By Paul Diem, Single Carrot Ensemble Member
Growing up in the mid-80’s, the concept of “stranger danger” was at its height. The Adam Walsh kidnapping and murder happened when I was two, and “America’s Most Wanted” was on TV by the time I was 9. There were PSA’s during the cartoons I watched, and several TV shows had “very special episodes” that dealt with the issue. In 1987 my mom bought me a school jacket from my elementary school and told me that she did not have my name sewn on the front “because we wouldn’t want someone to pull up in a van and know your name and be able to convince you to get in with him and take you.” We had a family code word that anyone who came to pick us up would know, so that we could be sure our parents sent them.
I was terrified. The idea of being abducted dominated my thoughts. I couldn’t sleep at night. When I was at the mall with my parents, I couldn’t help but have my head on a swivel constantly afraid that I’d be snatched. I was afraid to sleep at my friend’s houses. I was afraid to go to summer camp. I was simply scared. The constant stream of cautionary announcements was like a never-ending horror movie and around every corner was a prospective Freddy Kruger who wanted to take me.
When I was 6 or 7 I went to the circus with my family. As we walked through the concourse of the Baltimore Arena, I thought I was following my parents, but it turned out to be someone else. I had completely lost my family. With all of media telling me to be scared, I followed suit. I broke down into a mess. I knew I was a goner. I refused to let anyone help me, and refused to talk. Thankfully a kind woman insisted on being my hero, and helped find my family who were a few sections over. This event really scarred me though. I constantly thought I was going to be a victim, and my brain had space for little else.
I never really thought about how this affected my ability to interact with others, but looking back, it was certainly a factor. A general mistrust of others spilled over into many of my interactions. I was able to mostly conquer it with my peers, but the generalized anxiety and fear made many of those interactions and friendships lack the depth I wished they had, and things like my fear of being abducted, and therefore my desire to stay near my parents was certainly a factor.
To this day I’ll have an occasional nightmare about being kidnapped, or about someone close to me being kidnapped. I still have a hard time looking at photos of kidnapped kids and their suspected abductors when they come in the mail. I look, but my heart jumps into my throat as my eyes slide to the photo.
It makes me think about how kids today are inundated with news of school shootings. I see it in some of my students now. They see a groundskeeper walk by a window and they are immediately on alert. It’s heartbreaking, and scary. Telling kids to “see something say something” is this generation’s “stranger danger.” It puts the responsibility (and the fear) on the back of the child, while nothing is done by people who have the actual ability to do something to keep kids safe. It makes me scared for them when they hit my age.
Kids need to be aware of the dangers around them, but the adults who surround them (and who have control over their media consumption) also need to make sure that they are aware, bet that there is a slippery slope between aware and scared. The “stranger danger” campaign of the mid-80’s made it seem (at least to a 6-10 year old) like everyone was an immediate threat, not to be aware of their surroundings. The desire to teach us not to fall into a trap made it feel like we were teetering on a tiny ledge above a million traps that would swallow us all whole. Media, parents/guardians, and schools could have all done (and can now do) a better job of making that traps seem serious, but that the bank we are standing on is far wider than the traps are numerous.
My hope is that adults do everything they can to help the biggest dangers facing kids, rather than terrify them into a shaking “safety.”