Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for May 24th, 2007

Parenthood, playgrounds, and the age of unreason

Posted by metaphorical on 24 May 2007

How many children are reported missing each year?

According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children

The U.S. Department of Justice reports

* 797,500 children (younger than 18) were reported missing in a one-year period of time studied resulting in an average of 2,185 children being reported missing each day.

* 203,900 children were the victims of family abductions.

* 58,200 children were the victims of non-family abductions.

* 115 children were the victims of “stereotypical” kidnapping. (These crimes involve someone the child does not know or someone of slight acquaintance, who holds the child overnight, transports the child 50 miles or more, kills the child, demands ransom, or intends to keep the child permanently.)

The use of the term “stereotypical” is fair, accurate, and ironic. We have this picture in our head of a standard kidnapping (consider the word itself!), it’s what we as parents fear, and it happens almost never — 1 out of every 7000 missing kids, or 0.014% of the time. (And the prototypical horror story of “Children are spirited away from amusement parks and shopping centers by kidnappers who alter the appearance of their victims before smuggling them out the exits” is a complete urban legend.)

And yet, we fear it so greatly that we keep tabs on our kids obsessively, we need to drive them everywhere, we won’t let them play by themselves without adult supervision. When I was growing up, in the summer I headed out on my bicycle after breakfast and came home for dinner at night. A parent who let their kid do that today would probably be arrested for wanton neglect. If you think I’m exaggerating, last month a mother of four reported in Newsweek that letting her daughters walk home from school alone required administration approval.

She also mentioned

Australian study that shows that playground injuries have not abated one bit since we began installing these boring, idiotic injury-proof jungle-gyms. It seems that kids take far more risks in pursuit of fun because the playground equipment is so boring when used as intended.

Which, if you remember childhood, is just what you’d expect. While I can’t find the actual study, Newsweek’s mention of it inspired plenty of chatter in the blogverse. One blogger mentioned it favorably, recalled his own risk-laden childhood “before helmets, pads, and hand sanitizer,” and noted he managed to survive. Though he was only adding his own anecdotal note to what was, presumably, a scientific finding, he nonetheless got this comment from someone named paula:

Ed, just because you managed to exit childhood relatively unharmed is not evidence that childhood is basically safe. You just got lucky.

Here’s a final how-many stat from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

How many children have been recovered through AMBER ALERTS?

Since 1997, the AMBER Alert program has been credited with the safe recovery of 308 children. To date there is a network of 116 AMBER Plans across the country.

If you’ve never been around when an AMBER Alert hits, all I can say is, watch out. Every police resource available is instantly redeployed. Television stations flash the alert endlessly, and stay-at-home parents suddenly become a weird posse comitatus for childhood safety. You could probably rob a bank without a bandana if you carefully synchronize your heist with an AMBER Alert.

In that light, let’s look at the stats again. 800,000 missing kids a year, to use last year’s number, and in the last 10 years, 308 kids recovered. That’s a success rate of no better than 1 in 2500 and probably more like 1 in 25,000, or 0.004%. In other words, the program is a complete waste of public resources and a failure of public policy.

We show our disrespect for rationality every day when we overprotect our children; we’re raising a generation of Paulas who can look data in the face and still talk of luck.

Tomorrow marks the 25th National Missing Children’s Day (a thank you to Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute for the idea and the link). Newspapers, television and radio stations, and websites are going to mark the occasion with renewed hand-wringing over one of the country’s big problems. Wouldn’t it be nice if instead we renewed (or at least started) a commitment to accurate risk-assessment and rational behavior?

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