As most of us have heard, 13-year-old Jayme Closs of Barron County, Wisconsin, was kidnapped from her home after 21-year-old Jake Patterson allegedly broke in and shot her parents.
She managed to escape, brave girl. But when something as horrifying as this happens, we are all so shocked, sad and angry that we wish there were some way to make sure nothing like this ever happens to anyone again.
The problem is we’re not exactly sure how to do that. So we often opt for the simple solution of clutching our kids closer. To prevent them from being kidnapped, we go full Rapunzel. But ironically, the Closs crime happened in the home — with the girl’s parents right there. So safety lesson No. 1 is that there’s no such thing as perfect safety.
Lesson No. 2 involves perspective. If we don’t want to explode with fear and pessimism, we have to remember that we all know about this case because things like it happen so rarely. That’s what makes it newsworthy. To allow this extremely unusual event to determine how we live our daily lives would be as odd as remembering the time a woman here in my state, New York, was driving along the expressway and got hit by a frozen turkey dropped from an overpass. Does that mean no one should drive under overpasses anymore, just to be safe?
It’s easy to see how absurd that idea is. It’s harder to see that it is equally absurd to say, “We’d better not let any child ever stand at any bus stop, because some madman might see her, steal his father’s gun, disable the release in his trunk, come back for the kid in her home, kill both parents and kidnap the child.” So the lesson here is simply: We can’t organize our lives around avoiding extraordinarily rare possibilities.
Then, too, the human brain works like Google. Ask it a question and up come the most popular results. “Easy fettuccine Alfredo” brings up pages of recipes. We click on the first few and we’re done. How efficient.
But what happens when we ask our brains, “Is my child safe at the bus stop?” Up pop the most horrific, least representative stories. We remember them thanks to the “availability heuristic” — the fact that it is really easy to remember single shocking stories and impossible to conjure up stories of the millions upon millions of kids who waited at a bus stop yesterday — or any time in the past 50 years — who did nothing but get on the bus. Unfortunately, the easier it is to remember a story the likelier we think it is — even though the opposite is true.
It may feel as if we are living in the most dangerous times ever. But in reality, crime is at a 50-year low. Lesson No. 3, therefore, teaches us that to ignore statistical odds and concentrate on the very scariest, saddest, least likely possibilities is a recipe for constant anxiety and pointless safety measures.
The last lesson is the most practical. If we really want to keep our kids safe from molestation and rape, remember that the majority of those crimes happen at the hands of people they know — relatives, family friends, trusted adults. So instead of locking our kids up or teaching them stranger danger, we should teach them the three R’s:
— Recognize that no one can touch where their bathing suit covers.
— Resist anyone trying to do that, by kicking, running and screaming.
— Report to you. Tell your kids that they can and should tell you about anything upsetting they were asked to do (or even did) and that you won’t be angry with them for it. Tell them this applies even (perhaps especially!) if they promised to keep it “secret.” Keeping the lines of communication open takes away predators’ best friend — silence.
That’s lesson No. 4: If you are feeling panicked, do something truly protective. Then weep. Gnash your teeth. And shoulder on.
Lenore Skenazy is president of Let Grow, founder of Free-Range Kids and author of “Has the World Gone Skenazy?”