"Stranger Danger" to children vastly overstated



But real dangers to children are so unpleasant and complicated. Surely you get the same amount of child protection karma for doing something to protect them against more comfortable dangers.

An especially stupid aspect of this is teaching children not to ask strangers for help, even if that is much more likely to keep them safer and spare everyone involved a lot of anguish.


This is a very good article debunking the statistical myth of rate of child abductions. I get a little lost in the numbers (not sure how these categories overlap, really is my main problem) but the takeaway for me is that there is a 2-3% rate of nonfamily abductions.* That said, 2-3% is nontrivial, and I have to wonder whether the hyper-vigilance around stranger abductions might actually account for the relatively low numbers. Compare it to, say, drunk driving. Roughly 2-3% of traffic accidents involve intoxicated drivers. Does that mean the last few decades of anti-drunk driving education and enforcement campaign been based on unwarranted fear, or is because of those efforts that we have such a low rate? I’m not trying to challenge the notion that stranger-danger is far less prevalent than most people think it is, just pointing out that there are cause and effect factors at work here, as well as interesting ways of looking at statistics.

As a parent, I wouldn’t dismiss the danger of abductions any more than I would dismiss the dangers of drunk driving. Are there plenty of other things that can harm our children? Sure. And we should probably pay more attention to those. But it seems to me that nonfamily abductions are still enough of a concern that it warrants vigilance.*

*edited to reflect the fact that I misused the term “stranger abductions” when I meant “nonfamily abductions”


As a parent, I’ve gotta say this article is very accurate - you hear all these horror stories, but when you think back to your own childhood you were off alone doing crazy shit with your friends by the time you were eight. And that was back when things were much more dangerous for kids - we played in abandoned or under-construction buildings, went off into the forest near town for hours (where getting lost was a real possibility), rode bikes clear across town, etc… and all without the near-ubiquitous cell phones.

Kidnappings are no bigger a threat now than they were when I was growing up, and I never heard of a single person actually being kidnapped anywhere near me. On the news, sure, but only once or twice a year (out of how many millions of kids who didn’t?). In the “stranger danger” talks in school, yes. And these are good talks to have with kids, in the same way talks about other risks kids run into are important. However, unlike the other risks you warn kids about (look both ways before crossing the street, go to a doctor if you step on a rusty nail, etc.) the insidious kidnappers are more bogeyman than reality. They’re far, far more likely to run into a stray/feral dog than a kidnapper, but we both play that down in levels of danger, and tell them less how to deal with the dog than the kidnappers.

This fear-mongering is bad for children, as well - if a parent is scared of something, kids will become scared of it, too. Usually kids will break out of the terror of something as they get older and become more comfortable around whatever they were scared of (pots of boiling water, broken glass, etc.). When it’s not something they will encounter and learn how to deal with that terror may never pass,though. How much of the current level of parental paranoia over kidnappers is a holdover from when they were kids being told there was a kidnapper on every street?

We really need to move on from teaching kids to be terrified of unlikely situations - especially since it leads them to have badly skewed risk assessment abilities. This is what leads kids to freeze to death in cold weather rather than risk asking a stranger for help. We need to teach kids how to evaluate situations, and how to properly deal with it if it does come up, but not to expect it to do so unless it’s actually is likely to. In our school they spent about as much time teaching us about the dangers of kidnappers as of drug dealers… and I think it’s obvious which of those are actually more likely to be encountered.


Meanwhile, we still send our daughters to college with nary a peep, and wonder what she was wearing or drinking if any sexual violence occurs.


Leaving a kid in a car is still a serious risk, due to overheating in summer, unless the kid’s old enough to know how to open the windows.


Whether 2-3% is nontrivial depends on what it’s 2-3% of. When you’re talking about 2-3% out of 10million+ traffic accidents per year, then yeah, it’s nontrivial. But if we’re talking 2-3% out of a pool of a few thousand, then it becomes a lot more trivial when you’re using that number to judge risk across the entire population.


Except it’s not 2-3% of a pool of a few thousand, it’s 2-3% a pool of +/- a million. 12,000 to 33,000 nonfamily abductions, according to the article. At least that’s how I read it. I admit my head was spinning with numbers.

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But black and white worlds feel so much safer!

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Well, I have to wonder if the mailman never breaks in because my dog vigilantly barks at him every day. Unimpeachable logic!


Sorry, but you read it wrong. The article even has specific numbers on non-family abductions:

So not the 12,000 to 33,000 you were thinking, but rather 90 to 115.


“An especially stupid aspect of this is teaching children not to ask strangers for help”

Yea, particularly as the child picks the least scary stranger around (I’m guessing that is usually another kid or a woman, or a person with a kid). The alternative is that one of the strangers chooses to offer the kid in trouble help. Which is still ridiculously likely to be fine, but to whatever degree there are predators around they would presumably be eager to offer.


Nobody should be alone in a box they can’t get out of. This covers little kids in cars.

True, though you’re already talking about under 1/10th the risk of being in a traffic accident that also involved alcohol.

Those “nonfamily” abductions also include family friends, former domestic partners, etc - that’s not the number of abductions by strangers. If you’re going to look at the effects of “hyper-vigilance around stranger abductions” then you probably need to weed out the non-strangers.

Again, those numbers are not on nonfamily abductions, but of nonfamily abductions. I was speaking to all nonfamily abductions, not just what might fit the “stereotypical definition of kidnapping.”

And again, before people keep beating me up as if I were some antivaxxer helicopter parent, I’m not saying that abductions aren’t overhyped, possibly with problematic consequences. I’m saying that the numbers as I read them are significant enough for me to not dismiss the risk completely.

@Nonentity: if you admit that this statement is not true, you should retract it.

So that fake kidnapping those paremts staged,to teach their kid a lesson wasn’t even necessary? Wow I bet they feel stupid now.

Last Friday after a hockey game had ended we found three little kids (4-6) who had managed to get lost. We thought about kidnapping them but we didn’t have enough room in the car. So we just did the decent thing and took them to security.


I think statistics can actually be very comforting. Something so rare that it will almost never happen to me is one thing to stop worrying about. The bigger problem in my house is the discussion with my spouse about what other people will do when we try to do the free range kid thing (my spouse is more free rangy than me, I am working on it).

We are at more danger from worst first thinking neighbors than we ever were from kidnappers.


More often than not my parents could not get me to go inside while shopping. I was trapped inside ALDI’s after hours and it scared the shit out of me. I was 7 and after the incident I was convinced that it would happen every time lol.

Well, if you insist on reading 90 to 115 as equivalent to 12,000 to 33,000 in a pool of hundreds of millions… you might misestimate the risk by… maybe only three orders of magnitude.

Nobody is asking you to dismiss it completely. That would be absurd of anyone else to suggest.


Maybe some of the resources previously used on this front could be better applied to anti-bullying campaigns and conflict resolution education?