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You can let fear get the better of you. We generally try to distinguish between rational and irrational fear. Rational fear keeps you safe. Irrational fear can make you afraid of everything, to the point where you do not want to leave the safety of your own home. We have had two fairly recent instances of social fear that are interesting to compare. The first is fear of clowns, which was in the news a lot during summer 2016. The second is fear of sex traffickers, which has been around for quite a long time now. Both of these anxieties are related to child snatching.

The apparently rational calculus for child snatching reasons that extraordinary measures are warranted to protect your child from a catastrophic, low-probability crime. If a parent can do something to make the probability lower, do it. The abduction of Johnny Gosch, twelve-year-old paperboy kidnapped in September 1982, locked this calculus in place. Johnny was by himself, walking his paper route in West Des Moines early in the morning. It was the first kidnapping of that type publicized over the entire country. It was the first notorious child snatching – by a stranger – since the Lindbergh case nearly fifty years earlier, a crime that gripped the whole country.

The grip never loosened. The reasoning then and since has been, “If it can happen once, it can happen again.” In fact, Eugene Martin, another Des Moines paperboy, disappeared just under two years later. Many wonder if, or believe the same predator took both boys. When the same crime happens twice, you follow a rule of two. Once might be a one-off; two is a pattern and a continuing threat.

That is how we – as parents – have behaved since the two Iowa abductions thirty-five years ago. You do not let your children out of your sight. You don’t let them do anything unsupervised. We have a large field for soccer and baseball down the street from our house. It is almost always empty. Occasionally, during the summer, you’ll see a Little League game or practice there. Even more occasionally, you’ll see supervised soccer. You never see children engaged in unsupervised activity there. All the surrounding neighborhoods are residential, and all of them have a good share of young families.

That waste of space, and of valuable playtime, would have been inconceivable before the Iowa kidnappings. A standard exchange in a household would have been repeated many times, where a slightly whiney boy complains, “Mom, there’s nothing to do.” Mom: “Why don’t you go down to the ball field to play catch with your brother? Stop by your friend’s on the way.” Boy: “I don’t know – I feel a little tired.” Mom: “All the more reason to get out of here. Scat!” Off he goes, ball and mitt in hand.

If Mom did that now, she would lose her boy to Child Protective Services! It took a while to reach that point, but the real danger now of letting your child play outdoors while you tidy up or cook dinner is that the state will snatch your child. One instance of unsupervised play, and the state deems you an unfit parent. That’s why the field goes empty. No one wants to violate a norm that strong, with consequences that severe. We talk about helicopter parents, but parents know: if you don’t watch your children, you could lose them. You don’t know who might call the police to report an unsupervised child.

For someone who grew up in North Dakota and Iowa before the Des Moines kidnappings, current laws and practices are nuts. I don’t see how children can grow up, never out of sight of a grown-up. Someone takes care of them twenty-four hours a day, until they go to college, where they expect college administrators to take care of them. When do they reach adulthood? More significantly, how do you reach adulthood when you don’t know how to play on your own? Does it happen on your wedding night? Does it happen when you have your own children? How many generations before no one knows how to play, no matter what age you are? I have a bad feeling we’re already there.


Here’s a quick comparison between the quasi-totalitarian enforcement of free-speech restrictions on college campuses, and restrictions on our children’s freedom in our neighborhoods and cities. Student activists at colleges and universities have the upper hand, partly because of the way they behave, and partly because college leaders and administrators don’t dismiss them or stand up to them. Similarly, people who enforce rules about freedom for youngsters estimate the costs of standing for fewer restrictions exceed the cost of going with new norms of supervision. They expect approval for upholding the norms.

Lenore Skenazy leads a movement she calls Free-Range Kids. She devotes a lot of energy to efforts to reduce parental over-supervision. Yet as the last few paragraphs of my post suggest, showing parents that abduction is a low-probability event, and that the price of restrictions for children is high, won’t bring change so long as Child Protective Services can ring your doorbell anytime. That is, we have to interrupt the chain of events that leads to so-called protective custody.

What is the chain? A grown-up observes an unsupervised child, becomes alarmed, and calls the police. That is consistent with the constant anti-crime exhortation we hear in airports and train stations: “If you see something, say something.” The police pick up the child to take him or her home. They also call Child Protective Services. CPS visits the household fast, as they know what will happen to them in the media if they don’t act, and something bad happens in that family. Once CPS appears, the burden of proof lies with the child’s parents to demonstrate that their child is safe with them. The process of demonstration can last months.

If you cannot interrupt this process, from alarmed grown-up to an agency that can take all your children away, you cannot solve the problem of over-supervision. Most parents understand the risk of abduction is low, and the price of confinement is high. They also know they do not want CPS to have an open case against them. My judgment is that the best place to interrupt the process is to work with local police. You cannot stop the alarmed grown-up, and you cannot stop CPS. You can perhaps persuade local police to act reasonably, and to use their good judgment when an alarmed grown-up calls. If they follow every call about an unsupervised child with a call of their own to Child Protective Services, you cannot break down the norm.

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