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Should We Tell Kids It’s a Scary World?

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Read Time: 3 minutes

Here’s a note we got from a childcare worker in Texas — and our response!

Dear Let Grow:

You helped me a few years ago when the state wanted me to get rid of my rope swing, which the kids in my childcare program love. 

I also run an after-school care program at my local elementary school, which abuts a park. I allow the kids to play in the park independently. Recently one of them, a 7-year-old, walked away from the park, toward the school campus. No road was crossed. A substitute teacher who works with a program at the school brought her back. Before leaving, she reminded the girl she should always stay close to an adult, as it was “not safe” not to.

“You could get grabbed by the neck!”

A few days later, this child told me that the substitute told her again, at school, that if she ever wandered away from adult supervision she could be kidnapped by someone in a car who might grab her by the neck. This was too much for me. I found the sub, but she was completely unreceptive to my objections to her fearmongering. An administrator was called, and she, too, told me it’s good “to put the fear of God into kids, because it works!”

This girl had not been more than about 75 yards from me! She was not running into the street. She was enjoying the park independently, as she knew she was allowed, but the way these women carried on, you’d think she had walked into a cage full of hungry lions. It was surreal. 

Actual kidnapping stats needed, please.

So: Could you direct me to some rock-solid stats on the risk of stranger abduction as compared to the risk of riding in a car? I tried to say that car travel is much riskier for children than exploring independently, but they weren’t having it. 

I know you probably have to cite these stats fairly constantly, lol.

Thanks! Megan Baker, Austin, TX

Crime stats from Let Grow:

We responded:

Hi Megan! We have a crime stats page at Let Grow. It notes that:

If for some strange reason you WANTED your child to be kidnapped by a stranger, how long would you have to keep them outside, unattended, for this to be statistically likely to happen?

750,000 years.

Source: Free-Range Kids, Second Edition

More stats:

Number of kids (17 and under) taken by strangers in any given year seems to be about 100. Most are 12-17 years old. 92% make it home safely. 

Number of kids (14 and under) killed as car passengers: 1184. (Of course, if this number went up to age 17 it would be larger.)

Instilling fear and worry.

And: While it may SEEM like it makes sense to “put the fear of God” into kids, telling them it is a scary, bad world out there, that outlook ends up backfiring. This study of so-called “primals” — one’s primary beliefs about the world — found that “seeing the world as dangerous keeps me safe” is not good for kids:

“[R]egardless of occupation, more negative primals were almost never associated with better outcomes. Instead, they predicted less success, less job and life satisfaction, worse health, dramatically less flourishing, more negative emotion, more depression, and increased suicide attempts. 

You can be scared for your kids and still let go a little.

And when we keep trading independence for excess supervision, we are doing kids no favors. A Vox piece on the decline in children’s play time subtitled, “The world can be terrifying. But we should still give kids the freedom to explore it” explained: Free play is great for kids’ mental health — and everything else kids need to flourish:  

This study, conducted in Switzerland in the 1990s, compared children who played unsupervised in their neighborhoods to children who spent more time playing in parks with their parents looking on. The free-playing kids had more than twice as many friends as the park visitors, and had better social and motor skills — they also spent more time outside overall.

So — we wish you well and hope you will tell us what happens when you gently present this material. Good luck! — Let Grow

P.S. Letting go is an act of bravery! Visit our Parents pages for helpful resources and free downloadable materials.


  1. AAmber Bante says:

    Now I understand how as an adult I’ve gotten myself into so much trouble because my overprotective grandma had been always lecturing me about the “real world” when I was a kid. It wasn’t until five years ago that I learned to drive because she put the fear into me of car jackings ( she told me a long story of some carjacker disemboweling a woman, and she ran into a store with her guts trailing around her) and car accidents ( another long, gory story). These “negative primals” have set me back in life and here I never thought of it until I moved out here to Texas thinking that I knew it all because of my grandmother’s lectures about how “scary” the world is.

  2. YYoni says:

    Yup, when I was very young I’d go exploring for kilometers along the bike path by myself. I would even pretend to do archeological digs down by the Saskatchewan River’s edge (a very wide, deep and swift moving river that runs through Edmonton, AB). I would skip school and take the bus uptown (for free because I was still so young) and go buy a little toy for a quarter). I’d done that trip numerous times with my mom and siblings before.

    I never had anybody interfere with my independence! 😂

  3. AAnnie Ichord says:

    When I was 6, my friend and I would walk 2.5 blocks by ourselves to the 7-11 and buy candy and head back with our loot. The store clerk never seemed concerned. 1980

  4. MMegan Swanek says:

    These numbers are so reassuring to me! Okay, here is something we SHOULD have them be afraid of: the leading cause of death for minors. Every parent and their children should watch this video:

  5. RRaymond Brown says:

    When I was 9 I would walk down the street, and cross the road to a field. There was a fence around the field that had steps you could use to get across. I walked through the field to a small stream where I would play and occasionally fish. Sometimes I would follow the stream to see where it would lead and what cool stuff I would see. Completely alone. It was my special place and to this day I still have fond memories. My parents had no idea where I was, just as long as I got home for dinner. 1959.

  6. CCary says:

    When I was eight I would walk the half mile to my granmother’s house, alone, and meet my cousin there, who was a year older. Our grandmother’s front yard was on a level about five feet above the sidewalk, and had a large, ivy covered camphor tree. There were some ivy vines than hung down within our reach, and we’d take turns grabbing a bundle of three or four of them, running as fast as we could, and swinging out over the street and back, Tarzan-style. This was our idea. I doubt any adults ever saw us, because none were watching. We were entirely on our own. 1962.