STRANGER DANGER: US evidence of how a child kidnapping affects parental attitudes and children’s development in the local community

12 Apr 2021

The occurrence of a kidnapping causes a decrease in the cognitive skills of local children and lowers the probability of them finishing school, according to new research by Pascal Achard and Agnès Charpin.

This is not because kidnappings make parents or children more neurotic, the study explains. Rather it is because they push parents towards a more authoritarian parenting style, limiting the time children spend unsupervised and decreasing active parental involvement. These effects are stronger in lower-educated families. What’s more, while the shock dissipates in the longer term for children from educated families, it has persistent negative effects in lower-educated families.

More…

After the occurrence of a traumatising event, do parents spend more time with their children by fear of leaving them alone? Do they intrude on their children’s privacy as a means of protecting them? If so, do these changes in parental attitudes affect the way children grow up and the kind of adults they become?

These are the questions that Pascal Achard (Tilburg University) and Agnès Charpin (European University Institute) answer in their research entitled ‘Stranger Danger: Parental Attitudes, Child Development and the Fear of Kidnapping’. Using data on American households, they provide evidence of a causal link between the occurrence of a kidnapping event in one’s neighbourhood and child development, and suggest that this effect occurs via changes in parenting styles.

There is ample anecdotal evidence that parenting styles have evolved over the past decades and that children have less freedom today than they had in the past. Yet little is known about how these changes affect child development, due to the inherently non-random nature of the environment in which parents raise their children making causal links hard to establish.

This study fills this gap by developing a methodology using rare but traumatising events, namely the occurrence of child kidnappings in the vicinity of one’s home, as random shocks to parenting styles and child development. This strategy relies on the ‘Stranger Danger’ social phenomenon best described by Richard Moran, criminologist at Mount Holyoke College:

[The kidnapping of Adam Walsh] created a nation of petrified kids and paranoid parents. Kids used to be able to go out and organize a stickball game, and now all playdates and the social lives of children are arranged and controlled by the parents.

The authors find that the occurrence of a kidnapping causes a decrease in children’s cognitive skills and lowers the probability of finishing high school by close to 8 percentage points. Turning to the mechanisms, they find no evidence that kidnappings make parents or children more neurotic. But kidnapping events push parents towards a more authoritarian parenting style, limiting the time children spend unsupervised and decreasing active parental involvement (such as the time spent discussing the interests of children or the degree of school monitoring). These effects are stronger in low-educated families.

These results suggest that the shock experienced during childhood affects all children negatively in the relatively short term. Interestingly, while it dissipates in the longer term for children from educated families, the authors find that it has persistent negative effects in lower-educated families.

The authors draw two implications from their findings. First, by providing evidence of a causal link between kidnapping events and child development, they shed light on the effects that such isolated events have on a community as a whole.

Second, the evidence offers insights into the more general relationship between parenting styles and educational attainments, and confirms the importance of taking parenting more systematically into account when thinking about skills accumulation.

Agnes Charpin

European University Institute | agnes.charpin@gmail.com