July 14, 2008 in Features

When eyes open to the world

Some parents struggle to find balance between kids’ safety, independence
Virginia De Leon Correspondent
 

Study finds child abuse declining

 Despite high-profile stories involving the abuse of children, the number of child sexual abuse cases nationwide has declined more than 50 percent in the last 14 years, according to an analysis released earlier this year by the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

 According to “Updated Trends in Child Maltreatment, 2006,” child sexual abuse declined 5 percent from 2005 to 2006 nationwide. Incidents of physical abuse also decreased in 2006, down 3 percent since 2005, with a drop of 48 percent since 1992.

 In a press release, center director David Finkelhor noted several possible factors that may have contributed to the gradual decrease of abuse cases. Those include: changes in public policy, increases in the number of law enforcement and child protection personnel, more aggressive prosecution, growing public awareness and new treatment options for family and mental health problems.

 Incidents of neglect, however, increased 2 percent from 2005 to 2006, according to the analysis. From 1992 to 2006, the largest increases were in Iowa, Oklahoma and New York while the most significant declines happened in Vermont, Washington, Alabama and Idaho.

 The center – which focuses its research on the nature of crimes including child abduction, homicide, rape, assault, and physical and sexual abuse, as well as their impact – based its analysis on data compiled by the federal government from state child protection agencies concerning substantiated child sexual abuse cases.

 For more information, check out: www.unh.edu/news/docs/CCRC_childmaltreatment.pdf.

Within a one-mile radius of my lower South Hill home, 17 registered Level III sex offenders have taken up residence. It’s a fact that doesn’t sit well with me as a parent of two little ones, but it’s not something I dwell on. We still go out to play. We eat pancakes at the nearby park. We make a point to talk to all our neighbors and even strangers on the street.

At the same time, I try not to be naive. I’ve checked out the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office’s Web site (http://scso.spokanesheriff.org), which includes a neighborhood search of registered sex offenders. I read the news. I talk to my 4-year-old about safety and the need to pay attention to our surroundings.

While I realize that life outside my house isn’t exactly kid-proof (and neither is my home, for that matter), I still hope to raise my children with a sense of wonder, curiosity and openness to the world.

But how do you strike that balance between making sure your kids are safe, and giving them the freedom to explore and become independent?

“Somehow, a whole lot of parents are just convinced that nothing outside the home is safe,” wrote Lenore Skenazy, a columnist for The New York Sun who was criticized and accused of child abuse after she wrote about letting her 9-year-old son take the subway alone.

“While most of these parents walked to school as kids, or hiked the woods – or even took public transportation – they can’t imagine their own offspring doing the same thing,” she wrote on her blog, “Free Range Kids.”

“They have lost confidence in everything: Their neighborhood. Their kids. And their own ability to teach their children how to get by in the world. As a result, they batten down the hatches.”

Readers recently weighed in on the topic of “free-range kids” on The Spokesman-Review’s Parents Council blog.While some agreed with Skenazy that parents have become overprotective, others argued that life in America has become more dangerous now compared to previous generations. Although our kids might be informed, some parents say, they still remain vulnerable to predators.

Opinions varied, of course, depending on people’s experiences and their perception of risk.

“Compared to their parents’ generation, teens and young adults have a higher rate of suicide, depression, drug and alcohol use, obesity, ADHD diagnosis and medication, high-risk behavior, parents calling college professors to complain about classes, and on and on,” wrote Jennine M., a member of the newspaper’s Parents’ Council and regular blog contributor.

“They’ve been wrapped in a bubble and sat in front of the same TVs that perpetuate the myth that the world is a dangerous and dark place and are told they’re the best and the brightest without having to accomplish a thing, and then they wonder why they feel empty inside. With freedom comes responsibility and with responsibility comes a sense of accomplishment and true self-worth. …

“I think a lot of parents are overprotective and overprotection is just as harmful as underprotection.”

Jennifer P. – mother of three children, ages 11, 6 and 3 – wrote that it’s important for parents to remain vigilant, to know what’s going on in their kids’ lives and to ask questions.

She noted that we now live in a society that’s more dangerous in some ways, given the prevalence of Amber Alerts, sexual predators in our neighborhoods and on the Internet, as well as abductions and other horrors.

“My children play outside but not far away from where I can check on them,” she wrote. “My oldest son rides his bike and is required to check in when he gets where he is going. My sons who are old enough to understand are taught about the dangers brought on by those who would do them harm. Not to scare them, but to make them aware that life is not TV/movies or the computer games I allow them to play.

“I monitor what they watch on TV and which movie is deemed appropriate for their age. I do not allow them to endlessly hang out in front of either for long periods of time. An overprotective mom? No, just one who wants the ‘balance’ that all parents want for their children. …

“As a parent, it is your responsibility to raise your children to the best of your ability,” she added. “Better to be overprotective then underprotective, I agree. Better to teach them now and prepare them for what might come.

“I want to see them grow up healthy, happy, productive adults with children of their own. It is our job as parents to encourage our government officials to use more ‘overprotection’ as a safeguard for the future of our children today.”

Laurie R. wrote about how during her childhood in the 1960s she trick-or-treated alone, was allowed to ride her bike anywhere and could go alone or with friends “anywhere in the city my legs could take me.”

At that time, it never occurred to her that a sex offender could be living in her neighborhood. While in elementary school, she traveled alone by Greyhound bus to visit relatives in other cities. She also regularly took public transportation to go to school.

“As children, we never wore seat belts, never wore bicycle helmets, never sat in car seats,” wrote Laurie, a member of the Parents’ Council and a regular contributor to the blog. “No one did. We lived through it all. We’re self-sufficient. So it worked.

“Would I allow any of this to happen to my child now? Never, never, never. It’s disingenuous to pretend that the world is the same as it was, and I would hope that today’s parents are more aware. Just because we were lucky as children, it doesn’t mean we should play Russian roulette with our children’s lives. …

“I wouldn’t have so much difficulty allowing my daughter to be a ‘free-range kid’ if the community didn’t have so much of a problem with free-range sexual predators. I know experts have traditionally said most abuse is done by friends and family, but this statistic doesn’t protect children from the strangers who would do them harm.”

Robert F. of Deer Park wrote about his childhood in south Minneapolis in the 1930s. While it was acceptable then for him to walk to a theater half a mile away from his house at night, he said he wouldn’t be comfortable with such an arrangement for kids today.

“When my daughter was 9 back in the 1950s, either my wife or I went out with her and her younger brothers for tricks or treats on Halloween,” he wrote. “With children who have come to our door on recent Halloweens, whether in Deer Park, Colville or Toledo, Ohio, I have noticed there frequently are parents in the background. I guess what this amounts to is that people don’t trust strangers the way they used to. Maybe the suspicions are justified.”

Some readers, however, disagreed with people’s perceptions of the dangers in society.

“I don’t think the world has changed that much,” wrote Tina. “If you looked up (old) newspaper articles, you would find the same kind of things going on 20, 30 or 40 years ago. …

“I think that the newspapers and television stations bombard us with constant pictures, videos and reports because they have found people are mesmerized by the violence people can do to one another. This, in my opinion, is why people are so overprotective with their children.

“I think that there are always going to be good guys and bad guys in society and we can’t shelter our children forever. I think we need to let our kids play with friends without micromanaging their playtime and allow them to walk to the store with a friend.

“I think most of us as parents know when our children are ready for bigger responsibilities. What might be safe for one 9-year-old to do might be a bad idea for another.”

Virginia de Leon is a Spokane-based freelance writer. Reach her at Virginia_de_leon@yahoo.com. You can also comment on this story and other topics pertaining to parenting and families by checking out The Spokesman-Review’s Parents’ Council blog: www.spokesmanreview. com/blogs/parents.

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