Why The Myth Of “Stranger Danger” Fails To Keep Our Kids Safe

young. black girl on grass field holding binoculars
Zain Murdock
April 30, 2024

Children had gone missing in the U.S. before the 1980s. But as the media latched onto inflated kidnapping statistics and the faces of missing children were plastered on milk cartons, the concept of "stranger danger" spread like wildfire. Reflecting on that time means asking: What strangers are dangerous? And who gets labeled as their victims?

From white flight in cities like New York to a growing association of child abduction with gay rights, stranger danger wasn't situated in a desire to protect children. The Reagan and Clinton administrations exploited the names of white and middle-class children to push dangerous crime bills.

But this panic didn't protect children or adults from violence. A small group of evil strangers doesn't commit violence. It's systemic. Stranger abductions are extraordinarily rare. And children are far more likely to be abused by people they know. The same goes for adult sexual assault and homicide.

Understanding this as a myth forces us to reconsider violence. We could raise children as a village in strong communities and educate them on harmful behaviors beyond unfamiliarity. We could interrogate the violence that occurs within our communities, families, and cultures now.

In a liberated future, every "stranger" would be accountable to their community. And instead of exploiting children to promote mass incarceration, we'd seek out what they need to be safe.