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15 September 2012

Parental Fear of Crime-Marian I. Tulloch

Fear of crime is a social and political fact with concrete consequences for big-city life. The costs of fear are both individual and collective. Fear can confine people to their homes, and it undermines their trust in their neighbors and, especially, in their neighbors’ children. Fear is a key “quality of life” issue for many people.

Research also indicates that concern about crime has bad consequences for the neighborhoods in which we live. Fear leads to withdrawal from public life, and it undermines informal and organized efforts by the community to control crime and delinquency. It is difficult to organize activities in neighborhoods where people fear their own neighbors. Fear undermines the value of residential property and thus the willingness of owners to maintain it properly. When customers—and even employees—fear entering a commercial area, the viability of businesses located there is threatened.

The research paper states that parents draw on the public discourses circulating around childhood, risk and parenthood in accounting for their responses to the question of worry about criminal threat to their children. Naturalization of worry is supported by various discursive strategies at different phases of development. Parents justify their fears for their young children most commonly through hypothetical worst-case scenarios. The legitimacy of this rhetorical device, often unsupported by specific evidence, relies on an assumed shared understanding of the dangers facing children. Yet the threat of child sexual abuse, despite being implicit in parental fear, is rarely explicitly discussed by parents in this study. The value of the ‘stranger danger’ discourse for parents and educators is that it provides a manageable and, at one level, understandable way of communicating with children. The price can be a global distrust of strangers and a lack of awareness of threat from acquaintances, friends and family.

As parents move from the discursive construction of childhood to that of adolescence, they relinquish the parental project of protecting their child’s world by systems of surveillance and control. Instead they focus on strategic empowerment, backed where necessary by parental support. Worry about crime is, for many parents, one of a series of everyday worries as their children take on responsibility for their own lives. As children grow to adulthood, the need to justify worry and protectiveness increases; lack of anxiety can be warranted simply by their adult status. Yet justification for continuing worry is presented either by accounts of everyday criminal threat or in terms of the emotional bond, which makes the welfare of one’s children an ongoing concern.

Parents readily position themselves in response to statements about crime, but their subsequent accounts and justifications of these positions invoke complex and often contradictory discourses. They construct multiple subject positions: the parent as protector; the parent as developer and acceptor of their child’s independence and capacities; the competent parent who balances competing discourses and produces ‘sensible’ children; the nurturing parent linked to the child by an ongoing emotional bond.

Methodologically any quantitative analysis of differences over time or location in response to a single statement about children and fear of crime needs to be contextualized by the multiple subject positions parents construct to account for these responses, thereby reinforcing the inadequacy of a simple reflective measurement position. Moreover, the linguistic distinctions between ‘thinking about’ and ‘worrying about’, between the hypothetical and the actual, are complicated by the role played by hypothetical worst-case scenarios in the rhetorical justification of worry. It may not be the likelihood but the dreadfulness of an event that accounts for statements of worry.

The paper concludes by emphasizing that parental project described by Jackson and Scott (1999: 89) can acquire a value higher than personal well-being; parents point to the impact of an attack on their child as something for which they could never forgive themselves. Moreover, once a danger is imaginable, a parent may act to minimize its occurrence. Fear of crime operates discursively through talk and action over time, with cycles of threat assessment, risk minimization through protective and avoidance strategies, and later reassessment in the light of changes in the potential target or the social environment. Thus, during children’s development criminal threat is discursively constructed through social interaction between, amongst others, parents and children.