by Leslie Morgan Steiner
At times our cultural angst reveals itself on the front pages of our national newspapers. Last Friday, USA Today presented its 3.3 million daily readers with a front page story about tween girls titled “Growing Up Fast, But With Less Independence” as part of its week-long, dramatically-titled “Saving Childhood” series .
The article profiled daughters of moms so overprotective they monitor their daughters’ bike rides, backpacks and cell phones, and don’t let them take the bus, go to the corner store, the movies or the mall without an adult to serve as chaperone-cum-bodyguard.
I’m talking moms in suburban America – not downtown Beirut.
American parents have become far more protective of our children, despite the fact that America is significantly safer today than it was 30 to 40 years ago. There are nearly 25 million children between the ages of 12-17 in the US today. Only 400 of them are abducted by strangers every year – 400 too many, but at .002% not imminent enough to make any individual parent fret. The 2009 National Crime Victimization Survey found that kids ages 12-17 experienced violent assaults at the rate of 33.5 per 1000 in 2009 vs. 83 per 1000 in 1975 when we were growing up (and the concept of a “tween” had yet to be invented). Child poverty and lack of health insurance, not crime, are the biggest threats to kids today. Our children are twice as safe against violent crime today as we were in the 1970s – although the vivid impression left by 24 hour cable news networks and the Internet is that malevolent strangers lurk on every urban and suburban street corner.
I understand the dilemmas facing parents of tweens. Recently three girls from my daughter’s sixth grade class lined up in front of an acquaintance who’d never met them. Asked to guess their ages, he said “9, 12 and 15.” They are all 12 years old. How do we set rules for a group of girls when some look 15 and some look 9? Especially when subjected to endless mandates from the media and other parents that moms need to shield our daughters from abusive strangers, Internet pedophiles, mean girl bullies -- from life itself. It’s hard to develop one-size-fits-all parenting rules for such a diverse and apparently vulnerable bunch, especially when we are confettied with alarmist reports of stranger danger and impending peril.
However, one of the risks of the next phase of our girls’ lives as teenagers and young adults is too much innocence. There comes a time – and it’s coming quickly for our daughters – when naivete becomes a liability. Girls 16-24 are three times more likely to be victims of domestic violence, stalking and teen dating violence than other women. Between 20-25% college women experience rape or attempted rape. Over three-quarters (76%) of all unplanned pregnancies occur to women in their teens and twenties.
We need to let our girls develop their own instincts of self-preservation – before it’s too late. One key to lasting self-confidence is having adults you trust to protect and guide you; another key is developing faith in your own judgment. No carefully supervised self-defense class or empowerment slogan can help our girls learn to tell which boyfriend is trustworthy, why it’s important to use birth control every single time, or when to duck into a well-lit store to avoid a stranger walking too closely behind her.
By insulating our kids from remote probabilities today, we fail to prepare them to face far more serious, realistic future threats. Girls need to strengthen their responsibility and common sense muscles when the hazards are relatively minor – getting lost on the way to the movie theatre, having to figure out how to get home when you spent your bus fare on Sour Gummy Worms. In order that one day, you can protect yourself from the risks of being a girl in the world.
Girls cannot grow up to be independent and self-assured with mom or dad trailing them on every school field trip, bike ride or jaunt to Forever 21. With the best of intentions, our desire to safeguard our girls becomes a risk factor far greater than the .00002 chance of random kidnapping by a child molester. We’ve absorbed the media’s twisted message about dangers to girls all too well – and it’s a form of selfish indulgence to shield our beloved children irrationally. No statistics, survey or headline captures the subtle menace of having an overprotective parent. We need to stop ourselves – or risk becoming the biggest risk factors in our daughters’ lives.