The "Stranger Danger" Myth
The new ABC TV show "The Parent Test" has made me mad.
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Without further ado, let’s jump into today’s topic.
I am not a big television consumer, so when two friends told me about the new ABC reality TV show “The Parent Test” last weekend, I had never heard of it. I immediately Googled it and discovered that on the show, “12 families are put under the microscope in the ultimate parenting stress test.” Gee, that sounds fun. I mean, parenting isn’t stressful enough on its own; why not sprinkle in more and then air what happens on national television?
As I did more research, I uncovered the goal of the show: To determine, through competition, which parenting styles are the most effective — which ones, in the words of the show’s co-host Dr. Adolph Brown III, raise “emotionally whole and healthy kids.”
To this end, children in the 12 families, whose parents all espouse different parenting styles, are pitted against each other to see who “performs best” in various scenarios. Which kids are the best behaved at a fancy dinner? Which kids don’t succumb to peer pressure when encouraged to jump off the high dive?
Readers, this is dumb. This is very, very dumb. For many reasons.
First of all: How kids in a single family “perform” in various contrived scenarios in front of television cameras is not going to provide trustworthy data on which parenting styles are "the best.” We need lots of data, collected in carefully controlled ways, to answer questions like this.
Which brings me to my second point: We have already answered this question! We have 60 years of research on the influence of various parenting styles. This doesn’t mean we couldn’t use more, or that the research we have is perfect. But we do have a solid evidence base on this issue already — evidence that this show completely ignores. (What the research suggests, and I discuss in my book, is that kids raised by authoritative parents — who treat kids with respect and warmth but also set and enforce limits — fare the best in a number of ways.)
Today I want to dig into something I saw in episode two of the Parent Test, titled “Stranger Danger.” In this episode, kids were left alone at home and a stranger — an actor — who identified himself or herself as a gas utility employee rang the doorbell and asked to come in to check the meter or attend to a gas leak. The kids in the show “passed” if they didn’t let the stranger inside.
During the show, host Brown took a moment to address the audience, saying: “Predators are a real threat. In the U.S., 2,300 children go missing each day. I know it's uncomfortable, but it's an urgent child safety issue.”
There is so much fear-mongering about child safety these days, and I believe it’s actually more dangerous than the supposedly scary things parents are being warned about.
Consider the terrifying statistic that 2,300 kids are reported missing each day in the U.S. That’s technically true, but extremely misleading. For one thing, an estimated 99 percent of those kids are found fairly quickly, and 98 percent of them are either runaways or abducted by family members. The F.B.I. reported that only between 52 and 306 children were kidnapped by strangers or acquaintances in 2019, which is a very, very small number, considering that there are about 75 million children living in the United States. As researchers from UC-Irvine explained in a 2016 research paper:
The actual risk of a teen or child being abducted by a stranger and killed or not returned is estimated at around 0.00007%, or one in 1.4 million annually—a risk so small that experts call it de minimis, meaning effectively zero.
And yet, according to a new Pew Research survey published in January, 28 percent of American parents say they are “extremely worried” that their children will someday be abducted.
Why are we so worried about abductions when they are so rare? Well, because of shows like The Parent Test. Okay, I’m oversimplying; there are many reasons, but the media sure hasn’t been helping. In a 2022 study, researchers in Australia analyzed the content of TV shows and other media that discussed child abductions and related issues. They found that 94 percent of the media coverage focused on scary risks and that only six percent mentioned the potential benefits of granting kids autonomy. (The reports of parents being arrested for not constantly supervising their kids don’t help, either.)
It’s worth pointing out, too, that violent crime rates have dropped precipitously since the 1990s, even though U.S. adults tend to say they think crime has been increasing:
Okay, but, you might be thinking — it’s better to be safe than sorry, right? I mean, if there’s even a slim chance your kid could be abducted or hurt, shouldn’t you teach them to be scared of strangers and supervise them as much as possible? Not necessarily. When we worry too much about stranger danger and overestimate the potential risks of giving kids freedom, we rob our children of important experiences and opportunities. (It’s important to note here that some American kids really do face horrific dangers. Black children are, for instance, are nearly six times as likely as white children to be killed with guns. So some parents are indeed right to be terrified, which is unfair and awful.)
Among other things, parents today are much less likely than parents of generations past to let kids walk to school alone and to let them play unsupervised. In fact, research has found that parents believe they should be communicating to their kids that the world is a terrible, scary place.
The problem is that all this over-protectiveness doesn’t give kids the chance to learn how to navigate the world. It may also make them more prejudiced. And when we constantly tell our kids to be afraid, they are more likely to develop anxiety. (To learn more about why over-protectiveness is dangerous — and what to do instead — check out the non-profit organization Let Grow and its resources.)
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t consider risk or teach our kids to be aware of it. What I am saying is that safety risks — especially to kids — are often overstated, and that this inaccurate messaging harms kids and society at large. I found myself quite frustrated that The Parent Test chose drama over data, fueling a dangerous parenting trope. What we need from the media is balance.
Yes, we should teach our kids what to do if strangers ring the doorbell. But if our kids are a bit too trusting at times, this does not mean we have failed them or that they have failed. We shouldn’t teach our kids that the world is always out to get them, and, assuming they really aren’t at much risk, we shouldn’t hide our children away to keep them safe.
I had so much fun last week teaching the 6th graders at my kids’ school about nonfiction writing! I love giving talks to companies, schools and other kinds of organizations. If you’re interested in hiring me to give a talk or run a workshop, learn more.
Now for this week’s Parenting Advice Hot Take. I’m sharing my thoughts on this advice shared last week in The Cut:
Here’s what I think.
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