Dangerous Thoughts

Would you discuss age-appropriate independence in this post-Michael Dunahee era? I’m particularly interested in younger kids heading off to the playground or older ones taking buses or going to the mall, etc., either alone or with a group of peers. (Note : Michael Dunahee was a four-year-old boy who was abducted from a school playground in Victoria in 1991.)

Right now our entire society is suffering from some degree of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). We hear so much about all the awful things that happen in the world that we have all become victims, thanks to TV, radio, etc. Not only are we all exposed to all the actual frightening events which happen anywhere in the world, and could potentially happen here (child abductions, murders, rapes, serial killers, earthquakes, car accidents, plane crashes); we are also exposed to movies and TV shows which invent more scary events. It seems that it isn’t considered a good movie nowadays unless a lot of bodies are strewn around. The media are also full of even more horrifying unreal things such as attacks by aliens, ghosts, and various nasty imaginary creatures.

The result is that most of us live in a world which seems a lot more frightening than it actually is.

PTSD produces two effects : numbing symptoms, and intrusive symptoms. The numbing symptoms include such things as getting out of touch with our own emotional reactions to actual trauma, and accepting things around us that we shouldn’t accept because we’re used to them. If a person lives in a war zone, it’s actually adaptive not to react emotionally to frightening events, since emotions can interfere with survival. But this lack of touch with our emotions can prevent people from identifying dangers which can actually be prevented. Many of us nowadays are so used to violence in the media that we don’t react to it any more. It takes more and more violence to get the same degree of emotional reaction from people, so the media become increasingly violent! It’s not enough to put a V-chip on our television sets; we need to change society so that everyone, children and adults, no longer passively accept violence as the way life is. We should fight against both fictional violence and unbalanced depictions of scary events in the news.

Intrusive symptoms of PTSD may include sleep disturbance, nightmares, flashbacks, emotional overreactions and “hypervigilance” – always feeling as if the awful event may occur again. Both real and fictional traumatic events may cause these symptoms. For example, I saw a movie as a child about civilization being destroyed by tidal waves when the earth collided with a comet; for years afterwards I dreamed of tidal waves, and watched for them whenever I was at a beach.

My son had difficulty sleeping for a long time after he saw “Nightmare on Elm Street.” As we get older we can tell reality from fiction a little better : my daughter at 13 had no trouble with violent movies, but was really scared after a supposedly helpful documentary on what would happen after a nuclear war. Little kids shouldn’t see scary movies, and perhaps adults and teens should stop watching the news!

There is no doubt that the media, even just the news without the movies, give us all a very exaggerated idea of how many awful things happen. We tend to think the outdoors is populated by large numbers of child abductors and sexual predators. This just isn’t true! Michael Dunahee is the only child to have been permanently abducted by strangers in our area in a lot of years. Most abductors of children are non-custodial parents, and the children are usually eventually returned. Sexual assault and murder of children by strangers (like the little girl in Port Alberni) are also very rare. The vast majority of sexual abusers of children are people known to the child and the family, such as stepfathers, uncles, babysitters, and daycare providers. Your child is at much greater risk attending a daycare you don’t know well than she is playing outside! (See my article of November 1996 on babysitters.) The media have some responsibility to present a balanced picture of the real risks of the things we fear. You probably know that you are at much greater risk of an accident when you drive your car than you are taking a plane – yet because plane crashes get so much horrendous publicity you’re much more afraid in a plane. It’s the same with the things that we fear for our children. I treat many adult survivors of childhood trauma, and I am not convinced that the dangers for children playing outdoors today are any worse than they were in their parents’ generation; they’re just better known to the point that we greatly exaggerate the risk.

I have wonderful memories of playing outside with my friends all day as a child, with no parents worrying about where we were or what would happen to us. I rode the bus alone at about seven, and I walked some distance to school alone as soon as I was old enough to attend. I had a paper route at 13, after dark, covering both a residential centre for mentally handicapped adults and the B.C. Penitentiary! And nothing bad ever happened to me in any of these situations. And what did I gain? Imaginative play with my friends in a natural setting, with no adults monitoring us. Being a kid! A love for nature and outdoors which has stayed with me all my life. A sense of pride in being able to take care of myself, to take responsibilities, to get myself to school and around town, to endure and even enjoy bad weather and (through my paper route) do hard work on my own. All these things helped make me a healthy, confident adult. I’m sure that as a child I would have been suspicious if an adult tried anything out of the ordinary, and I would have used my voice, my legs or my fists. When I was 20, alone as a student in India, a taxi driver once tried to kiss me; I hit him hard in the face and he ran.

You may say “Why take any chances? It’s still safer to drive our kids to school, have them play inside or in the back yard, and not let them go to the mall with their friends.” I don’t agree. Children badly need to play in imaginative ways, to develop their peer relationships without adults looking on, and to explore and adventure – and the best place to do these things is outside! Children also need contact with nature, and we have taken it away from them; there is a grounding in spiritual reality which comes with being in the outdoors. Finally, children need to feel they can take care of themselves. I believe we are doing our children a major disservice when we constantly tell them the world is so frightening that they can’t be there without adult guards. And it’s not true; the media have distorted our reality. Yes, there are sexual predators out there. In my generation it was “Watch out for the weird guy down the street” – and all the kids knew about him and just watched out. Sexual predators choose their victims carefully, looking for lonely, unassertive, insecure children who travel alone because they have no friends. They usually make friends with the children before trying to molest them. They aren’t even interested in children who are likely to make a fuss, unless those children are alone and a long way from potential help.

Children can keep themselves safe, if they are given the necessary skills. I’ve been told by a pedophile “I’d never pick that kid – he’s too noisy.” What do we teach our children to keep them safe? Stay in a group when you’re off the beaten track. Don’t go anywhere with a stranger, even if they need help. This includes women and children (organized pedophile groups use women and children, not men, to abduct kids). Be suspicious of any adult who is trying to make friends with children. Make a noise and fight back or run if anyone approaches you, and always tell about it afterwards. Age guidelines : Children should be allowed to play outside with a group close to home at about 6 or 7 in a relatively safe neighbourhood, letting parents know where they are. They can manage to take the bus alone at about 8 or 9. They should be able to travel further afield with a group at about 11. No one at any age should walk alone after dark in an unsafe area unless they are big or know martial arts. No child should leave a friend alone outside; being with others is the best protection.