- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 9, 2006

Our 9-year-old daughter wants to walk the 15 minutes to school and back by herself. She is very trustworthy, but we are worried about all the things that can happen. What are your thoughts?

A: If she’s walking with friends or on a residential route that is well-traveled by other children, I would have no problem. Needless to say, I would go over the potential dangers with her and discuss how to spot a potential problem and respond properly to it. If she’s the only child who would be walking that route or the route is not residential, I would give sway to my anxieties, especially as concerns a 9-year-old girl.

The issue of child abduction is interesting if for no reason other than that fact hardly jibes with public perception. For example, the U.S. Justice Department has found that per-capita child abduction by non-family members (i.e., people intent on doing harm) has not increased appreciably, if at all, in nearly 20 years, perhaps longer. Increased media coverage has raised awareness of the problem and contributed to a 100 percent return of abducted newborns in the past year (great) but also created the general impression that child abduction is an ever-present, imminent threat (not so great).

The incidence of what the Justice Department calls “stereotypical” abductions — involving a stranger who kidnaps a child with the intent of holding him for ransom, keeping him or killing him — is far lower than most parents imagine. Would you believe around 100 per year? That’s roughly one in a million.

If you’re truly concerned about your child’s life, don’t allow horseback riding or youth football, where the odds of being killed are three and 12 times greater, respectively. If you really and truly want to ensure that your child lives to adulthood, never let him ride in a car, even yours, much less let him drive one.

When it comes to child abduction by strangers, preschoolers are in the lowest risk category. That’s because most child predators are sexually motivated. As a result, the risk of abduction by a stranger increases through the elementary school years and peaks at age 15. Teenage girls are most vulnerable.

As I have said before in this column, the Internet is a highly dangerous place for teens — especially girls — to be wandering. According to the Justice Department’s Highlights of the Youth Internet Safety Survey, one in five children ages 10 to 17 receive unwanted sexual solicitations online.

Not only do the statistics fail to justify current levels of parental concern over child abduction, but some of the things parents do to prevent abduction actually are not that helpful. For example, telling a child to stay away from strangers is relatively ineffective. “Stranger” is not a concept young children understand easily. Furthermore, as many — if not more — child abductions are perpetrated by friends, neighbors and acquaintances as by strangers. Instead, children ought to be taught to be on the lookout for specific threatening behaviors and situations.

(For more information on child abduction, see www.missingchild.wordpress.com and www.childprotectionsolutions. com. The FBI has helpful abduction-prevention tips for children at www.fbi.gov/kids/ k5th/safety3.htm.)

The bottom line, however, is this: If you are uncomfortable letting your daughter walk to school — for whatever reason, even an “irrational” one — then drive her, walk with her or walk her to the bus stop and put her on the bus. There are not many instances where I believe parental anxieties should rule, but this is one of them. There’s simply no point agonizing over this issue, regardless of how well-grounded one’s agony may be.

Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his Web site (www.rosemond.com).

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