A recent Dateline episode told a story that I’ve known for most of my life: the unsolved 1989 case of Amy Mihaljevic. Every single kid in my childhood circles knew the details: she was the 10-year-old kidnapped after school in Bay Village, Ohio by a man who convinced her to get in his car at a nearby shopping center. This came at the end of the decade that began with the kidnapping and murder of Adam Walsh in Hollywood, Florida, which prompted his TV host father, John Walsh, to launch America’s Most Wanted. Kidnapping was a legitimate fear during this time--my closet even had The Child Awareness Game, a board game devoted to helping kids avoid such tragic situations. I emphasize “closet” because I don’t remember actually playing it and am thrilled my parents never confused game nights for afterschool specials.
There is a temptation for us to hear these stories and tighten up. Scary situations make us want to buy kids phones so they are never out of reach, chauffeur them to and from school so they aren’t wandering the neighborhood, and hover over them so we know every detail of their lives. That response might be appropriate if there truly was a kidnapping outbreak. But what if there wasn’t? The number of minors abducted by strangers in the US is likely less than 100 per year, and only a fraction of those are young children. Kids are more likely to be attacked by a shark. That probably won’t stop us. We let our feelings trump our thoughts. And that’s where safety becomes problematic.
In their 2018 bestseller The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukinoff argue that this sort of overprotective parenting goes far beyond loving our child and instead is a harmful expression of “safetyism.” When parents shelter children from any possible harm when they are young, they set them up to be actually harmed when they are older, since the children build no resilience. While none of us want our kids to be teased it’s important that they understand the difference between being teased and being bullied. The former hurts, while the latter paralyzes. The authors claim misunderstandings like this have contributed to the increased depression and suicidal tendencies among teenagers. Instagram deserves some blame as well.
We cannot fully protect our kids. Not only is it impossible to insulate them from all the threats we know, we cannot account for the threats we don’t know. Even if we could, it’s debatable whether it would be in their best interest. Rather than asking how we can protect our kids from struggles, we should ask what kind of parent our child needs during difficult times. During such times, kids need good parents more than they need good parenting. They need people of high character, courage, strength, and discipline. They need to see adults do the right thing even when it's hard and who get up after being knocked down. They need to see people who learn from mistakes, rather than blaming others and pretending to be the victim.
Parents should protect children, especially when they need our protection most. It is on us to build the guardrails. But we also must remember that our kids will learn more through their failures than through their successes. They will build resilience through pain more than through perfection. They will find themselves during adversity and will love themselves more after going through it. And they will grow closer to others who walk through life with them, rather than paving the way ahead of them. All of this is true for parents as well.