When Sarah Stech-Carlson learned the details of Jayme Closs’ abduction and escape from her captor, the Plymouth mother immediately told her husband, “We need a home security system.”
Closs’ horrific story seemed like a tipping point for Stech-Carlson, who felt inundated by news reports and social media updates about children being threatened or harmed. It made her reconsider how much freedom to allow her kids.
“Every little thing ticks away at parents and keeps reminding us that we need to be extra vigilant about what our kids are doing and how we can keep them safe, while giving them independence at the same time,” she said.
Much like Jacob Wetterling’s 1989 abduction, Closs’ case has caused some local parents to become more protective. While it’s a natural reaction for parents to want to safeguard their children, experts say, they warn that limiting kids’ freedom in the hopes of avoiding a rare, heinous act may put them at greater risk of lifelong psychological distress.
It’s nearly impossible for parents to not have a visceral fear reaction to incidents like Closs’ abduction, said Bill Doherty, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota.
“The first law of parenting in our minds is: Keep them safe,” he said.
And the way our brains process information can exacerbate these hard-wired worries. Mental shortcuts cause us to remember the most sensational incidents, said Lenore Skenazy, author of the book “Free-Range Kids.”
As an example, Skenazy said, after learning that Closs’ alleged abductor first spotted her at a school bus stop, our brains tend to associate her shocking story with children’s safety at bus stops, instead of focusing on the millions of kids who take buses every day without incident.
Statistically speaking, the risk of a child being abducted by a stranger is exceedingly low: There are just over 100 stereotypical kidnappings in the U.S. each year.
Children are far more likely to be abducted or harmed by someone they know. About 90 percent of adults who abuse children are family members or acquaintances. Everyday hazards, including car accidents and falls, pose the greatest risk to young people and are their leading cause of injury and death.
But while rates of violent crime are as low as they were in the 1960s, Doherty notes, a culture of excessive fear and overprotection has curtailed many of the freedoms that kids relished decades ago.
“The world is a dangerous place, but no more dangerous than it’s ever been, and it’s actually a lot safer than most of us realize,” he said.
For many longtime Minnesotans, Closs’ kidnapping replayed the terror of a warm fall night nearly 30 years ago, when 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling was taken at gunpoint by a masked man near St. Joseph, Minn.
Jacob’s abduction marked a shift in how closely parents guarded their children — “the end of innocence,” as many described it. Kids who had once roamed freely to friends’ houses or biked to the park now spent more time indoors, under close parental watch.
Over the years, those fears gradually subsided and some parents, especially younger ones, relaxed their grip. Guided by advocates of a more free-range approach to child rearing, they started allowing their kids more independence.
And then, Closs vanished from her Barron, Wis., home, after an intruder killed her parents. And fears about stranger abductions — and the urge to protect their kids — returned to the forefront.
Downside of overprotection
But being too protective — “restricting the horizon of childhood” as Doherty puts it — has its drawbacks. Chief among them: Children don’t get a chance to explore on their own, to learn to make decisions and take reasonable risks.
Plus, both Doherty and Skenazy see a link between the micromanaged kids and the skyrocketing rates of anxiety in young adults.
So many kids, Skenazy said, spend their days supervised by adults, being told what to do, how to do it, and when. Giving kids more autonomy helps them develop what psychologists call an “internal locus of control,” a sense that success can be attributed to one’s own efforts vs. the whims of fate.
“If you don’t have this, you feel helpless, depressed and anxious because you’re not the one in charge of your life,” she said.
Kids need to practice dealing with challenging situations on their own — whether it’s overcoming the fear of climbing a tree, or working out a disagreement with a friend — to develop resilience. When well-intentioned parents swoop in to solve every problem, kids don’t become as capable as they might be.
“Ironically, in trying to keep kids safe from a very, very, very unlikely tragedy, we are pointing them in a direction of something that seems to be ever more common, which is anxiety and depression,” Skenazy said.
Like many parents, Stech-Carlson strives to strike a balance between protecting her kids and giving them independence. She doesn’t want to keep them under her thumb, yet she’s not comfortable letting them roam like she did during her childhood, spending “hours and hours of time” without her parents knowing where she was.
Stech-Carlson’s oldest children, ages 9 and 6, have frequently played unsupervised with two neighbor kids of the same ages in the cul-de-sac and yards around the families’ homes. The kids have been able to experience a sense of freedom, but still are easy to check on.
But she and her husband are now reconsidering their plan to let the two boys try staying home alone for a few minutes after school. “When things like this happen, it’s like your safety net gets a little smaller,” she said. “You just hesitate in every decision you make.”
Taking reasonable action
Parents have every right to feel shocked, angry and upset about what happened to Jayme Closs, said Alison Feigh, director of the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center, a Minneapolis-based organization devoted to ending child mistreatment.
But she advises parents to take the next step.
“Patty Wetterling always uses the phrase ‘hope is a verb,’ ” Feigh said. “If we’re going to hope that the world is a better place, we need to act. We need to roll up our sleeves and get to work — and kids can be involved.”
Parents can start by setting family ground rules for safety (the Wetterling website, jwrc.org, offers personal and online safety guidelines) and talking through “what if” scenarios.
It’s also important, Feigh said, for parents to reassure kids that if anyone makes them feel unsafe, you want to know about it and it’s not their fault.
“We know that scared kids aren’t safer kids, so we want kids to walk around smart and not scared,” she said.
Teaching kids how to protect themselves is essential, but Feigh stresses that adults need to take more responsibility, to speak up if they see warning signs in adults they know or if a child says an adult is making them feel scared.
Parents should also be mindful of the rarity of cases where strangers harm children and pay attention to their personal circles. “Parents tend to underplay the risk from people they know, and overplay the risks of strangers,” Doherty said.
He notes that adults who sexually abuse children tend to seek out youths who seem vulnerable and disengaged from their families, hoping that children seeking to fill a void will be more receptive to their attention.
“The biggest thing you can do indirectly to keep your child safe from adult predators is to give them a secure, loving environment where they can be open with you,” Doherty said. “Those children are safer because they don’t need a substitute parent.”