A generation ago, even a decade ago, parents were the only people to warn children about the dangers of abduction and sexual abuse. Some warned explicitly, some implicitly, others not at all.
Today we have a different situation. Warnings abound: in school talks and visits from law enforcement officials, on television programs, in newspaper and magazine articles and children's books. Graphic evidence that children indeed become victims is seen every day on milk cartons and grocery bags. It would be difficult for any child or adult living in the United States to escape notice.
What we all seem to agree upon is that these crimes must be prevented whenever possible, and that education is the best prevention. However, insufficient attention is being paid to the cost-benefit of these warnings. In other words, is there a price being paid by our children for all this, and if so, what is the nature of the price?
I have come across only one child expert, Dr. Benjamin Spock, who has expressed reservations about the issue of warning children. He has taken a position against fingerprinting children and against inviting police officers to schools to warn children, arguing that "on balance, these precautions are likely to do more harm than good, because they may make millions of children unnecessarily fearful." While many people may not agree with his specific recommendations, the common-sense spirit that has become his trademark may have something to say to us.
Childhood is a time of mastery, and mastery of fears is a normal developmental task. Young children can have a variety of fears -- for instance of dogs, sirens and the dark -- and they usually outgrow them. They also have active imaginations. Some children seem to be more cautious, sensitive and fearful by nature, while others are more impulsive, intrepid and fearless. An important point often ignored when warning groups of children is that two children's needs may be quite different. An intrepid one may need to be convinced through some straight talk that safety precautions are in fact necessary, while a cautious one may imagine the worst easily and need brief, common-sense rules with little illustration.
My concern is that we aren't just warning children, we're scaring them.
The consequences of constant fear in childhood are unfortunate. Young children may have excessive difficulty separating from their parents to play with friends or go to school. As older children, they may be reluctant to go places on their own once they reach the appropriate age and developmental stage, and lack a feeling of well-being in the world and competence within themselves. As adolescents, they may be afraid to take risks and thereby experience successes and failures on their own, and may approach life in guarded and suspicious ways.
It can be argued that the world isn't a very safe place for many reasons, and there is truth to this. However, we want the next generation to feel as safe and capable as they can while acknowledging that some dangers exist, and that it is important to do something about them. The problem is that as adults we may inadvertently and with good intentions be transmitting excessive fear to our children -- fear that is our own to manage and deal with, sometimes to communicate to kids and sometimes to contain. A differentiation between what is realistic and necessary and what is excessive must be made.
Here are some general guidelines: Consider your child's age and developmental stage. In general, the younger the child, the simpler and more concrete the explanation should be. With older children and teen-agers, parents can elaborate more. Also take into consideration your child's temperament. Go easier with those who are more sensitive and fearful by nature. Discuss your concerns beforehand with your spouse or a close relative or friend who knows your child. In marriages, one parent is usually more of a worrier, the other more relaxed. This can be useful -- the worrier raises the issue, the relaxed one helps keep perspective. Try to agree on some basic rules for your child, as well as ways of presenting the general topic. Share the task. Present things calmly and factually with specific guidelines. Discussions about sexual abuse should take place after you've talked with your child about sexuality and normal behavior. A child's introduction to sexual matters should be positive. Emphasize that these incidents are rare. Let your child know that you always want to know if something is bothering him or her.
The most important and difficult task for parents is to stay calm when they are in fact worried. One way of dealing with this worry is to get the facts. It is of some reassurance to learn that the original figures on child abduction were misleading, because they grouped runaways, abductions by non-custodial parents, and non-familial kidnappings together. Other facts are sobering: child molesters are usually people the child knows well, such as relatives and friends of the family.
The bottom line is that children be told what they need to know, but no more. It is every parent's job to decide what the balance will be.