. Surely minimising worry is a reasonable grounds for doing something (or not)?

  7. I think that minimising worry is an excellent goal. I just want to do it by rationally assessing risk rather than having the news media scare the pants off me.

  8. I agree Stephen, which is one of several reasons why I wish our media would be less sensational in its style of reportage (for most recent annoying example see headlines on the SSRI research, grrr!)

  9. Think of it as feet pooling for parents… you only have to walk to or from school once a week, but all 10 kids get to walk every day. http://www.walkingbus.com/ Or you could pay someone else to do the hard yards for you.

    Grandstanding headlines are easily avoided, you just have to remember to either read the article or don’t look at the paper. It’s not hard, it’s just a different habit.

    One thing I do appreciate is that cellphones and texting have made it much more acceptable to read and walk at the same time. I’m not a bookworm, I’m a fashionable highly-connected person now that I have a phone that can display ebooks.

  10. Am I a bad parent for having allowed and encouraged my daughter to walk (the admittedly short distance) on her own, from the age of 9 on? I felt the risk was small, and the benefits in autonomy, exercise and interaction with the environment large.

    I walked to school, as did virtually every kid in the 70′s, and yet child molestation by strangers was a very rare event. I don’t believe that child molesters are more common; I think we just have far more prurient news reporting.

    Actually, we did a lot things in the 70s that wouldn’t happen now, including disappearing on bicycles for hours at a time (to explore the local streams and gullies) with nothing more than a presumption we’d be home in time for dinner. The parental risk calculus has changed a lot in 30 years.

  11. I don’t believe that child molesters are more common; I think we just have far more prurient news reporting.

    I wonder if there’s a bit of a feedback loop going on here, ‘though it would take serious research to sort it out. Perhaps the level of reporting, and at the same time the advent of the internet, has made pedophilia more acceptable, to pedophiles themselves. Some people might previously have had pedophile fantasies, but not acted on them, because they thought that they were the only people with such fantasies. So they didn’t act out those fantasies. Once pedophile crimes are more commonly reported, and pedophiles can contact each other much more easily through the net, then in a very nasty sense, pedophilia is ‘normalised’. So a person with pedophile fantasies might find it much easier to allow himself or herself to act on them.

    Big big caveats!

    (1) I don’t for a moment think that pedophilia is ever, ever, acceptable. And if you read my comment carefully, you will see that I am talking about the ‘normalisation / acceptance’ being from the point of view of the pedophile, not from the point of view of society.

    (2) It would take some very careful research to test this hypothesis. At this stage, it’s a mere speculation.

  12. My nine year old is agitating to walk to school by herself. However, there are two younger girls as well, and I don’t want them walking by themselves (traffic safety issues). So we have a compromise of sorts. We all leave the house together, and Miss Nine charges ahead, by herself, while I restrain the Miss Sixes so that they don’t ruin Miss Nine’s walking fun. Same story walking home.

  13. Even if your hypothesis is true, my understanding is the typical MO is to groom children known to the offender already, and where the offender is already in a position of trust. The random assault on the street is atypical.

  14. Interesting post – your seatbelt analogy is a good one. I think the major difference is that most people don’t walk with their children (rather than letting them walk by themselves) they drive them – leading to much worse traffic, and horrendous parking problems at all the schools.

    So whereas wearing a seatbelt has no downside for anyone else, driving your kids to school does – including making it harder for others to let their kids walk, as no-one else is doing it.

    But with a known pedophile in the area – that changes the risk equation substantially.

  15. If it’s a known paedophile with a known MO, simply warn the children.