In the past week, we have all suffered through yet another abduction and murder of a child. It is difficult to imagine anyone whose heart does not break when thinking about the pain experienced by these children and their parents.
Indeed, there is so much heartbreak and pain that many parents are in a virtual state of panic. They, and now schools, are advising children about how to avoid strangers, even more so than in the past.
As a parent of three children, one of whom is 9 years old, I surely understand this fear. But we harm our children and our society when we instill a fear of strangers in them. When we tell them not to talk to strangers, we are in effect telling them that everyone in the world, except for the few people they actually know, is a threat.
This is not a message I have conveyed to my children. In fact, within common sense guidelines -- never go anywhere with a stranger, never approach a stranger who calls to you from a car, never open the house door without knowing who is there or without an adult's permission -- I actually want my children to talk to strangers.
But, aren't there real threats from bad strangers, and don't we have the obligation to protect our children from them?
This question raises a much larger issue that we Americans seem disinclined to face: What prices are we willing to pay in order to reduce risks? For decades, well before the present threat of terrorism, the foremost concern among many Americans has been eliminating all risks to their physical security. Our society has been preoccupied with real threats to health (fattening foods, air pollution, cigarette smoking) and with greatly exaggerated threats (secondhand smoke, heterosexual AIDS, Alar in apples, insecticides, breast implants, roller coasters, seesaws, tag, and much more).
Risks to our physical well being, many have decided, are to be avoided at virtually any price. And prices we have paid.
Truth was the price paid for our preoccupation with the largely nonexistent threat of heterosexual AIDS (in America, AIDS has been overwhelmingly a disease of gay men and intravenous drug users). Liberty has been the price paid for denying restaurants the right to make a smoking section in their restaurants and allowing the public to then patronize the restaurants of their choice. The death of many Africans from malaria has been the price paid for our banning the pesticide DDT. And so on.
So, too, a big price is paid by children and our society when we tell children to avoid strangers. They learn not to trust people; they do not learn confidence in dealing with people; and they walk around in fear.
All this is, moreover, largely unwarranted. The chances of a child being kidnapped by a stranger are close to zero. In terms of risk, we would do far better to tell our children to avoid talking to adult relatives and acquaintances, and only to talk to strangers!
If we want to protect our children against all serious risks, why do we allow them to ride in cars? We do so because the price paid by not riding is too great. Why, then, don't we deem the price too great when we forbid our children to talk to strangers?
One reason may be the parents' own fear of strangers -- the fears we communicate to children, after all, are almost always our own. For 25 years, I have asked high school seniors whether they would first save their drowning dog or a drowning stranger. Only one out of three ever votes to save the stranger. I have always attributed this to the secular culture's reduction of human worth to that of animals, and to raising personal feelings (“I love my dog”) above moral values (human life is sacred). But there is a third reason -- the fear of strangers that their parents and society have bequeathed to them. Many of those who vote to save the animal tell me that the stranger may turn out to be an evil person.
The greatest moral challenge in society is to treat strangers decently. It begins by not irrationally fearing them.