An eleven-year old hiking in the woods was separated from his group. Rather than stick to trails and head downhill, for four days Brennan Hawkins worked his way uphill and deliberately stayed off of the trails when he heard others — searchers who were trying to rescue him — approaching. How is it possible that the common sense and survival instincts of this boy were short-circuited at such a crucial point in his life? Fear. Hawkins’ parents taught him to be afraid of strangers so effectively that he endangered his own life by avoiding them. Fortunately, Hawkins was ultimately rescued and returned to his family, but his case brings up an important question: is fear really an effective tool to protect our children? Would not education and empowerment be more effective?
When Hawkins was rescued, his rescuers asked why he had eluded them so long. His answer was that he “didn’t know if they were scary people”. After his rescue, Hawkins told his mother that his biggest fear “was that someone would steal him”. Later, his father admitted that he had failed to inform his son of exceptions to the ‘stranger danger’ rule. This failure nearly cost his son his life. It is highly unlikely that the Hawkins’s intentionally endangered their son’s life with their ludicrous directive to avoid strangers at all costs. So what was the threat from which they wanted to protect him? They wanted to protect him from the threat of stranger abduction.
Each year in the United States of America, a nation of nearly 300 million people, 200 — 300 children are abducted by strangers, according to estimates by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Expressed differently, 1 in every 610,000 children is abducted by a stranger each year. In other words, 3% of 1% of 1% of all American children have the misfortune of being abducted by a stranger each year. This figure represents just a third of one percent of the 750,000 children the FBI says are reported missing each year.
There are places in the world where the threat to children of stranger abduction is real. In parts of Africa, for instance, children must be wary of being ‘recruited’ by militant groups such as the Lord’s Resistance Army. In the United States, however, stranger abduction is not a real threat. To indoctrinate children persistently about the danger of strangers is not only unwarranted, it can, as we can see from the Hawkins case, actually put them at greater risk. To tell children to avoid strangers at all costs is about as ridiculous as telling them to always remain indoors to avoid being struck by lightning (2.5 times more likely than a stranger abduction) or to stay out of all aircraft to avoid being killed in a plane crash (2 times more likely than a stranger abduction).
Teaching children fear of strangers, as well as blind faith and obedience to their parents has yet another hidden danger: that parental abuse will go unreported and therefore unstopped. Since 81% of all child abuse is perpetrated by a child’s own parents according to Child Help USA, this is a much more urgent threat than that posed by strangers. The only way to combat this threat is to educate and empower children to speak up when they are in a dangerous situation. Yet all too often, it is once again fear — fear of their own parents — that puts them at risk.