Nothing has transformed childhood as much as the risk of kidnapping by strangers, a textbook case in the psychology of fear. Since 1979, when six-year-old Etan Patz disappeared on his way to a school bus stop in lower Manhattan, kidnapped children have riveted the nation's attention, thanks to interest groups that are dedicated to sowing panic among the nation's parents...
Childhood has never been the same. American parents will not let their children out of their sight. Children are chauffeured, chaperoned, and tethered with cell phones, which, far from reducing parents' anxiety, only sends them into a tizzy if a child doesn't answer on first ring. Making friends in the playground has given way to mother-arranged playdates, a phrase that didn't exist before the 1980s. Forty years ago two-thirds of children walked or biked to school; today 10 percent do. A generation ago 70 percent of children played outside; today the rate is down to 30 percent. In 2008 the nine-year-old son of the journalist Lenore Skenazy begged her to let him go home by himself on the New York subway. She agreed, and he made it home without incident. When she wrote about the vignette in a New York Sun column, she found herself at the center of a media frenzy in which she was dubbed "America's Worst Mom." In response she started a movement - Free-Range Children - and proposed National Take Our Children to the Park and Leave Them There Day, intended to get children to learn to play by themselves without constant adult supervision.
Skenazy is not, in fact, America's worst mom. She simply did what no politician, policeman, parent, or producer ever did: she looked up the facts. The overwhelming majority of milk-carton children were not lured into vans by sex perverts, child traffickers, or ransom artists, but were teenagers who ran away from home, or children taken by a divorced parent who was embittered by an unfavorable custody ruling. The annual number of abductions by strangers has ranged from 200 to 300 in the 1990s to about 100 today, around half of whom are murdered. With 50 million children in the United States, that works out to an annual homicide rate of one in a million. That's about a twentieth of the risk of drowning and a fortieth of the risk of a fatal car accident. The writer Warwick Cairns calculated that if you wanted your child to be kidnapped and held overnight by a stranger, you'd have to leave the child outside and unattended for 750,000 years.
...When 300 million people change their lives to reduce a risk to 50 people, they will probably do more harm than good, because of the unforeseen consequences of their adjustments on the vastly more than 50 people who are affected by them. More than twice as many children are hit by cars driven by parents taking their children to school as by other kinds of traffic, so when more parents drive their children to school to prevent them from getting killed by kidnappers, more children get killed.
-- from The Better Angels of Our Nature