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Whoa, Momma!

Sharon Kennedy Wynne, Tracey Henry and Suzannah DiMarzio

Lessons learned from Adam Walsh's abduction



It's good to see the Walsh family finally get closure on the horrific abductionMom_adamwalsh_2  and murder of their 6-year-old son 27 years ago. It was back when parents routinely let their kids play in the toy department unattended. They also let them ride their bikes to school, walk home from the store alone, babysit at age 10 or 11 and do any number of independent acts that draw horrified responses today.

The Walsh case happened in 1981, when a mother wandered away to look at lamps while her son played video games. He was shooed away by a security guard and abducted. A couple of weeks later, his head was found in a canal. In the 27 years since, Adam's father was transformed into an activist who helped put missing children's faces on milk cartons, started fingerprinting programs and increased security at schools and stores.

But there's another way of looking at John Walsh's efforts, said Mount Holyoke College sociologist and criminologist Richard Moran. They have made children and adults exponentially more afraid of the world.

"He ended up really producing a generation of cautious and afraid kids who view all adults and strangers as a threat to them and it made parents extremely paranoid about the safety of their children," Moran said.

They are in the minority, but there are a number of contrarians out there, such as the founder of Free Range Kids who was thunderstruck by the backlash after she wrote a column on letting her 9-year-old son take the subway home alone. Others like to challenge the sketchy statistics on missing kids and find that kids are actually much safer today.

Lenore Skenazy, the Free Range Kids founder, says parents paralyze their children with an everything-is-dangerous outlook: "... Over-protectiveness is a danger in and of itself. A child who thinks he can't do anything on his own eventually can't."

But the problem with not being overprotective is that you can’t help but think about all the guilt Reve Walsh must be feeling ever since that horrible day 27 years ago. Knowing that in the five minutes she turned away to let her son play with an in-store video game must gnaw at her, especially in the wee hours of the morning. To know that her son would be 33 years old, a young man in a career with a family perhaps. To know that even though you love your other three children with all your heart, there is always an emptiness there. To know that if you just hadn't turned away for five minutes ...

So let's look at the middle ground. You can and should encourage your kids to be independent and take risks, learn how to do "dangerous" things like use a knife, build a fire, navigate traffic on a bike, and they can do those things with you looking on -- at first. But if done right, you can eventually give them a knife and walk away. But you also have to take reasonable precautions such as theme park safety. No doubt some parents, in their quest to keep their kids safe, fail to teach them how to safely navigate the world on their own.

-- Sharon Kennedy Wynne and Sherry Robinson

[Last modified: Thursday, May 13, 2010 10:58am]


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