Pictures of missing children show up on milk cartons and shopping bags and in video stores. This week, the International Council of Shopping Centers is sponsoring a campaign to fingerprint 10 million children in 2,800 shopping malls across the country so that parents will have a record to provide law enforcement authorities if a child is kidnaped.
And now, courtesy of K mart, we also have a game: "The Child Awareness Game," which has been endorsed by the Adam Walsh Child Resource Center, named for a child who was kidnaped from a mall in 1981 and brutally murdered. His story and that of his parents, John and Reve Walsh, was made into the film, "Adam," which has been shown repeatedly on television, accompanied by photos of other missing children.
A fact sheet from K mart describes the game as "a board game designed to educate adults and children about how to avoid dangers that exist for children in our society. This game encourages open communication between adults and children. It is a fun, challenging and competitive game that provides a variety of information in a nonthreatening manner.
"The game is for two to six players, ages 4 through 12 and should be played with an adult."
K mart says it is the first retailer to offer the game, which sells for $12.88, and it will give $1 from each sale to the Adam Walsh Child Resource Center, which was founded by the Walshes.
The Walshes, who developed the game, included "notes to the supervising adult," in which they write: "We realized that there is a negative and fearful aura encompassed in this mission. Therefore, our foremost priority was to make the game fun, challenging, and competitive. In other words, we have designed a board game that is a game in the purest sense.
"Our questions have been designed to place your child in a variety of situations that require quick thinking on the part of the child. The child will learn a pattern of behavior through the repetition of certain learning concepts. We strongly encourage the child to trust his (or her) own feelings of right and wrong; and we repeatedly emphasize the necessity of communicating with parents, or a trusted adult, when the child feels something is wrong."
All of which sounds highly commendable.
But what follows is a concentrated series of questions about what a child should do in a variety of bad situations. Some are scarier than others. The first "grocery store" question is what should the child do when he sees a man grab an older woman's purse. (Right answer: "Try to memorize the description of the man and then run inside the store and tell the cashier to call the police.") But the final question in that category is this: "You went shopping with your parents. They are on the other side of the store. A strange person comes over and picks you up. Should you: Yell, kick and scream, 'This is not my parent' [right]; go quietly with the person because you are afraid?" [wrong].
At the neighbor's house, the second question is this: "You are staying overnight at a friend's house. The father comes into the bedroom to tuck you in, and he has no clothes on. Should you: Tell your parents nothing about what happened? [wrong]; Tell your parents about what happened when you arrive home?" [right].
Other questions ask children what they should do when parents leave them alone in a car in the shopping center and a stranger comes over and pulls his pants down, when a child hears a voice calling to him from inside a vacant house, when a stranger forces a classmate into a van, when a stranger leads a friend out of a video arcade bathroom by the arm and so forth.
It's enough to scare a parent.
Last year, in an interview with The Washington Post, Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, a pediatric specialist, warned that the publicity over missing children is making youngsters unduly anxious. "I don't think it's really appropriate to make them afraid of everybody." Dr. Benjamin Spock also has expressed concern.
Figures on missing children have varied enormously. When they include runaways, the figures have gone as high as 1.5 million a year. When they include short-term abductions, the figures have ranged from 4,000 to 20,000. But, in point of fact, the FBI investigated 56 cases of actual child stealing by strangers in 1985 and 69 in 1984.
There's a fine line between caution and hysteria and when it is crossed, the trust that children need to establish in the world is lost. Children naturally produce their own scary scenarios without parents exaggerating life's terrors -- or trying to turn it into a game.