Did Etan Patz Mark the End of Carefree Parenting?

His disappearance 33 years ago had a profound impact on American life, but the number of cases of child abductions has remained stable, and exceptionally rare

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Keith Bedford / Reuters

New York Police Department spokesman Paul Brown holds an original missing poster of Etan Patz on April 19, 2012, near a building where police and FBI agents were searching a basement for clues in the boy's 1979 disappearance

People over 40 love to regale one another with stories of their outlandish childhood freedoms. Walking a mile by themselves at the age of 7 to the bus stop, testing the semifrozen ice on a neighborhood pond, operating table saws, jumping from rooftops, swimming in the open ocean. We did many such things unsupervised and unregulated, and most of us survived.

Life is different now, needless to say. Experts point to the Etan Patz kidnapping, still unresolved and recently reopened after 33 years, as a watershed moment in American culture, the beginning of an age of anxiety in which parents exerted ever greater vigilance over their children. But this is not the full story.

It’s true that the high-profile kidnapping-murders of young children in the late 1970s and early ’80s had a profound impact on American life. Although the FBI had been involved in child-abduction cases since 1932, after the shocking kidnapping and murder of aviator Charles Lindbergh’s baby son, it wasn’t until 1984 that the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children was authorized by Congress. Missing children appeared on milk cartons, and parents experienced a heightened fear of what had always been, and remained, an exceptionally rare event.

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The vast majority of the 800,000 reported annual cases of abducted and missing children result in the return of the child within hours. In addition, more than 200,000 are victims of family abduction, often involving a noncustodial parent. Of the 58,000 “nonfamily” abductions, those too usually involve known abductors, and more than 99% of the children are returned alive. The stereotypical kidnapping of parental nightmares and blaring headlines (with a child held overnight by a stranger, involving ransom, harm or intent to keep the child) occurs approximately 115 times per year, with a nearly 60% survival rate (and just 4% unsolved).

This small number has not increased since the 1980s, and although comparative data is unavailable, there is evidence that it may have even decreased along with national declines in crime including juvenile assaults and murders. That’s still 115 abducted children too many, of course, but the disproportionate fear generated by these cases has altered the landscape of childhood in complex ways that obscure the fact that this is probably the safest time in history to be an American child.

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At about the same time that the media and our criminal justice system began to take notice of missing children, advances in public health caused a shift in the way we understood harm. Once, people viewed car crashes, electrocution, fires, head injuries and the like as tragic and inevitable, perhaps even “acts of God.” But when epidemiologists began observing that most accidents had clear, predictable causes, they were more accurately relabeled as preventable injuries. This led to bicycle helmets, car seats, food safety and “baby proofing.” Soon, it seemed, everything “accidental” could be prevented. Sudden infant death syndrome. Asthma. Drowning. Burns. Broken bones. Allergic reactions. Concussions. The prestigious British Medical Journal actually banned the word accident from its articles, arguing that it didn’t reflect the reality of most injuries. Even deaths from natural disasters and famines came to be seen as rooted in known, quantifiable and preventable phenomena. (Amartya Sen won the Nobel Prize for his work in this area.)

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It was a huge shift in perception, and with it came a heightened responsibility — and anxiety — about keeping children safe. If bad outcomes were now in a parent’s control, then a parent who didn’t take these preventive steps was a slacker at best, and criminally negligent at worst.

Matthew Weiner, creator of Mad Men, portrayed this enormous cultural change to comic effect in an episode with a child wearing a dry-cleaning bag over her head as a costume. Betty Draper, the distracted mother, admonishes her child not for potentially suffocating, but for messing up her newly cleaned clothes. The audience laughs knowingly because it seems so inconceivable that educated, loving parents could be so reckless.

Recently, some parents and child experts are beginning to question the trade-offs between safety and freedom. They worry that children who are too sheltered lack the resilience and judgment necessary to function in an adult world. Others argue that keeping children indoors under watchful eyes has contributed to obesity and other health problems. There is even some evidence that the obsessive attention to risk reduction may have contributed to a rise in serious allergies (by denying children early exposure to allergens).

Many interventions brought about by our “prevention society,” like bike helmets to give but one example, are enormously effective in reducing injury and death. In such cases, the trade-off between freedom and well-being is clear, and anxiety may be the price we have to pay for a safer 21st century childhood. Where we lose our way is when we ignore the data and allow fear to dictate and distort our decisions.

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